Updated: Apr 10, 2020
It seems long ago. Like the rest of us, however, now he looks for hope.
You might question some of the things Jeremy Foley has done, but hiring Billy Donovan can't be one of them. It was a happy night for celebrating Billy Donovan Court. (Photo by Chris Spears, GatorBait)
When the history of Florida Gator sports is finally written, they won’t have to call in the forensic experts to find the fingerprints of Jeremy Foley. They’ll be all over it, everywhere. For nearly 34 years – 24 as the director of athletics -- Foley helped chisel off the veneer of a loser and shepherd in the period of Resurrection and Reconstruction: Respect, national championships and The “It’s Great to be a Florida Gator” era.
“Lost the arms race … never hired a great football coach … should have never let Spurrier get away in the first place.” Yada, yada.
It comes with the job. These past 40 years have been the Best of Times and the Worst of Times for the University of Florida sports program – far more bests than worsts -- and the common denominator for that was the inveterate Red Sox fan who started out in the ticket office and wound up leading the UF athletic department out of the shadow of Armageddon and into the national limelight. Extreme cycles.
The New England Yankee finds those cycles of fortune as inevitable as the harsh winters and the soft, glimmering summers of his native New Hampshire. In baseball lexicon, if Foley had modeled Ted Williams and wound up hitting .400 at Florida, he would be a Hall of Famer. Which, by the way, by any metrics you want to choose, he certainly will be a Hall of Famer.
Believe it or not, Foley actually stepped aside all the way back in 2016 and took the “emeritus” title as his friend Scott Stricklin took the mantle. It’s been that long.
I found Jeremy in the quiet solace of his UF office, contemplating everything, and yet nothing, because there is no “there there” yet during this unnatural pause. But it was a good time for him to reflect on his past work for a 45-minute phone conversation as GatorBait drilled down on the modern history of Gators sports – football and basketball in particular.
Like the rest of us, Foley is hoping against hope, praying for miracles, exhaustively searching for silver linings, quietly worried and concerned about family, friends and business associates – just looking for an escape hatch out of the abyss of fear and gloom. But yet with a measure of grace and the wonderment of all that life has offered, feeling impelled to offer encouragement. Pondering that unanswerable question. The only hypothetical he might even allow himself to address personally is “…if I was in Scott Stricklin’s shoes.”
By the way, if you pity the uncertainty of Stricklin’s pathway, consider the optics of what it looked like to the graduate of Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y. When he saddled up as interim AD replacing Bill Carr in 1986 and then went on to become senior associate AD to Bill Arnsparger’s reign in 1987 during what would evolve into one of the darkest eras of Gator sports. The UF was just emerging from of the mire of a near-Death Penalty from the NCAA. Foley rose to the rank of athletic director in 1992 — just in time to catch the tailwind of Steve Spurrier’s sail and help usher in the “It’s Great to Be….” period.
As we took a deep dive into the past 20 years, and in particular the “Four M’s Decade” (Meyer, Muschamp, McElwain and Mullen) from 2010-2019, Foley was careful not to claim the success that wasn’t his, giving full credit to Stricklin for the Dan Mullen hire and declining to really say why he didn’t go after Mullen when Urban Meyer departed. He didn’t really dodge it, but he never fully addressed it. And maybe the guy didn’t ask him the right questions.
The two hires Foley made after Meyer didn’t work out, even though Muschamp looked like he had the proper credentials and background to succeed at Florida and even spent some key formative years in Gainesville, playing touch football in his back yard and imaging he was Tony Lilly, the All-SEC Gator defensive back for Charley Pell and Galen Hall (1980-93).
“All sports is peaks and valleys – incredible peaks and incredible valleys,” Foley said philosophically.
Certainly that has been his journey at Florida, but it’s probably a little too soon to be making judgments about Foley’s era in the heat of Resurrection and, maybe, semi-Reconstruction. Everybody has been operating under a yellow flag. When that Restart Button is pushed here one day, the University of Florida should be in a good lane and ready to challenge for a spot in the top five or ten among college football teams. And that is due, in part, to the New Hampshire guy.
Here is part of what we discussed in a brief Q&A:
MARTIN: Yeah, hypotheticals are almost impossible to attach an answer to. And I wouldn't ask you to do that. But I will ask you for a gut feeling. You've always had a good gut in terms of figuring things out loud, knowing you all these variables, or we don't have any idea about how you think the odds are 50/50. There'll be a football season or less.
FOLEY: I think the worst thing you do right now is try to guess when obviously you can't have your head in the sand. September is a long ways away. And so you don't want to be over reactive. There's things that have to be done now in terms of budgets for next year and trying to stay in touch with your coaches and student athletes.
As the situation of the fall becomes clearer here in May, early June, then then you then you react to what is presented to you as opposed to trying to guess what may be presented to you. That makes sense. So I think that's where Scott's at. And, you know, if I was still in it, sure. That's what I would do.
MARTIN: What does it look like from your hypothetical position in Stricklin’s shoes?
FOLEY: I mean, you think about, you know, if there is no football and you know what kind of decisions we need to make? … or if it's a reduced schedule, what kind of decisions we have to make? But you can also drive yourself crazy. Try to forget every single scenario, and I don't think it's productive. I think there'll be football at some point time. And whether that's September or another time. What's going on with the virus? Certainly if and when -- everybody is obviously praying for this for a lot bigger reasons than in sports … for a vaccine. And that's the game changer. But, you know, the social distancing that we're all going through right now, it’s going have an impact. I mean, how will the virus subside substantially, not only in this state, but around the country ... I don't have enough knowledge to know my background. Again, I just think you have to hope and pray that this scene turns and people who are sick get better.
(I asked him what went wrong with Muschamp and why things didn’t work out.)
FOLEY: Muschamp was cheerful. Everybody in the building loved him. He's a really, really good guy. Worked his tail off. And you talk about the pedigree. He was a defensive coordinator in this league and was and going to be somebody’s head coach. The leading candidate at Texas. I know the people of Texas saw something in him. It was an extremely well done rebuilding effort done on the high road. (7-6 in 2011). The second year we go eleven and one. And this looked like we had turned the corner. And then for whatever reason, it just it didn't pan out. (4-8 in 2013) His third year obviously that was the low point where we went for eight incredible number of injuries. You know, lost two quarterbacks.
Now, it's a tough business and things are going south to turn around. It's really hard to build it. It's really hard to keep it at the top … Forever is not working. Negativity gets so loud and you can't move on to new players. It just feeds on itself … It starts impacting your recruiting and it's almost impossible to turn it around when the noise gets that loud because the recruits, they don't come. And again, at all the players position. So it was well-intended decision, it didn't work out. And sometimes they don't. It was unfortunate, obviously, for Will, his family, his staff and Gator Nation, obviously, because of the turmoil.
MARTIN: And when you didn't go after Dan the first time around. What were your thinking?
FOLEY: You know, there's no perfect formula, no coaches. You look back on some things you did definitely. You know, we went in that direction. We had a coach, Mac, that at that time we felt was the direction to go in. And now, obviously, hindsight is 20/20. But, you know, Coach Mac did get us to Atlanta a couple times. And then Danhas done an incredible job changing the culture, has done an incredible job with his staff. I think the sky's the limit. Scott Stricklin wanted to hire Dan -- Dan and Scott had a good relationship at Mississippi State. Dan did an incredible job at Mississippi State. He is an incredibly good head coach. He was here to help us win two national championships. He's done a great job and the future looks bright with Dan and Scott.