Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Colleges

Big budget helps Florida Gators achieve big athletic success

GAINESVILLE — A few hours after the No. 1 seeded Florida baseball team was eliminated from the College World Series in a loss to Kent State last month, a message appeared on Twitter: "I guess money can't buy everything."

Though money doesn't automatically translate into winning, it certainly helps. Vast financial resources aid winning at Florida and the nation's other top programs. Money lets them hire the best coaches, build state-of-the-art facilities to help lure the nation's best high school athletes, and travel with relative ease to and from events.

"I've said often people don't want to talk about the business aspect of college athletics, but there is a business aspect," Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley said. "Certainly our job is to graduate student athletes and provide a quality experience for them, but when you're talking about a $100 million budget, there's a business aspect. And if you want to be successful at the level we want to be successful at, you better have some resources to do that."

This season the Gators finished second in the Learfield Sports Director's Cup after 12 of their 17 teams finished in the national top 10 with a school-record three national championships. Just traveling to and from those postseason and championship events cost the Gators more than $1.2 million.

Rewarding success also costs. Florida coaches receive a $4,000 bonus in any year their teams achieve an 85 percent graduation rate, $1,500 for assistant coaches, along with an allocation for academic advisers.

Florida's athletic budget for the upcoming season is projected at $97.5 million, and even in the midst of a recession, facility improvements continue. Among them: a $150,000 resod of the football surface, construction of an indoor tennis practice facility, renovation and expansion of the gymnastics facility, and renovation of the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium west concourse. Since 1982, Florida has invested $242.5 million in facility improvements for its athletic programs.

"There's no doubt we can go out and tell recruits that you will have every opportunity to become successful when you come to Florida," football coach Will Muschamp said. "And that's because of the resources that we have and the commitment of the administration."

The resources include facilities that play a huge role in recruiting.

"Most definitely, especially for female recruits because we know there are high schools around the country that, even though we've just celebrated 40 years of Title IX, it hasn't gotten to some high schools," said volleyball coach Mary Wise, entering her 22nd season at UF. "And when it comes to allocating money at that level, girls are the last on the list. So when they're visiting us and they see the facilities or the weight room or learn of the high quality academic support system, they see things like scholarships for female athletes in the summer … it goes well beyond just what you can see visually."

Foley told board members at a University Athletic Association meeting in June that the program's success is directly linked to the generosity of a staunch fan base. Gators Boosters generates one-third of the money that operates the athletic program — $33.8 million in the upcoming year. But he bristles at the notion that it only takes money to win.

He points out that while the Gators have a state-of-the-art basketball practice facility, coach Billy Donovan won a national title before the facility was built. And Rhonda Faehn's gymnastics program was in the top five using the facility now being renovated. Commitment, Foley said, breeds winners. With a few dollars thrown in.

"I hate to think that the perception is if you have money you're going to win," Foley said. "It takes more than that. I think you support your programs. Obviously if you have quality coaches, you have to retain them. You've got to be competitive in terms of salaries. I think facilities are a statement of commitment. Those things are nice but at the end of the day, it's about the institution and it's about the academic reputation of the institution. But you have to have finances, no question. I mean, that's part of the equation. But is it the only part? No."

Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]

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