After a dozen years off the sidelines and in the broadcast booth, Bob Davie surprised most observers by jumping back into the game to take over a New Mexico program that enjoyed just three victories over its previous three seasons. In his first year, Davie and his staff improved a team that ranked 100th or lower in 13 of the NCAA's 17 official statistics to a competitive 4-9 team. The Lobos played five of their nine losses within one score, and took opposing defenses by storm with an option attack that racked up 301.3 yards per game.
We talked to Davie about his objectives in taking over a program desperate for success, what he learned in the broadcast booth and how to coach a major underdog.
1) How did you define success in your first year, and did you think your team met that bar?
Our goal was to be the most improved team in the country. That was our goal starting out last season. You know we can all spin it and tweak stats but there are some things we ended up doing statistically that kind of put a little bit of credibility to it. Something I saw at ESPN going around the country doing these games is, every program in the country that's successful has an identity. When you walk in that building, it permeates. If you walk in at Kansas State, you know what Bill Snyder and Kansas State is all about. If you walk in Alabama, you know what Nick Saban and that program is all about. When Pete Carroll was at USC you walked in there and felt the energy of that place. There's a lot of different ways to do it, but it's about having an identity and that's what we really tried to do in the first year.
2) After a successful debut, how are you hoping your program takes a step forward this year?
Every program's a little bit different. Our program, because of the numbers situation of what happened over the three years recruiting the past regime brought in 60 players. First of all they were on probation so they were five scholarships down a year because of that. They brought in 60 players but there were only 28 or so of those players left in the program. We're in our second year, in a lot of ways it's like our first year because we're still working through the roster piece of it. I think we had the lowest number of scholarship players in the country last year. It's kind of odd but we graduated 23 players. Even though there very few scholarship players, there were a lot of seniors. Our roster is still something we have to deal with to try to get the numbers back up.
3) How much of your success would you attribute to catching people by surprise, primarily with your option offense? How will you make up for that advantage going away here in year two?
I think that's a great point. A year ago at this time, your number one concern is just to play the game. Now it's about winning the game, in the ideal situation. Because of some of the things I said we're not quite at that point but we are a lot farther along. As you mentioned, other teams are more familiar with us now. We actually were the No. 1 most improved team in the country last year in scoring margin. We improved 25.2 points per game over 2011. We were the No. 2 most improved team in rushing, turnover margin, I could go down the list. With all that said, certainly we didn't take everybody's best shot last year because of what had happened in the past. We run an option-style offense, becoming familiar with it is part of it. We understand that. But we also understand that we weren't very good. We can be a lot better than we were. That's really the whole emphasis for us this spring, just building the level of play. I think back to last spring out there, it was frightening. I just know we can be so much better.
4) You started last year with a 4-3 record but lost six straight to close the season. Did you have to do any morale repair inside the locker room?
It really was an enjoyable here as far as the players and how they bought in. In five of those six games we had the ball the last series of the game, four of them with a chance to win and one of them with a chance to tie. That's how many close games we played. It wasn't like we started fast and then slipped back. It may look like it because we lost our last six games. They had been outscored (by an average of) 42-12 over the last three seasons. They were 3-33 and had been outscored 30 points a game. We were only outscored by four or five points a game. At the end of the day, we weren't good enough to win them. We came close and we did some good things, we just weren't good enough.
5) What advice do you give to a head coach walking into a situation that many may see as hopeless?
The past doesn't have to dictate the future. It really doesn't. That's the other thing I saw that was invaluable to me was, you always think in coaching the other guy has the advantage, it's probably human nature with everything. But every place has problems, and I saw that going around visiting all these schools. I can remember even at Notre Dame you thought the other guy had the advantage all the time. You know what? The other guy has problems, too. There's really a fine line between it. You don't have to have the best players necessarily to win. If you get guys that you trust, guys that really care, I think you can do it. I think you can win.
6) After so long away from coaching, how did you go about filling out your off-the-field support staff?
I think it's a little bit out of control. It's amazing when you look at some of the staffs and all the different positions they have. Fortunately for me, coming up when I was at Texas A&M Tim Cassidy was really our recruiting coordinator and director of football operations. I think he's probably the best in the game. So what I did was I went back and from Texas A&M hired Brian Spain who I kidded Tim all the time did all of his work when Tim was getting all the credit. I went to Arizona State and hired Ben Hilgart as the director of our strength program. My son was a walk-on and played at Arizona State, and I was fortunate enough to get Ben Hilgart. And then recruiting coordinator, we hired a guy Josh Sternquist from Minnesota and Kevin Cosgrove, he's here as our linebackers coach. Coz was at Wisconsin when they turned the program around with Barry (Alvarez) and he got to know Josh Sternquist when he was at Minnesota. Like it always has been, you rely on people that you know in the profession to guide you. Certainly those jobs have become even more important for a lot of different reasons, really.
7) What message did you preach to your team once you got the job?
With anything, you sell outwork, out-discipline and then you need to have success. If you're going to ask your guys to work harder and be more disciplined then success is what makes them buy into realizing that all that hard work is worth it. It is about winning. There's no question about that.
8) How long did it take for the team to buy in to the culture change your staff was trying to institute?
I think in some ways last year was maybe easier because I think the players that had been through such tough times here really appreciated (our staff). I think it was pretty easy to make an impact on those guys because things had been so desperate. Sometimes the younger guys you bring in don't appreciate it as much. Sometimes with the younger guys, because of our need last year, we enabled them a little bit by taking them on trips and playing guys in games that quite honestly weren't ready to do that. That's the ongoing thing every day of guys really appreciating being here and really appreciating the things that they do have and not thinking about the things they think everybody else has. I think our older guys really appreciated the way we did things. They had something to compare it to, where the younger guys, they don't have something to compare it to. That's something we really talk to our young guys about.
9) Was there a moment when you look back and know the team bought in?
We open at home against Southern, but then we go on the road at Texas, at Texas Tech and we get beat as you would expect us to get beat at Texas and at Texas Tech. And then we went down to New Mexico State, we had three away games in a row, New Mexico State had beaten us three straight years and we were able to win that game last year in Las Cruces. That was a big turning point for us. And then I think the other big thing was, the very next week we come home and play Boise State. We were able to outscore Boise I think 28-3 in the second half [it was actually 29-3], that was a big game for us, to be able to do some things against Boise in the second half.
10) What do you tell your team before a game like Texas when you may be a five-touchdown underdog?
I've never felt it, to be honest. I really didn't feel that big of a gap. When you run out of that tunnel, I don't care if you're at Notre Dame Stadium and there's 85,000 people there and it's on NBC or you're running out of the tunnel in Albuquerque, New Mexico and there's 30,000 people and it's not on television anywhere, it's the same thing. Between those lines, the emotion and the game and the strategy is all the same thing. I never approached it one different. At Texas A&M I played Texas nine times, and at Notre Dame we played them twice. It was no different to me than at New Mexico. Whether I was with the Aggies, the Irish or the Lobos, I didn't approach it one bit different in that locker room.
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