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Push for perfection drives Florida AD

Athletic director Jeremy Foley says he's strongly committed to winning in all sports played at the University of Florida.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 21, 2001


GAINESVILLE -- The championships are piling up, the money pouring in. Florida's athletic facilities are second to none, its program about as successful as one can be.

This is good, Jeremy Foley says.

But not good enough.

"I enjoy the success that we have," Florida's athletic director says, seated amid glass and metal championship trophies in his spacious office. "But what matters to me is what's not going well."

This is the legacy of Jerry Schmidt. He was lacrosse coach at little Hobart College in upstate New York from 1968-78 and won three national championships. Foley played on his 1972 championship team, received his degree in 1974 and returned as a graduate assistant.

"Whenever I felt I was doing a good job, whenever I felt good about myself," Foley said, smiling wryly at the memory, "Jerry Schmidt would find something wrong and chew out my a--, to the point that I got gun-shy.

"That's really how I operate today. I spend much more time focusing on where we need to get better. It probably drives my staff crazy."

Whatever his staff has done, Foley probably has done it, too.

Foley was 23, armed with his bachelor of arts from Hobart and a master's of education in sports administration from Ohio University, when he arrived in Gainesville in August 1976. He needed an internship to complete his master's degree. The only offer came from UF. He began as a go-fer in the ticket office. When the ticket manager left six months later, Foley got that job. Then he became director of ticket and game operations, assistant athletic director, associate athletic director for business affairs, interim athletic director, senior associate athletic director and, on March 9, 1992, athletic director.

"Sometimes working your way up can be perceived as a curse to some, because I've done what they're doing and there's a tendency to want to micromanage," Foley said. "When I first got hired as the AD, no question I micromanaged. I work hard at not doing it now, but sometimes I fall into the trap. ... I don't want people making obvious mistakes. I'd rather deal with criticism that I'm micromanaging than have to deal with the mistakes."

Out of control

Foley runs a department with a $50-million budget that is the envy of his counterparts in the Southeastern Conference, and (justified or not) has sometimes earned their enmity.

Gator football brings in the lion's share -- $16.5-million in ticket revenues alone, in the 1998-99 fiscal year, the most recent available figures. Boosters contribute $12.1-million. An additional $15-million comes from "auxiliary and other income" -- concessions, radio and television broadcast rights, product licensing fees and so on. Other sports make up the rest.

The salaries he can offer his coaches ($6.3-million annually) can be very attractive to outsiders. Equally enticing is Foley's commitment to every sport, not just the moneymakers. It is not unusual for him to attend one event, wearing a headset so he can listen to a second and using his cell phone to call for the result of a third.

"The main reason I came here was Jeremy," said Billy Donovan, men's basketball coach since the 1996-97 season. "I felt very comfortable with him. I knew there was going to be a strong commitment to basketball, but he also made it very clear he wasn't concerned about having the best football program, the best basketball program, the best baseball program. He was concerned with having the best overall athletics program in the country."

Said football coach Steve Spurrier: "Jeremy treats every program and every coach as if their sport is just as important as every other one."

Last month Foley lured men's tennis coach Andy Jackson and baseball coach Pat McMahon from Mississippi State.

"It's out of control," said Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton, whose total athletic department budget is $15-million. "I don't know how you can control it in an open market."

Florida has more, and wealthier, boosters than most of the rest of the SEC, and Foley admits that more money gives him an unfair advantage. "I think that's inherent," he said. "When you're a competitor there's always a little bit of resentment. ... We're not going to flaunt it or be arrogant about it, but if we want a good coach we're going to pay to get a good coach, and if we want to recruit another coach we're going to recruit another coach, because that's what I get paid to do. ... I didn't buy (Jackson and McMahon). They wanted to be here."

He eliminates the battles

Mary Wise was an assistant volleyball coach at Kentucky before taking over Florida's team in 1991. "This was the dream job," she said. It still is, because "Jeremy wants his coaches recruiting and coaching. We don't have to fund-raise or battle for practice time and so on. Most coaches (elsewhere), they spend half their time and energy on it."

When Wise arrived, volleyballers were nomads -- no practice site of their own, sharing basketball's and always giving way. Foley said he would rectify the problem. In 1995, UF built a volleyball facility.

When Wise needed $30,000 in digital video editing equipment she braced for some fund-raising. Foley told her to let volleyball's 125 boosters work on endowing a scholarship instead. He came up with the money for the equipment.

"This is a guy who knows the names of our freshmen on the women's volleyball team," Wise said. "There are ADs who don't even know who their assistant volleyball coaches are. Most ADs don't know the names of athletes in non-revenue sports. He knows the names of who we're recruiting.

"It's easy to point at us and say it's the money. But I've always thought if Jeremy Foley was an AD at a Division III school he'd put as much attention and energy into women's sports as he does here.

"And he doesn't even have daughters."

Winning begets money

There was a time when a head coach routinely moved to athletic director, when being an AD meant mostly glad-handing and fund-raising. No more.

Foley is one of the new breed of AD. He knows little about coaching; what matters is his business acumen. The money is huge, with TV contracts to be negotiated and new facilities to be built. Athletic programs have become more diverse and complex with the addition of women's sports.

When Foley became chief financial officer for the University Athletic Association the program was $750,000 in debt. "We had to borrow money to make payroll in February before the ticket orders started coming in," he said. "And we had mediocre facilities. I think what was missing was the understanding what it took to compete at the highest levels."

That meant, he said, "running the business like a business." As the football program became successful, money became available to move the basketball program into the O'Connell Center. With seating capacity raised from 5,000 to 12,000, more money poured in and other programs were upgraded.

Among the improvements under Foley: construction of the Lemerand Center, housing a volleyball practice facility as well as baseball, volleyball, soccer and track coaches' offices; a new softball stadium, golf course and soccer field; new golf and basketball practice facilities; a renovated O'Connell Center; expansion of the north end zone of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and the stadium's just-begun $50-million expansion, including 3,000 skyboxes, undertaken without state funds.

Now virtually every UF sport competes at the highest level. The Gators have been in the top 10 nationally in all-sports rankings all 10 of his years as AD, the top five in eight years, and have won 53 SEC titles and seven national championships. Eleven of Ian Duvenhage's 13 men's tennis teams made it to the NCAA playoffs; the 1994 and 2000 squads won SEC championships. Not good enough. Foley fired him. "He said it was time to bring in someone to get it to the next level," Duvenhage said without rancor.

"Firing is the toughest thing you do," Foley said. "You know their families, kids. But if it's the best thing for the program, that's my job."

Living the dream

Few people in Florida are as high-profile as Spurrier, who arrived in 1990. Certainly not Foley. The impression might be that Spurrier tells Foley what he wants and Foley delivers. "It doesn't work that way," Spurrier said. "Sometimes one of my assistants will say, "Why don't you tell him to get this kid in school?' I tell them, "Fellas, I don't tell him what to do and he doesn't tell me who to play at quarterback.' ...

"There's little things we argue about at times," Spurrier said. Example: the 1996 Florida-Georgia game. Spurrier wanted wide receiver Ike Hilliard to play. Foley said he had missed too many classes. Hilliard sat. "Sometimes he can disagree with what we're doing, and that's fine," Spurrier said. "But we don't let it linger. We get over it quickly."

Foley's salary is $222,512. He receives free use of one car and is given an annual expense account worth $15,000, earns an annual public relations bonus of $28,500, draws $40,000 annually in stock investments, is given 24 prime football tickets at no cost, and will receive contract longevity bonuses worth $30,000 in 2003, 2004 and 2005.

There are few things about his job Foley would change if he could. "Fourteen months in a year would be helpful." He paused and grinned. "Maybe if athletic directors got paid the way football coaches do -- one in particular." Spurrier, the nation's highest paid coach, has a $2.1-million-a-year contract that runs through the 2006 season.

"When I was a kid," Foley said, "I wanted to be involved in professional sports. I grew up in New Hampshire and wanted to play centerfield for the Red Sox. If I couldn't play centerfield for the Red Sox I wanted to run the Red Sox. I don't run the Red Sox but I guess I run a big professional ... " He caught himself and grinned. "... Not a professional franchise but a big college franchise. I'm living my dream."

- Information from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was used in this report.

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