Bob Davie spent 15 years working in two very high-profile college football positions, first as the head coach at Notre Dame and then as an analyst for ESPN.
He’s spent the past four years in a very different place, trying to help rebuild the New Mexico football program. The Lobos had become a disaster, both on the field and off, but the work Davie and his staff have done became one of the best stories in college football in 2015.
Last season, the Lobos won seven games and played in a bowl game for the first time since 2007. Davie has moved the program away from off-field embarrassment and NCAA sanctions.
He made drastic changes from his previous coaching experience, installing a variation of the triple-option offense and a blitz-friendly defense. After three losing seasons, the results of a patient rebuilding process arrived in 2015.
Davie’s Lobos are an example of hope for their opponent this week. Rutgers reached similar depths on and off the field last season, and the Scarlet Knights are in the early stages of a significant rebuilding project of their own with new coach Chris Ash.
Davie spoke to Land of 10 earlier this week about his time at New Mexico, how the rebuilding situations for the Lobos and Rutgers are similar and reflections on his time at Notre Dame.
Q: What was the process like trying to rebuild the New Mexico program?
Davie: “It’s a pretty lengthy story, but to just put it into perspective, this program had 37 losses in the previous 40 games before we got here. I think we had the fewest scholarship players in the country our first year, and we were coming off three years of pretty significant NCAA probation that had a total of 15 (lost) scholarships.
“It was really start from scratch, in a lot of ways. There was a lot of negativity surrounding the program, different issues, particularly off-the-field things. And we’re still a work in progress. We had a setback last week against New Mexico State. It’s been a lot of work, and a lot of ups and downs. It continues to be a rebuilding process.”
Q: Was there anything after a couple of years into it that really surprised you?
Davie: “You had to be here to realize the uniqueness of the situation, but with that said, I think the key thing is you have to have uniqueness to get it rebuilt. We’re sitting here in the state of New Mexico with not a whole lot of population, and high school football is not at the top of things to do in New Mexico. We had to find some uniqueness, schematically, as we tried to build. We are an option-based team, which is a little bit different. We have a blitzing, attack-based defense that a lot of people don’t necessarily do.
“I think the uniqueness of the job really forced to us to be unique in our approach to gain some level of respectability. That was a common thread. You have to do things differently, and we were aware of that.”
Q: In the time after you stopped coaching and went into broadcasting, what did you learn that you wanted to do differently this time around?
Davie: “I think going around the country with ESPN and getting the different flavors, seeing how different people do things. I realized that I ended up being out of coaching for 10 years, which seems hard to imagine because I always thought I’d get back into it.
“I realized that if I did, it would be some place like a New Mexico. After being out that long, it was going to be a place where there were some challenges. I really looked at the service academies, Army, Navy and Air Force, and what they do and the experiences I had at Notre Dame playing against them.
“How do you take an underdog, especially when you’re starting out, and gain some level of respectability? Trying to do things, to a degree, the way the academies do. When you play one of the academies, even at the Ohio States and Notre Dames of the world, you have a pretty significant advantage, personnel-wise, but every single year we came away thinking, ‘Man, that might have been the toughest game of the year.’
“There is the uniqueness of the triple-option style and the culture that presents to do it. It’s an unselfish, disciplined kind of approach. It was something I knew we were going to have to try and do. Now, trying to do that in Albuquerque, N.M., is a little different than in Colorado Springs or Annapolis or West Point, and it presents some other unique challenges, but you realize that you have to be different to turn a program like this around.”
Q: Last year wasn’t necessarily reaching the top of the mountain, but what was the significance of reaching a bowl game for the program and the community?
Davie: “It was very rewarding. We were able to beat Boise. We were able to beat Air Force, who won our division. We were able to beat Utah State, who has really done a great job with that program. It is pretty significant. You look at going to a bowl game, and some people might not think it’s that big of a deal, but for us in our situation, that was a really big deal.
“Looking back at it, there wasn’t a game we played that we couldn’t have won if we played our absolute best. But at the same time, there wasn’t a game that we played that we couldn’t have lost as well. The ones we won were all so close. That’s where we are. That was proven Saturday (against New Mexico State). We have very little margin for error. That’s what it continues to be as we try to piece things together and rebuild this program. It’s a battle.”
Q: Everyone’s rebuilding situation is different, but Rutgers is also going through a similar process. Do you see similarities between the two?
Davie: “I see two teams that are just trying to win a game, and to be honest it is just hard to win a game. You can take that to so many different levels, whether it is Northwestern now after losing to Western Michigan and Illinois State, all the examples, it is hard to win. I can compare us to Rutgers’ situation.
“There’s a select few schools out there, where it is still hard, but not as hard. We’re in the other group. Whether it is us in the Mountain West, or Rutgers in the Big Ten, because of the food chain in each place, the traditions and how that works out, we are in a similar position to Rutgers with respect to our conference. It is a battle to win. It just is.
“Rutgers has some advantages, because of location, but being in the Big Ten with Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and down the line, it is just a battle to win, man.”
Q: Can’t let you go without asking about Notre Dame, since the Fighting Irish have a pretty big game this week against Michigan State. Do you try to keep up with Notre Dame’s results and what do you think about the Spartans?
Davie: “I absolutely still follow them. I have to say though, when we win, I read about other teams and watch other games, but when we lose I don’t watch or look at anything, truthfully. It’s kind of the bizarre world you live in as a coach, but when you lose a game, you don’t want to look at anything else. All you do is focus on your team and what you need to fix.
“I root for Notre Dame now. I was watching Notre Dame-Texas, and Charlie Strong is one of my good friends. We coached together at Notre Dame, but I’m at the point now where I root for Notre Dame. When I was first fired, I’d be a hypocrite if I said I rooted for Notre Dame. I’m at the point now where I really do root for them and am really proud to have coached there. It was fun to be part of all that and it’s something I’ve grown to appreciate. I probably didn’t at first, but I absolutely do now.”