My first reaction to yesterday's news that New Mexico had hired Bob Davie as its new head coach: Good. Now he can go about hating the spread offense somewhere other than on my television.
My second reaction: you know, he probably wasn't as bad at Notre Dame as we think he was.
Now, he wasn't fantastic by any stretch of the imagination. But looking at where the program had begun to head before he took over, and looking how the program continued to perform after he left. Consider:
- Following their dramatic success in 1993, when the Irish almost won Lou Holtz a second national title, they had already begun to slide. They finished 6-5 in 1994, then rebounded to 9-3 and 8-3 in Holtz's final two seasons; still, their 23 wins were their lowest three-year total since 1985-87, which included Holtz's first two seasons. Davie wasn't exactly inheriting the defending national champion.
- Davie's first team in South Bend consisted of Ron Pawlus at quarterback, Autry Denson and Clement Stokes at running back, and Bobby Brown, Malcolm Johnson and Raki Nelson at wide receiver. That isn't exactly a unit destined for success. Still, after a 2-5 start in 1997, Davie rallied the Irish to 14 wins in their next 16 games. They began 1998 9-1 before losing two to end the season.
- In 1999, the program's first true step backwards under Davie (they went just 5-7), the Irish were done in by injuries, youth and a brutal schedule. They returned just four starters on offense, were working in a new offensive coordinator (Jim Colletto had been hired away by the Baltimore Ravens) and a mostly new offensive line, and by the end of the season, they were down 21 players thanks to both injuries and suspensions. They played nine games against teams that finished at least 6-6, losing six of them.
- Starting a true freshman (Matt LoVecchio) at quarterback in 2000, the Irish still rebounded. They lost a tight game to a 10-win Nebraska team early on, then won seven in a row to make the Fiesta Bowl. Yes, they got smoked by Oregon State. Still, they had bounced back and played at what was at least a Top 15-20 level. The 2001 season would be doomed by poor quarterback play (neither LoVecchio nor Carlyle Holiday could stay either healthy or effective), and despite a defense that allowed fewer than 20 points per game, they finished 5-6.
Davie was fired from Notre Dame in 2001, with athletic directorgiving "program headed in the wrong direction" as the primary cause. The Irish had not thrived to Holtzian levels under Davie, but as mentioned above, the general slide had already begun. (Plus, in the middle of his tenure, Notre Dame was placed on two years' probation for booster shenanigans that had taken place during the Holtz era.)
The Irish averaged just seven wins per game in Davie's five years; they would also average seven wins over the combined course of the Tyrone Willingham (2002-04) and Charlie Weis (2005-09) eras. This is a tepid defense of Davie, of course -- "he wasn't as bad as you think" isn't quite the same as "he was good!" -- but as time has passed, Davie's tenure has been seen as, basically, on par with Gerry Faust's, which isn't exactly fair. He had a lot going against him from the moment he walked in the door, and while not thriving academically, he did still manage to win at the same level as those who proceeded him.
How will any of what I just said translate at New Mexico? It is, to say the least, hard to tell.
First of all, it has been a decade since he last coached. When John Mackovic went from coaching to ESPN and back to coaching, it did not go very well (he went 10-18 in two and a half seasons at Arizona and left amid a player mutiny), but there was also only about a four-year drought between gigs. On the basketball side of the ledger, Steve Lavin went from ESPN back to coaching and did well in his first season, but that was with a senior-laden squad; we'll begin to see his program-building chops this season.
Davie inherits a New Mexico program that is, frankly, bad at everything. The Lobos currently rank 120th, dead last, in offense, defense and special teams according to the F/+ measure. If nothing else, he will likely receive an amount of patience that he never really got in South Bend; he better, anyway.
The Lobos are rather balanced offensively (as long as your definition of balance is "They run and pass an equal amount of time," not "They're good at both"), which might be a good thing with Davie at the helm. He has long struggled to contain his disdain for the spread offense and certain new offensive innovations, and it will be interesting to see the staff he hires and the style he attempts to deploy. Generally speaking, he presents himself as a "line up and hit 'em harder than they hit you" type of coach, but that style only works if you have guys who are talented/big/strong enough to succeed in doing that. "Hit 'em hard" isn't much of an underdog strategy, and he will need to show a certain level of creativity to get the job done in Albuquerque.
(Speaking of offensive tendencies ... just remember, Coach Davie: a now-former colleague of yours knows the West Texas area well and would make one heck of a running backs coach or smashmouth offensive coordinator, we promise. Nobody will complain if you hire him away from television, either. Not ... one ... person.)