The Allstate Sugar Bowl Believes in Champions – Charles Davis
Champions have long defined the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The list of Hall of Fame athletes who have competed in the annual contest is staggering. Heisman Trophy winners, future NFL Super Bowl champions and national championship coaches have made their mark in the annual game that brings in thousands of fans and millions of television viewers to New Orleans. But the list of Sugar Bowl champions extends well past the gridiron. There is a long list of distinguished individuals who have proven themselves to be champions in life as well – the Sugar Bowl’s current series highlights these lesser known success stories.
Charles Davis career trajectory arc seemed to be going as planned in 1997. The director of the PGA Tour’s now defunct Disney Golf Classic in Orlando, Davis’ goal was to become the first African American athletic director at an SEC university.
Then the call came and, all of a sudden, Davis was headed up the ladder to become one of the top NFL and college football television analysts around. And it certainly wasn’t because of his playing acumen. No, Davis excels in this business because of his strong work ethic and by becoming a master of whatever assignments were thrown his way. That, and he’s just a regular nice guy.
“I got a call that Fox Sports South was interested in me broadcasting a couple of college football games,” Davis said. “I think they were in a jam and out of desperation called me, even though I had no experience. I said, ‘What are you going to do if I’m really bad the first game?’ They said, ‘Well, you’ll just be really bad the second game too.’ They were stuck.”
“I thought Charles was great and would be awesome in the booth,” said Steve Craddock, a producer for Fox Sports South at the time. “You could see right away his charisma, his work ethic, his great look. He had played in the SEC so that was a natural connection. He’d fit in with anyone and the audience was going to like him. There are few people that can jump right in and do it, but he was great from the beginning.”
Anyone who has met Davis is greeted with a wide smile and a big handshake.
His path to the top of the football analyst business is much different than most, considering he almost didn’t even make the trip. Unlike most analysts, he wasn’t a legendary coach or a star professional football player – 14 of the main NFL television analysts for 2019 had extensive experience playing in the NFL. Davis? He didn’t play a game in the league.
“I fought my way through,” Davis said. “The best way I can put it is, to use a sports analogy, the vast majority of guys start in the minors. I started in the minors, a lot of regional stuff, I rode buses. I worked my way up and hoped that someone liked me. Fortunately enough, I’m where I am today. I hold no grudges against people who start higher, they earned it because they were great players or great coaches.”
To be fair, Davis was an outstanding player on the collegiate level, starring at the University of Tennessee in the mid-1980s. A four-year starter at safety, Davis sparked the Volunteers’ shocking blowout of second-ranked Miami in the 1986 Sugar Bowl by tallying six tackles and an interception.
“Our week in New Orleans was terrific because there wasn’t a heck of a lot of pressure on us,” Davis said. “Most people thought we’d get jumped on pretty hard because that Miami team was really good. It was a real interesting week because Miami, they’re not shy, when you encountered them on the street, you heard a few things. The funniest thing I heard all week, from a guy I consider a friend and I have great respect for, Alonzo Highsmith, their great All-American fullback. Someone asked him about the Vols, ‘The only thing I know about the Vols is a-e-i-o and u.’ I thought that was one of the greatest lines.”
Miami had a team loaded with future pros including Highsmith, Vinny Testaverde, Michael Irvin, Brian Blades and Brett Perriman. After a loss to Florida in the season opener, the Hurricanes dominated the regular season. On October 19, they went to Norman and upended the third-ranked Sooners 27-14. Oklahoma didn’t allow more than 14 points to any other opponent that season. The ’Canes topped No. 10 Florida State 35-27 in Tallahassee and closed the regular season with a 58-7 pasting of Notre Dame. A Sugar Bowl win over the Vols coupled with a loss by No. 1 Penn State to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl would have launched the Hurricanes to the national title.
But the Volunteers had something different in mind. As they were decimated by injuries throughout the season – they lost multiple players, including spectacular quarterback Tony Robinson – they lost to Florida while posting a pair of ties during the first half of the fall. But as the season progressed, they gelled, especially defensively. Tennessee allowed just three touchdowns in its final seven games and forced 39 turnovers.
“Were we good?” Davis asked. “The answer is yes, we played together, we played hard, we played smart, our defensive coordinator Ken Donahue gave us a lot of stuff to throw at Miami, stuff he hadn’t shown before. But if you matched us up man-for-man vs. their offense, no. The answer was no, we weren’t THAT team. But, we were the epitome of a team and most of that season, we played pretty darn well. We were better than what our talent indicated, but were we the equal of Miami’s offense talent-wise? The answer is no.”
But the Volunteers dominated, holding the Hurricanes to just 269 yards of offense and forcing six turnovers, including Davis’ interception. Tennessee won 35-7 and Daryl Dickey, who had filled in admirably for Robinson at quarterback all season, was presented the Miller-Digby Award as the MVP of the game.
“It all came together against a really great team,” Davis said. “It’s extremely rewarding when that happens. And I was fortunate to be a part of that. That was a tremendous crew of guys and it’s great to still be in such close touch with so many of them.”
“I had a lot of great memories from college,” Davis added. “We beat ’Bama four out of five years, that means something if you’re a Tennessee Vol, that’s absolutely huge. And of course, I had a chance to play for Coach [Johnny] Majors, one of the absolute legends of the game. I built great lifelong relationships with my teammates. That means everything to me. Tennessee was one of the special places to play.”
While Davis did spend time in training camp with the Dallas Cowboys, he eventually opted to return to Tennessee to finish his master’s degree. From there, he embarked on a path to become an athletic director or conference commissioner.
He spent one season coaching – working on Walt Harris’ staff at Pacific along with future NFL head coaches Hue Jackson and Jon Gruden. He worked in the SEC commissioner’s office for Dr. Harvey Schiller, spent time as an assistant athletic director at Stanford, managed the United States Olympic Training Center, and then landed in Florida working as the director of the Disney Golf Classic, the first African American tournament director in PGA Tour history.
“I was finding my way,” Davis said. “Did the wind take me different directions? Maybe, to an extent. When you’re young, that’s your chance to try things. But athletics was always the key, athletics was always the anchor. That comes from my dad; he was a teacher and coach. He said if athletics is something you want to do, there’s no reason not to dream it and do it.’’
But the dream took a 180 degree turn with the 1997 phone call.
His first game in the broadcast booth was Memphis at Mississippi State on Aug. 31, 1997 – Davis remembers the date clearly as that was the day Princess Diana died in a car accident.
“I could tell from our initial meetings that this was something he was excited about and wanted to do well at,” said Bob Rathbun, Davis’ play-by-play partner for that first game. “There is so much that goes into the football side from a preparation standpoint. Then, you have to prepare to do a new job – TV – that you’ve never done before. But Charles used his athletic and business backgrounds to pull it all together. The best part of CD’s story is that the nation now knows what anyone who has ever met him knows, that he is a first-class human being, a wonderful husband and father, a tireless worker and now an industry leader for us all to admire.”
Since that 1997 game, Davis has climbed the broadcasting ranks. He became a fan favorite as a college football broadcaster and was also very well-respected by coaches and others with whom he came into contact on the job.
“It was always a pleasure to work with Charles,” said College Football Hall of Fame coach Jim Tressel, who is now the president of Youngstown State University. “Truly a gentleman that was prepared through tedious study leading up to every broadcast. I appreciated that his focus was on the student-athletes and the great game of football itself.”
“As a general rule, when you’re an athlete, you have to earn everything and prove yourself,” Davis said. “After your playing career, you have to remember that. Get in there and grind and work and learn, just like you did when you were playing. I remember Jim Tressel mentioned in a meeting that the best way to get the job you want is to be really great at the job you have. I’m sure he wasn’t the first to say that, but it resonated with me. You get noticed by what you’re doing, not by selling yourself on things you haven’t done yet.”
Davis spent 18 years broadcasting college football, a tenure which included the first Big Ten Network broadcast – Appalachian State’s amazing upset of Michigan in 2007 – three BCS National Championship games, the thrilling 2007 Fiesta Bowl win for Boise State over Oklahoma and many more highlights. In 2015 he moved into the NFL booth full-time. He’s scheduled to partner with Ian Eagle for the 2020 season on CBS Sports.
“I’ve been blessed in my career with people who have been phenomenal,” Davis said. “Every person that I’ve worked with, both in the booth and on the sideline, I’ve learned something from, and they’ve helped me grow and get better.’’
Davis credits his background as a college football standout, as well as his diverse experiences after his playing career for helping him become a success in the broadcast booth.
“From playing sports, you learn to fight your way through, you don’t surrender easily when you run into adversity. You get back up. All those things come into play,” Davis said. “You also learn how to balance things. And there’s a pride you carry yourself with as an athlete. If you’ve been on teams that found their way through and won, you find your way through because you want to be a winner in everything else you do as well. My other experiences help me in all ways, they help me in how I prepare, in how I organize, how I study, how I feel like there are things that people want to hear. How I try to respect each person that’s on my board, when I’m doing a game.”
While he’s reached what many consider the pinnacle of sports broadcasting, Davis isn’t one to sit back and relax.
“Every day, I try and improve at my craft,” he said. “I want to try and be a better broadcaster and a good teammate in my broadcasts. We’re all striving to be great; it’s hard because it’s a subjective business, one person tells you you’re pretty good, another person tells you they can’t stand you, so you just never know. Just keeping pushing forward and do good work with the people you’re working with and try to get better each time out. I try to do the same thing in my personal life.”
The Allstate Sugar Bowl has established itself as one of the premier college football bowl games, having hosted 28 national champions, 96 Hall of Fame players, 50 Hall of Fame coaches and 18 Heisman Trophy winners in its 86-year history. The 87th Allstate Sugar Bowl Football Classic, which will double as a College Football Playoff Semifinal, is scheduled to be played on January 1, 2021. In addition to football, the Sugar Bowl Committee annually invests over $1.6 million into the community through the hosting and sponsorship of sporting events, awards and clinics. Through these efforts, the organization supports and honors over 100,000 student-athletes each year, while injecting over $2.7 billion into the local economy in the last decade.