He meeting took all of them by surprise. College football players do many things in the winter—lift weights, host recruits, go to class—but they do not meet. Yet on the Monday morning after the Super Bowl, word spread across the Miami campus like a warm, tropical breeze. Meeting in the locker room at 11:30. All-Big East offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie was walking to his 11 a.m. class when a teammate told him of signs posted in the weight room earlier that morning. "I was thinking somebody must have gotten in real big trouble with the cops over the weekend," says McKinnie, a rising senior. "What else could it be?"
Junior quarterback Ken Dorsey learned of the meeting while killing a few minutes in a grove of trees at the center of campus, a place where football players often gather in the morning. Junior tight end Jeremy Shockey received word while sitting down to eat an early lunch in a campus dining hall. " Coach Davis never schedules meetings when we have classes," Shockey says. "So when I heard 11:30, I knew it had to be something big. It wasn't going to be introducing the new defensive backs coach."
It wasn't going to be Davis leaving, either; his players were certain of that. The eldest among them had heard rumors of their coach's imminent departure for years, but two days before Miami played Florida in the Sugar Bowl—by which time he had turned down offers from Alabama and the NFL-expansion Houston Texans—Davis had brought the team together in a New Orleans hotel and assured the players that he was staying. "If I leave now, that makes me a deadbeat dad, because this is my family," he told them. "I want to finish my career right here at Miami." A few days after Miami's 37-20 victory completed an 11-1 season and cemented a No. 2 national ranking, he told them, "We're going to work our asses off in the off-season, harder than we've worked before. This is going to be an incredible season. We're going to win the national championship."
It was a plausible assertion. Fourteen starters are due to return, and those who vote in the polls will have to take a long, hard look at the Hurricanes as a possible preseason No. 1 choice.
In the funereal silence of the locker room on that Monday morning Davis began to speak at 11:20. The early start was no surprise to his players: In Davis's disciplined world everything began 10 minutes early. Dressed in a business suit, his eyes red from lack of sleep, Davis began by telling the players how much he loved them, how they could win a national championship. He seemed nervous. "I couldn't tell where he was going with this talk," says McKinnie. He and other players remember only snippets of what Davis said next: "Opportunity at the next level.... Cleveland Browns.... Best thing for my family...." Then the coach started to cry.
"Hardest thing I've done," Davis would tell SI three days later. "A college coach spends so much time with his players. I looked around that room, and for every kid I could see his family. I could see a home that I sat in. I get choked up talking about it."
When he finished addressing his players, Davis asked if any of them wanted to speak. None did. None rose to embrace the coach or shake his hand. "Jaws dropping, eyes bugging out," is the way McKinnie recalls the scene. "Total shock." Davis walked toward the door, where Shockey, who had arrived late, was standing. "He looked at me and gave me a little nod, and I nodded back," says Shockey. "Then he just bowed his head, and he was gone." In his absence the players met alone, many of them rising in anger at Davis. "People were real mad," said McKinnie. "Especially the young guys who have three, four years left. He told us he would be here."
When a college coach leaves under these circumstances, the waters are always bloodied by his departure, but Davis's exit was uncommonly painful. Not only had he restored the Hurricanes to a place among the elite, salving the wounds resulting from the 1995 probation that cost Miami a crippling 31 scholarships, but he had also repeatedly denied interest in leaving for the pros, despite the widespread assumption by fans and media that the former Dallas Cowboys assistant lusted after an NFL job. Three days before the Sugar Bowl, at a time when three NFL teams were searching for a coach and four more would follow suit, he responded to a rumor that he was soon to visit with Browns management by saying, "Don't they have a coach? I'm happy in South Florida. My family loves it there. I plan to coach at Miami for a long time." Davis didn't just issue denials, he sold them.
At a dinner with recruits at the Rusty Pelican on Key Biscayne on Jan. 20, Davis thanked McKinnie for returning to play next season after NFL scouts had told him that he'd be taken high in the first round of the April draft if he left school early. "Winning a national championship will be the final piece of the puzzle for you," Davis told McKinnie.
One week later Davis agreed in principle to a five-year, $15.7 million contract with the Browns, bolting Miami nine days before recruits could sign letters of intent. Davis got a deal from Cleveland that Miami could never have matched, but he and his lawyer, Marvin Demoff, insist that the Browns weren't a serious consideration until the school failed in late January to finalize a five-year contract extension that had been in negotiation since November. (After the 2000 season Davis had three years left on a seven-year, $5.9 million contract.) "I'm thrilled with the opportunity I have in Cleveland," Davis says, "but if Miami had gotten the extension done in November, I'd still be the coach at Miami."