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Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
Editor’s note: Bob Davie says he knew New Mexico was quirky – he just didn’t know how quirky. Now entering his sixth season as the University of New Mexico’s head football coach, Davie says he is committed to this community and its challenges. Senior editor Kent Walz sat down with him recently to talk about his experiences, expectations and the life lessons he wants to pass on to his players.
For a guy who took over a train wreck of a football program and built it over five years to a 9-4 record and a bowl game win in 2016, Bob Davie doesn’t always feel the love.
The Lobos don’t throw the ball enough, critics say. They aren’t exciting enough. They don’t put enough fans in the stands. They don’t have enough New Mexico kids wearing cherry and silver. Etc.
Davie, of course, hears the critics. And he mostly tunes them out as he focuses on finishing the job he started six years ago – building a winning culture in his program.
Being able to ignore the noise and concentrate on coaching is something he attributes to coaching at places like Texas A&M and Notre Dame, and his years as a broadcaster at ESPN. In a nutshell, it’s being comfortable in your own skin; taking control of the things you can control; and “being able to compartmentalize and not worry about the things you really can’t control.”
“I think experience is so important,” he said in a recent interview. “When you do this the first time as a head coach, it’s totally about winning. Probably because you’ve worked so hard to get that job. And there is a little panic … that maybe you won’t get another chance.
“But going around the country with ESPN and seeing some really good coaches who didn’t necessarily have great records, and seeing some average coaches who had great records, kind of put it all in perspective.
“There is a bigger picture to all this.”
Davie believes his upbringing and career path help him see that picture.
“My dad was a crane operator at ARMCO steel for 40 years, and my mom worked 25 years in the cafeteria of an elementary school.
“My senior year in high school, my brother Jack, seven years older, died of cancer. Big guy, 220 pounds, never sick a day in his life. He was on his honeymoon in North Carolina and became violently ill. So he drove back to Pittsburgh. They open him up, and he had advanced stomach cancer and died within 30 days. My family was devastated.”
A standout high school football, basketball and baseball player, Davie decided to enroll at University of Arizona, where he planned to play football and baseball.
Homesick and still hurting from his brother’s death, he didn’t last long in Tucson and returned to enroll at Youngstown State across the Pennsylvania border in Ohio.
“I probably made a mistake going to Arizona,” he said. “I had never been out of the state of Pennsylvania or flown in an airplane until I went on recruiting visits my senior year in high school.”
Davie played tight end at Youngstown – where Ron Jaworski, who went on to pro football fame, was the quarterback. After Youngstown, Davie was going to go back and teach high school in Pittsburgh but instead landed a graduate assistant coaching position at Pitt.
It was one of those game-changing events in life.
From there, he went back to University of Arizona as an assistant coach. He and his high school sweetheart Joanne married in Tucson in 1978 – on a Tuesday morning at the courthouse downtown.
“On our drive home, I’ll never forget this, we stop at Gordo’s Mexicateria – $2.99 all you can eat.”
He and Joanne – who drove from Pittsburgh to Tucson in a Chevy Vega with no air conditioning – have been married 39 years.
“She had been a flute player in the high school band, but she ditched the flute for the baton, because they (majorettes) got all the good looking guys,” he says, with a laugh. “Because she was a majorette, I gave in and dated her.”
For Davie, 62, that big picture is all about getting his staff and players to buy in to the culture he wants to create – in his words “a clarity of purpose and commitment” that will help them win both on the field and in life.
The message he pushes every day: “Prepare and play to win. Every day. In everything we do.”
“It’s about above-the-line behavior,” he said. “There will be events during a football game and in life that you can’t control. The only thing you can control is the response. You can take that deep breath and respond above the line, or you can respond below the line by simply reacting – by falling back on old habits or maybe old demons.
“It’s all about making decisions and trying to do the right thing when an event happens. Culture isn’t the slogans – although we have plenty of them. Culture is the everyday drip, drip, drip of kids in our program and how we do things.”
Davie, who has coached with and under football legends Jimmy Johnson, R.C. Slocum and Lou Holtz, played sports and began his coaching career at a time when it was all about being “tough.”
Players and coaches alike.
Tough as in no water at practice. As in drills like “bull in the ring,” where you take two guys and have them run full speed at each other. Where being “dinged” and woozy was a badge of honor.
“I coached at Texas A&M, (where he had the famous “wrecking crew” defense) in an era where coaches never wore sunglasses and never wore hats. I was out there in that glare for nine years. Wearing sunglasses was considered ‘soft,’ because you couldn’t look a player in the eye. Kind of like Woody Hayes (Ohio State) coaching in 10 degrees with no jacket. So you weren’t wearing sunglasses.”
Those days are gone.
“The game, and coaching, have changed – from the speed and athleticism of the players to safety,” he said. “We’ve taken the head out of contact as much as possible,” he said.
Last year, offensive line standout Garrett Adcock was on a concussion recovery protocol and on track to return to the team when Davie called him in.
“I told him to stop. I said, ‘that’s enough.’
“He was a young man who came here and graduated in three years and was in law school,” Davie said. “He’s now a student regent. Great kid. Smart kid. Marvelous story.”
The issues coaches deal with have changed.
UNM was rocked in 2013 by an alleged rape of a female student by two players and another man. Charges were dropped, but both the woman and the former players have filed lawsuits against the university.
Davie has a team ethics committee that deals with issues on campus like sexual assault accusations – and emphasizes that behavior must be above strict legal requirements.
“You have to keep yourself out of those situations. Period. Some of these situations may not be unlawful, but, ethically, if you get yourself in them on our football team, there will be consequences.”
Dealing with athletes has also changed.
“You still have to be brutally honest with kids, but now you have to do it at the right time and in the right situation. Earlier in my career, you could do it any time with any kid and they wouldn’t melt down. Now, you have to pick the right time.
“For example, a kid misses class. So in front of the team, it was simple years ago to put his name up and just call him out … and say you’re cheating this team, this program and yourself. Now, you have to have that same conversation, but depending on the kid’s personality, you may have to do it behind closed doors.
“You don’t adjust the message or the bottom line, you just have to be careful about how you deliver it.”
How bad was New Mexico football when Davie took over from Mike Locksley?
“I think it was Bill Parcells who said ‘you are what your record says you are,’ ” Davie said.
“We took over a program that was 3-37, and, quite honestly, there were probably some other things worse than the record. We had the lowest number of scholarship players in the country and the lowest football budget in the Mountain West Conference.”
When the interviewer mentions critics who say the Lobo offense isn’t exciting enough, Davie whips out a national publication called “Sports on Earth” that projects UNM as the most entertaining team in the Mountain West this year.
“We’ve been top five in the country since we’ve been here for explosive plays on offense,” he says. “It’s just not necessarily throwing the ball.”
As for attendance, in UNM’s newly renamed Dreamstyle Stadium that holds 39,224, Davie says UNM’s past projections for budget purposes haven’t been realistic.
“I think that first of all we need to put a fair target on what we expect in this state,” he said. “I think most people would agree internally that we probably have projected an unrealistic number of how many we expect every year. Then, all of a sudden, we are under what we projected for budget. So you’re always beating yourself up or getting beat up because you haven’t reached your projection.
“I look around college football and the Mountain West and I get kind of tired of our fans and everybody trying to find blame why there aren’t more people in the stadium. I look at the economic statistics right now in this state … and I know previous attendance statistics (from earlier administrations) weren’t as accurate as they could have been. So we’ve got to be careful about saying there used to be this many…”
Asked point blank what he considered a reasonable average attendance in what he describes as a “non-traditional” football community with, in some ways, a “non-traditional” university, Davie said, “probably 21,000 or 22,000 people. Honestly. I think, on occasion, we can get 30,000.”
“Two years ago, after we beat Boise State at Boise, we were playing Colorado State for the Mountain Division title. Beautiful sunny day. We had 17,000 people here. …
“At some point, maybe it is what it is.”
Charismatic, telegenic, a great storyteller and quick to laugh, Davie lives and breathes football. But in addition to football helmets from places he has coached, his office is decorated with photos of him with presidents and celebrities.
He is fascinated by New Mexico’s history and culture and follows the news – even though he professes not to read stories about his team during the season.
During the interview, he cites stories published in the New York Times and talks about listening on the radio to university presidents discuss higher education at a recent town hall hosted in part by the Journal.
And he talks passionately about some of the harsh realities that pose a recruiting challenge – for players and coaches – for Davie and his staff.
Asked about recruiting obstacles, the first two he lists are crime statistics and public education scores.
“We confront it,” he said. “We don’t pretend the statistics aren’t out there and they are hard to fight. We know they are used against us. But if we can get players and coaches to visit and to see the kind of culture we have in this program and the progress we’ve made, then we have a chance.”
He is troubled about the challenges facing the state – crime, public education and a struggling economy. He hopes to build on the momentum the program has.
“I think our football team and our program can be one of the things that changes the perception,” he said.
That’s especially true, he said, if UNM and the state look at the program as an investment rather than just a cost.
“You mentioned Nebraska,” he said in the interview. “At Nebraska, they know the more the they put into the program, the more benefits they reap.”
With a new season ready to kick off, Davie says he’s fully committed.
He dismissed the rumor that he doesn’t really live here, which likely stems from the fact that he kept the home in Scottsdale, Ariz., that he bought when he lost the Notre Dame job and went to ESPN. He has no intention of selling the Scottsdale property, but points out he bought a house in Sandia Heights and that’s where he lives.
“Given where I’ve coached and the number of games I’ve won, I could go somewhere else if I wanted to,” he said.
“But I’m here. My wife is here. My son (assistant coach Clay Davie) got his master’s degree from UNM, and he’ll have his doctorate in January. My daughter is an attorney who moved here when I took the job. She met my son-in law (director of football operations Brian DeSpain), and my grandson was born in Presbyterian hospital a year ago.”
“In my very first press conference, I described this as a quirky place. I just didn’t know how quirky.”
“But we have embraced this place, and my family is invested here. This is a challenge and will continue to be, but we are invested in it.”