1. Sports

As Florida AD, Foley built a brand of winning and much more

Jeremy Foley, right, missed on football hires Ron Zook and Will Muschamp but Urban Meyer, middle, won two national titles.
Jeremy Foley, right, missed on football hires Ron Zook and Will Muschamp but Urban Meyer, middle, won two national titles.
Published Jun. 15, 2016

GAINESVILLE — Jeremy Foley still runs four days a week. He has competed in two Boston marathons. Actually, make that three marathons.

"Being an AD is a marathon," Foley said Tuesday. "It's an ultra-marathon. But I made it. I made it."

Foley, 63, is retiring from his longest, greatest race. It took him from New Hampshire and Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y., to 40 years in one place, a quarter century on the job he loved: University of Florida athletic director.

He's near the finish line.

And there's no one in front of him.

I can't think of an modern-day athletic director who did more for one school.

It was Steve Spurrier, the greatest Gator, who ignited the Florida boiler upon his return in 1990. But it was Foley's passion and professionalism that kept the fires burning across the decades, not with coal, but with excellence.

Hey, hiring Billy Donovan alone would have made most ADs golden for life.

Same goes for 25 years without a single team being placed on probation.

Yes, Foley is 1-2 at hiring head football coaches. We don't know yet about Jim McElwain, but Ron Zook and Will Muschamp were definite Ls. But the W, Urban Meyer, won two national championships. There's that.

Foley is the only Division I athletic director to oversee multiple football and men's basketball national champions. Under Foley, Florida won 27 national titles. The Gators have been the SEC all-sports champion in 24 of Foley's 25 years running "The Firm," the eventual nickname for the organization he built: efficient, single-minded, driven. It wasn't always out to make friends. Some people at Florida didn't like the nickname. I bet Foley did.

Part of his Florida legacy is that every sport mattered to him. He never forgot that football paid the bills, but it all mattered. There are Gators championships in any number of sports to prove it. The baseball team heads to the College World Series this week.

Talk about working your way up. Foley came to Gainesville in 1976 to be an intern at the Gators ticket office. It wasn't a bag boy at Publix, but you could see it from there. He leaves as CEO of a juggernaut with a budget that grew from $30 million to $119 million during Foley's tenure.

Florida under Foley mostly tried to do it right. It didn't always manage, but it tried. That speaks to Foley's experiences in Florida's Dark Ages, when Charley Pell ran amok and Norm Sloan was filth. That stuck with Foley even before he became Florida AD in 1992.

"At the end of the day, there's always another championship, there's always another game," Foley said. "But your integrity, there's nothing worth that."

He was such a fan, a downright goober at times. But it wasn't fake. He openly celebrated big wins and took bad losses as hard as a Gators coach or player, no matter what the game. It was all the same to him.

Likewise when it came to expectations. Foley gave his coaches the resources and environment for winning. And if they didn't win enough, he found someone else. There's that classic Foley quote from 2002, after he relieved some fairly successful Gators coaches who weren't quite successful enough.

"I'm a big believer in saying if something needs to be done eventually, it needs to be done immediately," Foley said.

He made mistakes. But he was accessible to media. He didn't hide. Yes, he let his guard down a few times, sometimes out of loyalty. He kept Muschamp a year too long. He shouldn't have hired his friend the Zooker. When Meyer pushed the boundaries with players he recruited, Foley could have manned the borders better.

But Foley helped build and perpetuate a winner, a brand. It makes you wonder if the next AD will be able to keep from getting steamrolled. Jim McElwain wants what he wants and wants it now. Can all this work as well without Foley, who made Florida more than a football school?

Tuesday was for memories, Foley remembering his first day at Florida.

"… I used to laugh about it all the time after my career took off. Because I complained the whole way down. I'm from New Hampshire. I came down for my interview. It was 4,000 degrees. I was wearing corduroy pants … It was hot. And I didn't want to be here.

"And I came to work and I was supposed to go to the ticket office, and nobody knew who I was or that I was coming. I was like nobody. … Nobody knew I was coming and I'm going, 'What am I doing here?' And from that time forward, I've always told my staff that, whenever you hire a new employee, make sure someone is here to welcome them with open arms. I thought I made a mistake. I was in the wrong place."

He was in the right place.