An Afternoon with Gator Nation’s “Man Behind the Curtain”
Over the years and the amount of Gator Sports events I’ve had the opportunity to attend, I’ve always joked with Mrs. Franchise, that one day I’d like to get a half hour with Jeremy Foley and pick his brain about leadership and how he makes the magic happen in Gainesville. We see him often at baseball games, often sitting with former head football coach Urban Meyer and his son, as well as at one of our favorite restaurants. Mrs. Franchise jokes that either I’m stalking him or he’s stalking me. Either way, I admire the hell out of what he’s accomplished at UF.
After all, you may not have noticed because of all the shiny objects that Tim Tebow and the “04’s” have been hoisting up recently, but we are currently in the midst of the “Golden Age” of Florida Gator athletics. I’m not a terribly old guy (I’m a man… I’m 35), but I don’t think there has ever been a time where so many of our athletic teams have been legitimate threats to win their conference or a National championship. The Gators have won National titles in Football in 2006, Men’s Hoops in 2006 and 2007, Football again in 2008, Women’s Swimming and Diving in 2010, and Indoor Track and Field in 2010. Throw in three consecutive trips to the Women’s College World Series for the Softball team (including what is the signature play in Women’s College Softball to date), two College World Series trips for the baseball team recently, and a Sweet 6 appearance for Gymnastics in 2010.
Clearly, the “man behind the curtain” in Gainesville knows what he is doing. So when the opportunity to attend an event on campus at the F-Club where he was the speaker and would answer questions, I cleared my schedule to make it.
Who is Jeremy Foley?
Mr. Foley introduced himself to us and acknowledged that at that point he needed to talk about himself for a bit, but made it clear that he doesn’t really like to do so. Jeremy Foley grew up in New England and attended Ohio University in Athens, Ohio for both his undergrad degree and masters. When it came time to get an internship, Jeremy took too long to get his materials and applications out and ended up not getting anything upon graduation for Ohio. He got a call early that summer from the University of Florida ticket office asking him to come and work there. It was a temporary gig, a 6-month appointment where he’d have to find something else at the end. Well, that summer, Mr. Foley impressed his supervisors and those around him so much that he got a full time job with the ticket office and hasn’t looked back. He worked his way up through the Athletic Association from the ticket office to the Associate Director of Athletics, where he served for 13 years, eventually landing the Director of Athletics job, where he has served for 19 years. While Mr. Foley didn’t obtain his degrees from UF, he is very much and always will be, a Gator.
Why is UF winning everything?
Mr. Foley made two things very clear is what he looks for in his successful coaches and programs. First is the ability to be a part of the greater Gator team and family. A coach coming into the program needs to understand that they are a part of the larger community and the Gator coaches support each other and are NOT competing against each other for anything. Any problems or issues get worked out in the room and left there. Second, Mr. Foley looks for strong leadership abilities from his head coaches. Of course they need to be organized, be able to recruit talent, know their Xs and Os and be able to teach the sport they are coaching to young people… and YES, wins matter, but the leadership aspect and having good people as the face of our sports is very important to Mr. Foley. All of our current coaches, Mr. Foley feels, have these traits. Even the couple sports that are not currently top-ranked have some excitement and are trending upwards.
What’s it like to let a coach go?
Yes… the moment you’ve all been waiting for I’m sure.
Obviously, Florida has had coaches leave on their own and he’s had to ask coaches to leave, and when this question was asked, I’m certain the inquisitor didn’t have former Women’s Hoops coach Carolyn Peck in mind… He was talking about the Zooker. Mr. Foley knew this and was honest in his answering; both by artfully not speaking directly on Coach Zook’s termination, but at the same time answering the question.
He said that when you have to let a coach go, you first have to come to grips with all of the collateral effects it will have. The committed and enrolled athletes, the assistant coaches and their families, alumni & boosters, etc… He made note that assistant coaches are taken care of for one year after the head coach is terminated.
What I found most intriguing, was when Mr. Foley discussed that Coach Zook’s effort was not the issue… not in any way. It wasn’t that he didn’t work as hard as Coach Spurrier or Coach Meyer, but in essence, when it’s time to part ways with a coach, he says, “You just get a sense and you just know. One thing shows up, then another, and you see the athletes’ behavior or performance in class may be slipping, you just get a sense with the fit in the institution and with how things are going.” Again, wins and losses count, but as he explained, “there wasn’t one more game that we could have won that would have made me change my mind.” Winning 8 games instead of 7 wasn’t going to be the difference in keeping the Zooker.
Mr. Foley said that he had gotten a lot of feedback about giving Coach Zook one more year, and he stated that his stance is that if you know something is going to happen in a year, or that you intend to let someone go after “one more year,” it’s in your best interest to do it now. He used a Henry Kissinger quote that was somehow accredited to him in the paper. He shared with the group that keeping somebody around one more year can have long ranging repercussions on your program. He gave the example that drove home his point for us and everyone from Gainesville to South Bend, Indiana. Mr. Foley said, “Had we kept Coach Zook around for one more year, Urban Meyer is probably the head coach at Notre Dame University, and who knows where we are today.”
This, of course, led directly into a discussion on the interviewing and hiring of Coach Will Muschamp…
Mr. Foley mentioned that he has done a coaching search for every sport at UF with the exception of Volleyball (Florida Sports Hall of Famer Mary Wise) and Soccer (Becky Burleigh) and has evolved over the years in how he executes a search.
The hiring of Will Muschamp
Jeremy shared the story of how he heard the news of Coach Meyer resigning.
He was back in New England and relaxing. He was getting ready to have his breakfast sandwich while settling in next to a fire as the snow flurries came down outside. He had opened up his old favorite newspaper, The Boston Globe, and was about to read about his beloved Boston Red Sox when his cell phone rang.
It was Urban and he said he was “hanging it up.”
Foley rushed back to Gainesville to talk to Urban and make arrangements. He did NOT try to talk him out of it. As Mr. Foley said during the Q&A, “Last year, this happened around Christmas time and honestly, it put us in a very bad place to move forward, but this time it was earlier in December and I saw the look on his face when we met. He was done and he was comfortable with it.”
Jeremy addressed all of the rumors that were out there as far as having a deal with somebody since October. He denied these and said they were nonsense. When searching for a head football coach, he noted that there had to be a good fit, they had to have some of the intangibles, experience was a plus, but not necessary, and he had to be “moveable.” Foley talked in depth about the concept of a coach being “moveable,” and could they be recruited to leave where they were.
Mr. Foley was very frank as he began to speak about Bob Stoops. He said that “Bob Stoops used to coach here under Steve Spurrier. He is a dear friend of mine and I speak to him often. I talk to Bob all the time about coaching here again someday, but this time we didn’t even contact him, as I believe Bob Stoops is not moveable. He’s been at OU for 12 years, he’s got a National title and played for a few more. He’s part of the fabric and culture of that program there and it doesn’t make sense for him to leave even if he does have a home on the west coast of Florida.”
When putting the pieces together after Coach Meyer’s resignation, a lot of the signs pointed to the University of Texas defensive coordinator. Roots in the SEC from working at LSU and Auburn and playing at Georgia. He had recruited in the SEC. He had NFL ties from working with Nick Saban. And he grew up in Gainesville, FL as a Gator fan for most of his young life.
Once Muschamp was targeted for an interview, Foley and his staff visited his home with his family, much like coaches do with their recruits. Foley dismissed rumors about any deals already being in place and noted that the first time he had ever met Urban Meyer was when he visited Utah to speak with him, so having “a guy he knew” is never an issue for him.
Foley liked what he heard from Muschamp and he took into account the concept that the man he was talking to has been chosen to be the next head coach at the University of Texas… and that’s a “pretty darn big deal.” He and his staff moved forward with an offer, once returning to Gainesville.
Why interview just one guy?
Foley addressed this directly. “I’m not comfortable meeting with a guy, shaking his hand and saying I had a great time, we like you, but we’re going to go talk to these 2 or 3 other guys. That causes two problems. 1 is that while I’m running around interviewing these other guys, Texas can get back to Will and offer him some more money or a cut off date to become head coach, or something else to sweeten the deal he has there, all the while, as he wonders if we really liked him. The 2nd problem is if that first one plays out and we go back to Will and offer him the job after completing the other interviews and he says no, we go back to one of the other guys who may drop out after hearing someone else got the initial offer, and maybe the 3rd guy wasn’t a fit… then where are we? We’re back at square one and the internet, all the bloggers and all the Tweeties and Twitter people have already released all this info and so whoever we hire is perceived as not our first choice. There’s a couple of schools going through that right now and we dealt with a little bit of that when Coach Zook was hired and even though he was the only person who was offered the job, the perception was that he was not our first choice.”
“We liked Will and we liked him a lot and we didn’t feel like there was a reason to go out and interview a whole bunch of people. Coach Muschamp is a good coach and he’s going to do a great job.”
Mr. Foley’s session with staff wrapped up and he said his pleasantries. He is very content and happy at the status of University of Florida athletics. There are no new plans for any new sports after the Lacrosse team just started and has had back to back #1 ranked recruiting classes. He joked that people tease him about him approving lacrosse because that’s what he played. He went on to say, “I wasn’t much of an athlete. I could run a little bit and I tried hard, so lacrosse worked for me. They just gave me a stick and let me go.”
Mr. Foley hasn’t put his stick down since 1976 and he and the Gators are still going strong.