Davis free to pursue college jobs

Changing coaches in the middle of the season usually doesn't work, but in this case, it was the right move for everyone.

Updated: December 5, 2004, 1:17 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Along the shores of Lake Erie, where the locals characteristically employ the term youse and not y'all as the grammatical second person pronoun, the hybrid Oklahoma-Texas drawl of Butch Davis never really played all that well.

Unfortunately, for Davis, neither did the Cleveland Browns under his stewardship.

Falling tree
In the Jimmy Johnson coaching "tree," a term they like to use in the NFL to trace lineage, Butch Davis is now the latest limb to be lopped off.

The staff that Johnson assembled during his tenure with the Cowboys certainly was an impressive one, a group that contributed mightily to Dallas claiming a pair of Super Bowl titles during his five seasons there. But his protégés have been unable, at least at the NFL level, to emulate Johnson's success.

In fact, Davis is now the second former Johnson assistant to be fired this year, following Dave Wannstedt's departure from the Miami Dolphins earlier this month.

Davis enjoyed great success at the college level, of course, resurrecting a scandal-ridden program at the University of Miami, where he compiled a 51-20 record. But in his nearly four seasons with the Cleveland Browns, Davis was just 24-36, and led the franchise to only one playoff berth.

Such failure has become, somewhat inexplicably, commonplace for the assistants who served under Johnson in the NFL and then became head coaches themselves. The cumulative record for the four former Johnson assistants who became head coaches is just 177-226-1, a .439 winning percentage.

The breakdown: Wannstedt, 84-90 with the Chicago Bears (1993-98) and the Dolphins (2000-2004); Norv Turner, 54-67-1 with the Washington Redskins (1994-2000); Butch Davis, 24-36 with the Cleveland Browns (2001-2004); and Dave Campo, 15-33 with the Cowboys (2000-2002).

The four combined for just one division title and, in the postseason, failed to advance beyond the division round of the playoffs.
-- Len Pasquarelli
And it is that treacherous combination -- his inability to sell himself to the players in the Cleveland locker room and, almost as important, a basic failure to connect with a legion of knowledgeable fans in a city of great NFL lineage -- that ultimately cost Davis his job.

Forget bantering semantics about the manner in which Davis exited the NFL after less than four full seasons. The public relations spin from the organization is that Davis "resigned" late Monday evening, following a fifth straight defeat that dropped the Browns to 3-8, a loss that came despite scoring 48 points. Curious, if he really departed voluntarily, why the Browns feel compelled to honor a contract that runs through 2007 and is worth something in the vicinity of $12 million.

The smart money is that the team dismissed Davis, who was said to have been "shocked" when owner Randy Lerner told him last week that some of his near-absolute sway over football matters would be usurped if he kept his job and who reportedly was just as stunned by the events of Monday night.

No matter, since Davis is history either way, and the Browns must now carry on.

For the most part, the woeful performances of "replacement" coaches who inherit bad teams in-season reinforce the argument that it serves little purpose to fire a coach during the season. But in Davis' case, it was time for him to go -- for the coach and his team.

There is a lyric from the Eagles song "Wasted Time" in which Don Henley concludes "... now you can get on with your search, baby, and I can get on with mine," that probably is apropos at this moment.

For weeks, through his various minions and in back-channel manner, Davis has been chasing any number of potential college vacancies. You name the high-profile program that either needs or will soon require a new coach, and Davis has made sure through intermediaries that the athletic directors at those places all knew of his potential interest.

So now he is free, pockets bulging, to pursue college vacancies with more above-board methodologies. No more whispers of meetings and late-night phone calls. And, if he decides not to work for a while, well, Davis has a parachute woven from gold.

And with his top football person removed from the Browns' state of the art complex, and the "Openings Available" placard figuratively posted on the building, Lerner is free now to fashion his franchise in more traditional fashion. And, make no mistake, Lerner is very much about tradition.

Lerner, who essentially inherited the team in 2002 upon the death of his father, Al Lerner, is, above all else, a fan. In most cases, that is a dangerous hat for an owner to wear. But having lunched with Lerner and team president John Collins at camp this summer, and gotten to know the Cleveland owner a little better, I came away with the sense he is a ton savvier than some locals believe.

There is a palpable sense when Lerner speaks, occasionally in salty language, that his overriding priority is the fans. He fully understood the disconnect that existed between Davis and the community. He suspected there was a similar divide between the coach and his players. Certainly, had Davis succeeded and the Browns were 8-3, with the fans and sponsors and players rallying behind him, the coach would still be around. Heck, it was Lerner who last year rewarded Davis with a two-year contract extension, to promote stability and continuity.

But in a city where they often refer to "The Mistake by the Lake," Lerner was plenty smart enough to concede an error, and to rectify it.

There is no lack of irony here, given that Davis had sought in recent years to consolidate his own football power base, sometimes in shameless fashion. Davis dismissed his hand-picked defensive coordinator after the 2002 season. He fired his offensive coordinator following the '03 campaign. Then he turned his back on the first player selected in the second incarnation of the franchise, quarterback Tim Couch, and subsequently cut him this summer. Also, during the summer, he ignored former Packers general manager Ron Wolf, who had been hired as a personnel consultant.

His top lieutenant, vice president of player personnel and football development, Pete Garcia, who had served Davis admirably during their years together at the University of Miami, became both gatekeeper and confidant. The perception, right or wrong, was that Davis sought counsel from few people other than Garcia.

In addition, Davis neither engendered loyalty among his veteran players nor nurtured trust, and Lerner was keenly aware of those deficiencies. So when such obvious shortcomings carried over to the field -- where Davis compiled a 24-35 record and took the Browns to just one playoff appearance, a one-and-done visit in 2002 -- his fate was sealed.

Lerner is a far more hands-on owner than his late father. His dad bought the franchise, hired former San Francisco team president Carmen Policy to run it, and then retired to the owner's box. Randy Lerner bought out Policy's share of team, shortly after inheriting the franchise, and owns the Browns lock, stock and kicking tees. And when Policy exited back to the West Coast, to open a Napa Valley winery, it not only permitted Lerner to do things his way, but also removed the man who had hired Davis in 2001.

That should have put Davis on notice. Instead, he still attempted to run the team as if it was his name on the deed. His lack of perspective, a flawed sense that he was answerable only to himself on football matters, helped speed his demise. And, despite his brilliant resurrection of the Miami program, there was always a belief that Davis was never a great X's and O's coach.

What will help Lerner, perhaps, in his quest to reshape the franchise is his knowledge that the Browns belong to more than just him. This is an historic and celebrated franchise, a team woven into the tapestry of the NFL, a club whose fans know the game and know, as well, a flawed coach when they see one.

Months ago, Lerner set in motion the re-organization of the team, essentially retaining a head-hunter firm to counsel him on potential candidates for the general manager position. That hiring will precede the anointing of a head coach as Lerner redirects things back to a more traditional football model. Never again, at least during Lerner's stewardship, will the Browns be a one-man football operation.

This time, so that youse loyal fans in The Dawg Pound have something to bark about again, Lerner will try to get it right.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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