St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Florida president will be heard

Bernie Machen knows what he wants in a coach, and he won't be swayed in the search for Ron Zook's replacement.

ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published October 29, 2004

When Joe Roberson was conducting the search for the University of Michigan's football coach 10 years ago, he relied heavily on the advice and support of the school's provost.

A man named Bernie Machen.

The search wasn't formal; there was no structured committee. But when the then-athletic director wanted someone to bounce ideas off, voice opinions on potential candidates or challenge his instincts, Machen was often the man to whom he turned.

"I leaned heavily on Bernie even though we did not have a direct relationship in a line-staff sense," Roberson said. "Bernie was a very important source of advice. I trusted Bernie, but not only that, I just loved his style. There's no pretense. Bernie was Bernie and if you wanted an answer, just ask him the question. You didn't always hear what you wanted to hear, but what you always heard was what you knew was a sincere answer."

This, Florida fans, is the man who will determine your next football coach. When Ron Zook was fired Monday, Machen, the 60-year-old former Army major, was front and center at the news conference to announce the decision and discuss where Florida goes from here.

"When I was in the final stages of my search here, I said there are two things that can really get in the way of a president - one is the docs, the other is the jocks," said Machen, a former dentist who enjoys riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. "If you don't have your eye on the medical center and the athletics program, you're taking a risk. It's been my experience from Day 1 to be intimately involved in things that are going on in both the medical center and the athletics program."

So what exactly does Machen (pronounced MATCH-in) want in a coach?

"I want someone who buys into the vision that athletics and academic excellence are things that go hand in hand," said Machen, who came to UF after serving as president at Utah. "The University of Michigan is my next most recent stop. It works well there, it works well here too and will continue to be a dual thrust for this university."

Roberson, who is retired, said he and Machen shared the idea that a coach needed to be well-rounded, a person who could talk about more than just football. That's one of the reasons Lloyd Carr, then an assistant at Michigan, landed the job he now has held for 10 seasons.

Carr and Roberson used to exchange books when Carr was an assistant coach and Roberson was director of the university's development division. They were never football-related books. Sometimes, Roberson would walk into Carr's office and classical music would be playing.

"I wanted a football coach - and Bernie shared this view - that knew there were more letters in the alphabet than X and O," Roberson said. "Lloyd was one of them. I knew it, and Bernie knew it. And he and I were compatible in that. I hope Bernie sticks with that. I put football coaches on a continuum between Rambo and Plato. Fortunately Lloyd was more to the Plato side, and I hope Bernie can get the same thing down there."

Machen's most recent hire was two years ago. At Utah, he signed off on Urban Meyer, one of the hottest young coaches in America who, because of the tie, has been mentioned as a possible successor to Zook.

"My experience with president Machen was that he allowed me to do my job," Utah athletic director Chris Hill said in an e-mail to the Times. "He expected me to make well thought out, well-researched recommendations. Then, as he did with all major decisions, he either accepted or declined my recommendations. I don't care to elaborate because I know the respect president Machen has for the integrity of the search process."

Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley essentially served as a one-man search committee when Steve Spurrier resigned after the 2001 season. Then-president Charles Young signed off on the hiring of Zook, but it was clearly Foley's choice.

Foley will be the point person on this search as well, but the final decision will require two votes - one being Machen's.

A self described fair-to-middling high school football player, Machen joked this week that he played so long ago it was "back in the days before they wore helmets."

He's a sports fan - at least to some degree. He loves the St. Louis Cardinals and made a point of meeting with Foley Sunday afternoon to discuss Zook's future because he wanted to watch his team in the World Series that night.

On the other hand, while Florida was being upset by Mississippi State in Starkville Saturday, Machen was golfing in North Carolina. Someone called to tell him the outcome. As for the Florida-Florida State game, Machen has a previous engagement and may not attend.

So it's no surprise that he doesn't quite understand the obsession Florida fans have with their football program. He has hired two university vice presidents since he arrived in January, but neither generated the publicity or number of e-mails as the football program.

"Non-Floridians like myself have had to really understand just how passionate football really is to the people who call themselves the Gator Nation," said Machen, originally from Greenwood, Miss. "It's more intense than I've seen. I was in Chapel Hill for 15 years, and it may not be more intense than basketball is in North Carolina, but it is certainly more intense than football is in Michigan. So there seems to be even more interest here in football than any place I've ever been. One Gator fan wanted to tell me how big a place the Swamp was and I said, "Well, the Big House (Michigan Stadium) is 110,000.' It's this intensity and the focus on it that makes (Florida) different."

Machen's e-mails are buzzing. Many want him to rehire Spurrier; many don't. Some of those same people were screaming for Zook to be fired. Though Machen said he listened to fans and boosters in the past, ultimately that decision was "completely objective."

According to those who know him best, that's exactly what will happen when he hires a coach.

"I never found Bernie to be one who saw where three was and where two was and decided he better go with three because he saw that's where the most votes were," Roberson said. "He did what he thought was right even if it wasn't always popular. That's the way he is."

MEET BERNIE MACHEN

BORN: March 26, 1944, in Greenwood, Miss.

JOB: President of the University of Florida.

PREVIOUS JOB HIGHLIGHTS: Provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Michigan; president of University of Utah; U.S. Army major.

EDUCATION: Vanderbilt for undergraduate studies, doctor of dental studies degree from St. Louis University; master of science in pediatric dentistry and Ph.D. in educational psychology from Iowa.

FAMILY: Machen and his wife, Chris, have two sons and a daughter.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.