ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Gene DiFilippo was the first-year offensive coordinator at Youngstown State University, and the Penguins were struggling to score points.
“I thought I knew something about football,” DiFilippo says now, some 37 years later. “I really didn’t know anything at all.”
One night, while making sure all the Youngstown State players were tucked away in their dormitory rooms, DiFilippo found himself discussing X’s and O’s with Penguins senior tight end Bob Davie.
“We just starting talking,” Davie recalls today. “Like, what do you see going on, why don’t you think we’re having success, what could we do differently.”
As DiFilippo got up to leave, thoroughly impressed, he asked the young athlete if he’d ever thought about going into college coaching.
“He was like a coach on the field when he was playing for us,” DiFilippo says today. “He had football sense. He was a really, really hard worker, he was good with people, and I just thought he’d be a real, real good coach.”
But, no, Davie said; after graduation, he’d planned on returning to his old high school in Moon Township, Pa., near Pittsburgh, to teach and perhaps coach at that level.
No, DiFilippo insisted. This young man needed to become a college football coach.
“That,” Davie says, “started the process. … That’s how the light bulb came on.”
On a recent summer day, Davie reflected on a process that has taken him from that night in Youngstown, Ohio, to his current position as head football coach at the University of New Mexico — with some interesting stops in between.
Most recently, at age 57, he chose to leave behind a successful 10-year career as an ABC and ESPN college football analyst to assume the reins of arguably the worst program in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision.
That decision, says Davie’s wife, Joanne, was made quickly and with no hesitation.
“I remember the moment perfectly,” she says, recalling that she and her husband were sitting outside their Scottsdale, Ariz., home last September when he told her New Mexico coach Mike Locksley had been fired after a disastrous, 2½-year tenure.
“I said, ‘You ought to call,’ ”Joanne Davie says. “He did, and the rest is history.”
Bob Davie’s professional history is dotted with numerous successes. As defensive coordinator at Texas A&M, his unit, dubbed “The Wrecking Crew,” led the nation in total defense in 1991.
Lack of the Irish
As well, there’s one high-profile failure — that is, if a five-year record of 35-25 as head coach at Notre Dame can be considered a failure.
That record certainly wasn’t good enough for Notre Dame fans, boosters and alumni. Davie, almost 11 years after his dismissal in South Bend, does not argue.
That, he said, is reality at Notre Dame.
“Quite honestly, I’m pretty proud of what we did there,” he says. “I don’t look back on that as a negative experience.
“I’d love to do it again with the experience I have now, and the maturity that I have now. But I’m in no way bitter or think I got shortchanged.”
When Davie replaced the highly popular and highly successful Lou Holtz as Irish head coach in 1997, he had been a college assistant for 20 years at Arizona, Pittsburgh, Tulane, Texas A&M and Notre Dame. He’d become renowned as one of the sport’s best defensive coordinators. He’d had a front-row seat, watching carefully as accomplished head coaches like Jackie Sherrill, R.C. Slocum and Holtz ran their programs.
Yet, nothing Davie experienced or observed in those 20 years, says South Bend Tribune sports writer Al Lesar, could have prepared him for the pressures he faced as Notre Dame’s head coach — not even three years with the Irish as an assistant to Holtz.
Lesar contrasted Davie’s career arc to that of Urban Meyer, who served on Davie’s staff at Notre Dame. Meyer got his first head coaching job at Bowling Green, then was hired at Utah, then at Florida, where he guided the Gators to two national titles. (Meyer is now at Ohio State after a brief hiatus.)
Had Meyer plunged right into the deep end of the head-coaching pool, as Davie did, how would he have done?
“(Meyer) paid his dues along the way before he got a high-profile job like Florida,” Lesar says. “Bob didn’t have that.”
Following Holtz at Notre Dame made a tough head-coaching debut that much tougher. Holtz had taken the Irish to a national title in 1988, had won 100 games in 11 seasons. He also loved the spotlight and was a walking sound bite.
“It’s just really hard to follow that,” Lesar says, noting that Davie’s winning percentage at Notre Dame (.583) is better than that of Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis, who followed him in South Bend.
The coaching lessons learned at Notre Dame, Davie says now, remain invaluable as he works to pick up the pieces at New Mexico.
“The biggest thing I learned,” he says, “is go with your instincts. Go with your instincts, and don’t worry about failing. Don’t plan everything out to the degree that you don’t read the situation. … I was so planned out and so scripted (at Notre Dame), because I was afraid to make a mistake, that I didn’t just let it rip and wasn’t totally myself.”
Another lesson learned: hire good assistants and let them coach.
“Be their biggest fan,” he says. “Do all you can to put them in a position where they can be successful. You do have to delegate. At the same time, you have to be on top of everything that happens from just a managerial standpoint.”
View From the Booth
Davie’s application of those coaching lessons, however, would have to wait. His football knowledge, Clint Eastwood-ish looks and booming baritone landed him a job with ESPN/ABC in 2002.
After the sting of Notre Dame subsided, life was good. Davie, Joanne and their son, Clay, moved to Scottsdale. After Audra, their daughter, finished law school at Illinois, she joined them in Arizona.
College coaching is a year-round job. There’s recruiting, spring practice, more recruiting, the season itself.
Her husband having an actual offseason, Joanne Davie says, was nice. Living in Scottsdale was nice.
Yet, she never forgot that, at his core, her husband was a football coach.
Joanne Fratangelo and Bob Davie began dating while they both were students at Moon Area High School. They married in 1978, when Davie was a graduate assistant at the University of Arizona.
A college football coach’s travel and long hours, she says, didn’t faze her then — nor does it now.
“That’s what it entails, and that’s fine,” she says. “I guess part of it comes from being pretty independent myself.”
Bob Davie, meanwhile, had seen broadcasting from the start as a temporary thing.
“I went into it thinking, ‘this is for one year,’” he says, “and I approached it like I was going to coach again. Honestly, I did that every year.”
Kevin Hickey, president of a Phoenix-area corporate-security firm, first met Davie in 2000 when the latter was head coach at Notre Dame and Hickey was on the board of the Fiesta Bowl. (The Irish lost the 2001 Fiesta Bowl, 41-9 to Oregon State, the start of a four-game losing streak that would grease the skids for Davie’s ouster.)
After Davie moved to Scottsdale, he and Hickey became close personal friends. Throughout Davie’s decade in broadcasting, Hickey says, he could see and hear the coach in him.
“It’s just amazing when you get together with Bob and another coach,” Hickey says. “I remember playing golf with Bob and (former Wisconsin coach) Barry Alvarez. Bob can remember one play from 10 years ago. He can remember how many yards he had to go (for a first down). He remembers every little detail.
“You could just tell from the way he’d talk about different games and different situations he was in that he had a bug (to coach) that was burning pretty bright.”
Broadcasting has its challenges, Davie says, but there’s “nothing like having a vision of what your team can look like, coming up with a plan to try to reach that vision, then going out, playing a game and either winning or losing.
“As good as it is to do the Rose Bowl with Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit, do the Ohio State-Michigan game, fly first class, do all those things and with no pressure and no Sunday morning heartaches, as good as that is, there’s still nothing like this whole process of the things I just talked about.”
Still, coaching openings came and went, and Davie remained with ESPN.
“There was never the job I could get,” he says,”that I thought was worth sacrificing how good the lifestyle (as a broadcaster) was.”
New Mexico? Really?
Then, why New Mexico, a bedraggled program that had won a total of three games the past three seasons?
When Davie was hired last November, he said he and his family had come to love the Southwest. He said he found New Mexico to be “quirky,” in a good way, and believed Lobo football was a product he could sell. He relished the challenge of building a program from the bottom up, so different from his situation at Notre Dame.
Later, he said his interest in the UNM program actually dated to the 2002 Las Vegas Bowl, which he worked for ESPN.
New Mexico, coached by Rocky Long, lost the game 27-13 to UCLA. But, Davie says, he liked the underdog, tough, blue-collar mentality Long’s Lobos projected.
Thereafter, he says, not knowing when or if the job would come open, he followed the program with interest.
“It always intrigued me a little bit, this job,” he says.
Davie was an equally intriguing choice for the job, considering he hadn’t coached for a decade. He has said several times that he feels as if he’d never left, that there’s no rust that needs knocking off.
Still, Nevada coach Chris Ault, who retired to the athletic director’s chair in 1995 but returned to coaching in 2004, found coming back had its challenges.
“That first year was a struggle,” Ault said last month at a Mountain West Conference media gathering in Las Vegas, Nev. “You’ve got to win the kids over, and there’s just a whole lot of things like that.
“As we entered into that 2004 season, the things we wanted to do offensively and defensively, the players weren’t good enough. … We couldn’t lay the foundation we wanted to lay.”
That first season, Ault and the Wolf Pack went 5-7. But they were 9-3 in 2005, went to a bowl game that season, and have been to a bowl game every year since.
Musburger, Davie’s former colleague at ESPN and ABC, noted on a recent Albuquerque visit that another former broadcast partner of his — Dick Vermeil — was out of the game for 15 years. Upon his return, the St. Louis Rams went 9-23 his first two years. In his third, they won the Super Bowl.
Musburger said he was confident UNM had hired the right guy in Davie. DiFilippo, now the athletic director at Boston College — he recently announced his impending retirement — feels the same.
Upon hearing Davie had taken the New Mexico job, he says, “My first thought was, those lucky young men at the University of New Mexico. … I was just thrilled to see him back.
“I don’t know much about the University of New Mexico, but I know Bob Davie. He’ll recruit high-type young men. They’ll be smart, they’ll be tough, they’ll work hard and they’ll win games.”
The Davies, meanwhile, are settling in. Audra has found a job with an Albuquerque law firm; Clay is a graduate assistant in his dad’s program.
Davie has been frank, almost brutally so at times, in assessing the state of that program. Buyer’s remorse? No.
“I love the chance to have an impact,” he says. “I really think we can have an impact here and be successful.
“It just fits me. It just fits me and my family the best.”
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal