How Failed Notre Dame Coach Bob Davie Resurrected His Career at New Mexico

Greg CouchNational ColumnistDecember 14, 2015

Oct 24, 2015; San Jose, CA, USA; New Mexico Lobos head coach Bob Davie reacts after the Lobos were called for pass interference against the San Jose State Spartans in the second quarter at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Bob Davie had everything a football coach could want. He was at Notre Dame, which meant unlimited money, spotlight, TV exposure, money, local and national recruiting bases, money and movies. Oh, yeah, and money, too.   

Yet Davie didn't win. Instead, he would be remembered as the guy who tore down Lou Holtz's program. Then he disappeared for 10 years, if you count ESPN analyst as disappearing from the coaching profession.

Bob Davie head coaching record
YearSchoolW-LBowl
1997Notre Dame7-6Independence-L
1998Notre Dame9-3Gator-L
1999Notre Dame5-7
2000Notre Dame9-3Fiesta-L
2001Notre Dame5-6
2002-2011Out of coaching
2012New Mexico4-9
2013New Mexico3-9
2014New Mexico4-8
2015New Mexico7-5New Mexico
sports-reference.com

That's what makes what he's doing now so amazing. He couldn't win at Notre Dame, where he had everything, and now he is winning at New Mexico, where he had almost nothing, including fans, attention or high school teams to recruit from. Nothing. He didn't have players on a roster, either. Yet here is New Mexico, having risen in four years under Davie from maybe the nation's worst team to one that will play Arizona in the New Mexico Bowl next Saturday.

"When I came in, it was strange because it was a Where is everybody? kind of thing," Davie, 61, told Bleacher Report. "Where are the players? Where are the guys? A lot of guys were actually MIA.

"About two weeks into the job, a guy came to my office. I can't remember who right now, but he was a football fan. New Mexico had lost 37 of their last 40 games and were outscored by 30 points a game. We had the lowest number of scholarship players in the country. And the guy said, 'You now have had the two toughest jobs in the country, Notre Dame and New Mexico. Two opposite jobs.' If I ever write a book, that might be the title."

Yes, Davie has had just two head-coaching jobs in his career, and they are opposites. And no, he does not have New Mexico near the College Football Playoff. For a team in the Mountain West Conference, that might not even be possible.

His view is from the other side of the fence now. And the strange thing is this: While the grass is greener on Notre Dame's side, it has been a lot more fun for Davie playing on the brown grass.

"This is a whole different deal than the Notre Dame thing," he said. "I enjoy coaching, and now every minute of my time is spent coaching my team. I talk with Urban [Meyer], Charlie Strong—who was on my staff at Notre Dame—Dan Mullen. I wouldn't trade places with any of them. I love what I'm doing, whether it's in front of 100,000 people or 20,000."

There is probably a moral to Davie's story. Something about being the right fit. Or maybe the right level. Or maybe it's just about timing. When he took the head-coaching position at Notre Dame in 1996, after being promoted from defensive coordinator under Holtz, he simply wasn't ready for it.

Notre Dame is not the place for your first head-coaching job. Neither is Georgia, by the way, which doesn't bode well for Kirby Smart. Charlie Weis had the same issue at Notre Dame.

"I would never have admitted that at the time, but there is some truth to it," Davie said. "You have to be able to tell people, 'Here's how we should do it.' And the only way you get that kind of confidence is to have done it before. It's fun, all the speaking things at Notre Dame and all the pep rallies and the luncheons; I spent so much time trying to prepare for those things. You're doing things no other coach in the country is doing. I can't spend two, three hours preparing what I'm going to say at a pep rally.

Davie had been a successful assistant at Texas A&M and at Notre Dame before becoming the Irish's head coach. He said he had been offered head-coaching jobs at Maryland, Baylor, Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Purdue, but the chance to take over Notre Dame was just too hard to pass up.

18 Sep 1999: Head coach Bob Davie of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish yells from the sidelines during the game against the Michigan State Spartans at the Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. The Spartins defeated the Fighting Irish 23-13.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

"It would be my fault that as a young coach, you kind of worry about the perception of things, particularly at Notre Dame and particularly following Lou Holtz," Davie said. "The more experience you get and the older you get, the more you just go totally with your instinct. I probably paralyzed myself at Notre Dame by overthinking things and overcalculating things.

"I just never really let it rip and went with my instincts. But when Kevin White was hired [as athletic director at Notre Dame] he said, 'I want you to write down in order a list of 10 things you really need to be ultracompetitive.' I won't go into specifics of what I said, but after I was fired, he did all of those things. Artificial surface on the field, flashy uniforms, state-of-the-art facilities, paying coaches better.

"It's a completely different job now than it was when I was there. Of course, he [White, now Duke's AD] isn't at Notre Dame anymore, either."

Davie, who was 35-25 in five years at Notre Dame, said he learned plenty from his time on TV. He found himself in a week's preparation sitting in on practices with coaches around the country, including his rivals, Lloyd Carr and Pete Carroll. It was like getting a seminar on head coaching every week. Davie took notes.

Albuquerque is not a college football-crazed town. It doesn't have Touchdown Jesus, Rudy, Rockne or the Gipper. Mostly, it has a whole lot of losing mixed in with occasional and temporary winning. The school gets no attention, and the state doesn't have many high schools to produce local football players.

The program was placed on NCAA probation in 2008, costing it five scholarships a year. Then coach Mike Locksley took over in 2009 and went 2-26 and punched an assistant coach before being fired in 2011. Locksley had brought in players from the Northeast, his recruiting hot spot, and when he left, many of them left, too.

And that's the job Davie, who said he had other opportunities, thought was the right one to jump for?

"I just felt I had more in the tank," he said. "When I went to ESPN, I thought I was going to stay for a year or two."

Meanwhile, athletic director Paul Krebs said he had to weigh the credibility of Davie as an ex-Notre Dame coach against the fact that he had been out of the game for 10 years and might not be in touch anymore.

"I asked him, 'You've been out of coaching 10 years. If you were in my shoes, wouldn't you be nervous?" Krebs said. "He said, 'I want one more shot.' Part of what attracted me to Bob was his desire to do it his way, to not be swayed by opinion.

"He's an old-school guy that has adapted to today's players: music at practice, a preponderance of different uniforms and helmets. I'm not sure he believes in that, but he knows it's important to players."

Sep 18, 2015; Tempe, AZ, USA; New Mexico Lobos head coach Bob Davie looks on during the second half against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Davie is doing it his way now, and his way works. He put in an old-fashioned triple-option offense, saying he wasn't going to put in the modern spread. He also wants opponents to have to start practicing every week against something they've never seen before. Meanwhile, his defense is constantly blitzing. And he's recruiting heavily in Texas using his old contacts.

He said when he arrived, there was just one scholarship quarterback on the roster and seven scholarship offensive linemen. The next year, he said, there were miraculously just four players left from Locksley's era. Davie has built slowly, preaching to "outwork, outhit and outdiscipline."

And a team that had gone 1-11 three straight years before he arrived is now 7-5 with wins over Boise State, Utah State and Air Force.

Davie is letting it rip exactly the way he didn't at Notre Dame.

"I would love that opportunity to do it at Notre Dame again," he said. "I mean, not literally. But just to handle situations differently, go with my instincts and not be afraid. I knew there were things that had to be done differently, but I didn't have the confidence then to say, 'Listen, here's what we have to do to win.'"

He has learned now, built a football program from ashes and rebuilt his name. It's an answer to his prayers roughly 1,400 miles from Touchdown Jesus.

Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report.

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