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Evaluating Butch Davis

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This sort of post was inevitable, mainly because there is a feeling of the program being stagnated. The loss to FSU was frustrating, not so much in the way they lost but rather because we have seen UNC lose a game in this way several times before. Here in the third season I think most of felt like the program would be stable and all signs would be pointing towards some kind upward trajectory in terms of conference standings. Instead it feels like the program is regressing last season when UNC was sitting in the Coastal Division driving seat searching the radio dial for some good rock-n-roll to listen to. On the 850 the Buzz blog, frequent commenter jhmd2000 offered this critique of Butch Davis:

...with Fall Break in Chapel Hill, it is time for some mid-term grades. Butch Davis’s Junior Year at Carolina is a good time to take stock. I like Davis. I remember Tornbush and Bumbling. I also remember Mack Brown. There is a reason to hire a "head man" instead of promoting technically sound #2s. A head guy gives you a brand. A head guy gives you an identity. A head guy can survive a coaching search that includes a mustache disqualifier (again, see Tornbush and Bungling). I prefer Davis to either of our last two coaches, and honestly, any other coach UNC should reasonably expect to get without lowering its standards to scum-sucking, cheating, Mike-Slime-SEC levels (no offense, Mr. Saban). If the ESPN graphic was right on the replay, Davis is now 16-16 at Carolina heading into the Sand Pit next week. I’m not sure 16-16 (looking at a losing record) will be a passing grade. If he was 16-16 with an empty cupboard and playing Bunting’s schedule (Notre Dame, OU, Texas twice, Urban Meyer’s Utah teams twice, Bobby Petrino’s scum-sucking, cheating, Louisville teams twice), I think you could call that rebuilding. You can’t go .500 or worse playing the Citadels, James Madisons, and Georgia Southerns of the world. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Bunting’s receivers are having 100 yard Sundays, and Butch’s receivers are struggling to get separation against the 108th best pass defense. Hmmmmm.

I am also lukewarm on hearing Butch talking about how this is a learning experience for his "young" football team. They must be faster learner’s in Coach Cutt’s offensive backfield, b/c they are moving on defenses like a Phi Delt on a freshman, and UNC is struggling to find an identity in year three. Okay, it is unrealistic to expect Davis to build a sustained national power with the Carolina brand at the speed Saban has returned Alabama to that status in the same amount of time…but is a conference win too much to ask in year three? Additionally, if you’re not going to tolerate excuses from your players, then you’re not entitled to them as a coach. If you’re not getting paid any less b/c your team is young, you can’t cite youth as a reason not to produce.

The most troubling thing about Butch is what Joe has alluded to: no killer instinct. If you ask a certain football coach what the W & F stand for on the side of his team’s uniforms, his answer is "We Finish." Butch got scared against Notre Dame, UVa and Maryland last year and turned a ten win team/schedule into a Tire Bowl loser. He got scared again last night down in the shadow of the goal posts, tightened his formation up, and eschewed the previously fruitful sweep to instead thrice run Shaun between the tackles into the teeth of a defense that couldn’t catch you on the perimeter. With victory a scant six feet away, he kicked a field goal to go up 4, instead of put in Ryan Houston to go up 8/9 under four minutes. If you trust your defense enough to hold the lead at mid field on a punt, why don’t you trust them to back up your offense if they can’t convert and end of the game in paydirt? Those afraid of victory don’t deserve. At this point in his tenure, it is clear to me that Butch plays and schedules not to lose. Fail, fail.

Spot on.

The FSU game could end up being a watershed moment for various reasons. We had all hoped it would be a positive in this season that thus far had been an enigma. A win on ESPN's showcase weekly game would have made UNC 5-2 with three winnable games versus Duke, BC and NCSU left on the schedule meaning an 8-4 finish was still within reach. Instead we saw yet another game in the abbreviated Butch Davis Era where UNC tried to hang on for the win instead of going out there and grabbing it. In the past two years UNC managed to hold off the likes of Miami and Notre Dame but against Virginia Tech, UVa and Maryland last season plus this game, UNC simply did not put up enough points to win the contest. In all of those cases UNC either got away from doing what they did best on offense or the defense played a less aggressive scheme that allowed the other team back into the game.

At this point it clear that this coaching staff leans very heavily on conventional wisdom and conservative playcalling with faced with a tough decision. Against FSU, Butch Davis faced 4th and short inside the 20 and opted for the FG to take a four point lead. Among the group of people I was sitting with, I was a minority in my belief that UNC needed a TD versus a FG. Why? Because FSU had scored on the previous four possessions, three of them TDs. There was no doubt in my mind that FSU would score a TD once they got the ball back and UNC would be facing a deficit. Of course the conventional wisdom says take the four point lead because it is hard for FSU to score a TD than a get a FG plus even with the TD are in a position to tie with a FG. However that ignores the reality of UNC's position on the field and the fact turning the ball over on downs inside the 20 would afford your defense better field position in which to work. As for the 4th and 5 with less than five minutes to go, Davis ignored the fact that unless you force an immediate three and out or at best only allow FSU six plays at most, the clock would become a major issue. It would have been better to take a shot at getting a first down then and there as opposed to handing the ball back to FSU for them to whittle the clock away.

Yes, some of this second guessing and 20/20 hindsight. However some of it is also a pattern of behavior with this coaching staff. Butch Davis and his staff came in with the brand name. The recruiting has been good and no one really questions the talent level on defense for certain. The offense is dealing with line issues which appears to be headed towards correction in the coming recruiting cycle. In short, the personnel appears to be there save the QB but the product on the field comes up short in terms of execution. That part is on the coaches who are at times too conservative eschewing the possibility of controversy by making every call by the book. This staff, instead of making an effort to win, hopes they can win with a "just hold on" A recurring theme over the past two days has been the idea that Butch Davis' UNC teams do not finish. It hard to argue otherwise with a staff that cannot or will not make adjustments mid-game. FSU made the necessary moves to get their offense moving in the 2nd half while UNC let them do it. FSU went out to win the game while UNC sat back and hoped they could just get by.

At this point two things should not be lost on UNC fans. The first is that Duke, long the punchline of the ACC sports the same record as the Heels and is 2-1 in the ACC versus UNC's 0-3 conference mark. David Cutcliffe has done a phenomenal job in Durham turning a very bad program around and it is difficult not to glance in their direction as a point of comparison. Secondly, it should be noted, per a reader, that Butch Davis is basically sporting the same record as Carl Torbush at a similar point in their respective tenures at UNC. I understand these things take time but I am fairly certain that UNC is not paying a brand name coach, brand name type money to have him be the equal of Carl Torbush in the record book and behind Duke in the standings.

There in lies the rub. Butch Davis was a brand name coach and UNC ponied up big dollars to not only lure him in but keep him happy after the first year when it was apparent his market value changed. Because of his success at Miami, Davis is considered a top-tier coach. When he landed at UNC the assumption was that he would duplicate much of the success he had at Miami. Sure the recruiting would be different but Davis would bring the air of big time college football to Chapel Hill. So far he has done that. The fact UNC relented on the Thursday Night Game and is moving towards major renovations to Kenan Stadium speak to the influence of Butch Davis to move Tar Heel football up a few rungs on the ladder. There is no question he has that part of building the program down. The other part, having to do with developing players and winning games, seems a tad on the slower side with the biggest issue being the perception that the coaching is average at best. Unfortunately many critics and rival fans warned that Davis was long on recruiting but short when it came to actual game management. The success of Butch Davis at Miami, seems to have been predicated more on bringing in high-caliber talent of the NFL variety which mitigates the need for great coaching. At this point in the Davis era, UNC is not sporting that level of talent which means the coaching needs to compensate. From what we have seen that is just not the case.

The problem you run into here is whether this is the point things begin to unravel or whether we should all step back from the ledge, ride out this rough spot in the storm, hope like mad Bryn Renner is the real deal at QB, that most of the defensive players return next season, that the offensive linemen recruits can supplement the returnees and a more mature team can make waves next season. Well, whether we like it or not that is precisely what we may end up doing and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Where this is really gets dicey is if we get into a situation where we starting turning coordinators and assistants over. Most UNC fans are not happy with OC John Shoop and there are times, like this past Thursday, where Everett Withers is next on the list. I am not sure Davis will look to make a change this offseason or if we will stick to his current staff citing the offensive line issues and the always reliable "youth" argument. What I do know is if it becomes necessary to shake up the staff, whoever comes in has to be a quality coach who understands and can flat-out coach the game. If that does not happen the possibility of constant staff turnover increased dramatically which will eventually mire the program in mediocrity. The bottom line is, UNC is probably never going to pull in the kind of recruits Miami had, at least not in significant enough number to mitigate shortcomings in the coaching staff. If that is the case, the best thing Davis can do it go out and hire the best set of coordinators he can find and let them do the heavy lifting where the coaching of the game is concerned while Davis and John Blake take care of the recruiting and program building.

One thing this post should not be taken as is a sign I am throwing in the towel on Davis or that it is even panic time in Chapel Hill. The fact Davis went 5-7 in his 3rd year at Miami is reason enough to wait this out. From what I have seen the recruiting does not appear to be a major problem and it is reasonable to assume that Davis is going to continue to pull in quality recruits along the lines of what Mack Brown had. The aspects of the program most UNC fans are most restless over have to do with the coaching on game day, especially the playcalling that appears to be conservative in nature. The feeling I get is there is confidence in Davis to get the job done but the product so far has left a lot to be desired especially when Duke has come much further in a shorter period of time. For all the concessions UNC has made for Davis and the money they have shelled out, some return on the investment is expected but so far has been a little short.

For Davis the quickest way to address any restlessness in the fan base is to at least finish 7-5(meaning UNC beats Duke, BC and NCSU) which would get them into a bowl game. There are certain things about this team that are simply not going to be fixed this season namely the offensive line and QB. However, UNC did show some promise utilizing various different looks in the running game and despite the defense playing poorly in the 2nd half, the Heels should still be plenty capable of keeping teams off the scoreboard. Winning cures a variety of ills and had UNC won Thursday night, no one would be talking about these issues now. As it is, the die has been cast and there have been enough games like we saw Thursday night to raise concerns about patterns in coaching that really need to change. Patience should still be the mode of operation for UNC fans simply because there is plenty of good Butch Davis has done even if there are some issues with the coaching. As long as the recruiting progresses, which I think it will, these other issues could end up taking of themselves and if not I am sure Davis can be trusted to make the right moves with his staff to bring in better coaching. We hope.