ORLANDO, Fla. — On the night before his first game as FIU’s coach, his first game as a sideline boss in nearly seven years, Butch Davis compared his level of anticipation to what Christmas Eve is like for a kid.

He was excited.

He was nervous.

He was even a little worried.

“This is like being a 10-year-old the night before Christmas,” Davis said before he headed to the elevators. “And you’re not sure when you open up the packages, is it going to be something that you really want? Or is it going to be something somebody stuck under there as a gag gift?”

A gag gift awaited.

The good news is, this wasn’t Christmas. He won’t have to wait a year for the next chance at getting something good. There’s another game next weekend.

The Davis Era at FIU opened Thursday night with a thud, the Panthers giving up 40 unanswered points in one stretch on the way to what became a 61-17 loss at Central Florida. It was 14-10 in the second quarter, then became 54-10 midway through the third. Plenty of UCF fans left at halftime, and they did so without need for excuses or apologies.

Davis allowed The Associated Press access to team meetings on Wednesday and Thursday in advance of his first game back on the sideline since 2010, his final season at North Carolina. And when the night was over — mercifully — the man who helped Jimmy Johnson turn the Dallas Cowboys into a Super Bowl champion and built the team that would win a national title at Miami in 2001 talked about how he’s seen growth come from pain before.

“When you do things right, good things will happen,” Davis said. “When we did things that were negative, it’s hard to overcome those things. We’re not talented enough right now to overcome those things. You can talk about teams you were on previously and show film, but all that never really resonates until it’s talking about you. That’s where we are.”

There was no indication before the game that FIU expected things to go so badly.

Meetings on Wednesday night were energetic, the walkthroughs on Thursday in the parking lot outside the hotel went crisply, and when the team took the field at UCF for warmups everyone had a bounce in his step. Davis, who was lured away from his job as an ESPN analyst to take over at FIU late last year, put together a good recruiting class and a talented corps of assistant coaches.

“He’s ready to be back,” FIU director of sports and entertainment Pete Garcia said.

Davis might be ready.

The Panthers, they’re still a work in progress.

In the locker room before the game, after warmups, the mood was high. Davis paced back and forth, arms folded across his chest. Quarterback Alex McGough walked through the room, stopping to shake hands with teammates in various position groups. Assistant strength coach Andreu Swasey handed out water and boxes of Gatorade energy chews. Linebacker Fred Russ — the team’s emotional spark plug — rapped loudly to entertain anyone within earshot.

Eventually, Davis took his spot in the center of the room.

The Panthers took a knee in prayer, then Davis rose for his first pregame speech in years.

“You be the guy that starts the fire,” Davis said. “You be the person that makes a statement about who we are and what our team’s going to be about. Most importantly, have fun. Play this game tonight, no regrets whatsoever. Spill your guts, every single play. Play harder, faster, longer than they play. Be in the fight all the time, until there’s no time on the clock.”

But UCF went up 8-0 on their first possession, and the second-quarter blitzing filled with mistakes on both sides of the ball finished FIU off. And by the time the night was over, the Panthers were already looking ahead — to film on Friday, to Alcorn State next weekend, to getting a chance to wash this one away.

“It was just a step,” McGough said. “Not all great things start off good. It’s a step in a direction. Whether that was good or bad, we’re just going to attack next week.”

The locker room postgame was predictably somber. Davis led the team in prayer again, and then spent nearly five minutes giving the Panthers an unfiltered assessment.

The gag gift was not what he expects again anytime soon.

“In tough times, you find out who the good guys are, who’s got grit, who’s got determination,” Davis said. “Reality sets in. We’ll look at this film, you’ll grow, you’ll learn, you’ll take it personal. Because the one thing about it is, that film won’t lie. And we’re going to get better, guys. I promise you, we’re going to get better.”


More AP college football: http://www.collegefootball.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_Top25