We are entering what could be the final act of Jeremy Foley's career as athletics director of the Florida Gators — and because of how well the first few went, I'd argue it's the tougher one.
In 1992, when Foley took over after the departure of Bill Arnsparger, there was no way of telling he would be the architect who put the pieces in place to make Florida into a college sports behemoth. (Did you know Florida has won conference championships in at least four sports in all but two seasons since he became athletic director? You do now.)
But Foley hired Billy Donovan, plucking him from obscurity and getting a 19-year tenure full of unprecedented success. He hired a half-dozen other coaches who would win national championships, too, most notably Urban Meyer — who, yes, goes on Foley's ledger, even though it may disappoint "Fire Foley!" conspiracists who credit Bernie Machen with that move.
Now, Foley is 62 years old, regarded as one of the best and most powerful athletic directors in the country. And with a contract that will take him right up to retirement age, he's almost certainly a Gator for the rest of his professional life.
That life is about to enter its hardest stage. On Thursday, the program took one of four hits to the foundation Foley has put in place when Donovan stepped down to leave for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
It's just the most recent loss for Florida. As last fall played out, it became clear even to those who wanted to give him a fourth year that Will Muschamp wasn't the man for Florida's top football job, and so Foley hit the road to court Jim McElwain. Muschamp — who, in a perfect world, would have been the Nick Saban-taught savant some prophesied he could be, and Foley clearly hoped he would be — never panned out, and, thanks to that, some began to question if Foley had in fact lost his touch.
With that backdrop, McElwain came to a team lacking depth on offense, facilities up to par with his exacting standards, and a significant overhaul in support staff behind the scenes still ongoing. And, to be blunt, if Florida football doesn't get it going, the shallow perspective will be that the final years of Foley's career will not be looked at fondly: This is, of course, Florida, and football is still king.
But any Gator who cares about more than just Saturdays in the fall realizes that there have been other challenges for Foley of late.
This 12-month period of sweeping change really got going last April, when it was first announced that men's golf coach Buddy Alexander's 27-year run as Florida's longest-tenured head coach would come to a close. Alexander's teams won national championships in 1993 and 2001 to go along with eight conference championships, and he was honored as the SEC's Coach of the Year. His tenure was the second-longest in school history when it ended.
To replace him, in stepped J.C. Deacon — a man who was in kindergarten when Alexander started walking the links for Florida. In his first season, the Gators are doing just okay: They finished in middle of the pack in the SEC Tournament last week and outside of the top 25 nationally. The jury's still out on Deacon, though assistant John Handrigan did just win a prestigious award.
On McElwain, too, judgment must be reserved. He's done a lot of good so far, whether by energizing Florida's booster base and securing capital improvements for the football program, but he's coached one game with the Gators — the spring one.
Now, in the span of a week, two of the most successful coaches on campus have said goodbye to the Gators. First, gymnastics coach Rhonda Faehn went out on top, leaving for a major role with USA Gymnastics shortly after winning the program's third national championship in a row. Then Donovan exited, after four Final Fours, two national championships, and six regular season SEC titles.
Foley has made two hires in the last 12 months, and he will make two more in the coming weeks. But he may have to go get his fifth and sixth new head coaches in the not-too-distant future.
The Clemson Tigers may come calling for baseball coach Kevin O'Sullivan over the summer. O'Sullivan coached there as an assistant from 1999 to 2007 under Jack Leggett, but Leggett has come under fire in the last few years as the team hasn't advanced past the regional round in four seasons since getting to the College World Series in 2010. The Tigers are 23-21 in 2015, and aren't projected to make the NCAA Tournament, which may mark the end of Leggett's 22-year career. O'Sullivan will most certainly be a prime candidate for that job if it comes open, though Florida's arguably a better spot than Clemson; if he were to leave, Foley's tally for new coaches would be up to five.
There is also the matter of women's basketball coach Amanda Butler, who has been with the school for eight seasons and has largely underwhelmed, despite running a team with low expectations to begin with. Butler received an extension through 2019 this March, one that Andy referred to as a calculated risk, but it has to be noted that if the team has another down year, Foley might be replacing her as well.
The Florida athletic program right now is experiencing transition on a grand scale, and those waters are often very choppy. Florida hasn't had to hire new football and men's basketball coaches in the same season since 1990, when Arnsparger tabbed Steve Spurrier and Lon Kruger for the roles, and would be replacing more than a third of its 16 head coaches over a two-year span (and eight over three years, dating back to the 2013 hires of Emily Glaser (then Bastel) as women's golf coach and Bryan Shelton as men's tennis coach) if all six of those potential transitions come to pass.
This is the monumental task as the twilight of Foley's 23-year career as AD nears: Not getting the program to the top, but keeping it there, with the weight of expectation as heavy as Atlas' celestial spheres and the uncertainty of what new blood in the program will bring seeping into the conversation about his legacy.
"If you build it, they will come," that old Field of Dreams aphorism, rings true here: Foley's certainly built a powerhouse. And if he does it right, these should be the last head coaching hires he'll ever have to make.
But either way, what Jeremy Foley does next will likely be what we remember first when the curtain gets drawn on his final act as Florida's AD.