GAINESVILLE — Billy Donovan hadn't been at Florida too long when he needed a favor.
Donovan had a big recruit (Mike Miller) on campus, and he needed to wow him. So Donovan called Steve Spurrier and asked him to meet with Miller — two hours before kickoff against Tennessee.
"I realized that's what it's about — it's about everybody pulling together, helping each other …" Donovan, now the head coach of the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, said Tuesday. "That is totally Jeremy Foley."
It's totally Foley because it shows the culture he fostered during his quarter century as the Gators' athletic director: What's good for one team is good for them all.
And it's one his successor must try to replicate as Foley prepares to retire as the head of one of the most successful athletic departments in the country.
"If we could clone Jeremy Foley and subtract 20 years," UF president Kent Fuchs said, "that's who we'd hire."
The Gators will have to settle for whatever name emerges from a national search to lead a powerhouse program.
Former UF board of trustees chairman Manny Fernandez will chair the process, Fuchs said. Fuchs also plans to use a small committee and outside consultant to try to have a replacement ready when Foley transitions to an emeritus role on Oct. 1.
UF should have no shortage of candidates. Internal options include executive associate athletic directors Mike Hill (external affairs), Chip Howard (internal affairs) and Lynda Tealer (administration), who have spent a combined 63 years in the department. Current ADs like Louisville's Tom Jurich will likely also be mentioned.
"This is a search where I think we can get the very best person out there," Fuchs said. "It's a special place."
That was something the 63-year-old Foley stressed Tuesday during his retirement news conference. His tenure has been so successful that he couldn't remember which of the 27 national championships caused him to get a Gator head tattoo on his ankle.
Whoever follows must try to recreate that across-the-board success without sacrificing the high-profile, high-revenue sports of football and men's basketball.
"They're walking into an incredible place," Foley said as he began to choke up. "Not just championships and facilities and stuff. The people. Whoever takes over this year has no idea about the people."
Specifically, the coaches, which Foley said comprise one of the best staffs in the country.
Football coach Jim McElwain is coming off of a successful first season. Men's basketball coach Mike White showed promise in his rookie campaign. Kevin O'Sullivan has the baseball team in the College World Series for the fifth time in seven years.
"Obviously (the next AD) is walking into a good situation," said Tampa's Leonard Levy, a member of the Gator Boosters' board of directors. "They're going to need to maintain it. And to maintain it, they're going to have to earn the respect of all the coaches and support them the same way Jeremy has."
Some of that will come through revamped facilities — perhaps Foley's final big task before he walks away after four decades at the school.
As he spoke at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, mounds of dirt and construction equipment sat across the street as part of the O'Connell Center's $64.5 million renovation. A new academic center is scheduled to open later this month.
UF is working on a blueprint that will upgrade facilities for football, softball and baseball. Foley hopes to exit with a fundraising plan to pay for it.
Foley said he doesn't plan to be too involved in college sports once he steps away. He's more likely to follow Bruce Springsteen on the road than join the College Football Playoff selection committee.
He will, however, serve as a resource as UF identifies his successor by suggesting a few names or providing insight on other candidates. Foley doesn't want to meddle, but he doesn't want to completely step away, either.
"I don't ever want a clean break from the Gators," Foley said. "Ever."
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.