Jeremy Foley will retire as Florida athletic director, leaving his current position on October 1, Florida announced Monday. The Associated Press' Mark Long broke the news minutes before Florida released it.
"You always want to leave an organization in good shape," Foley said during a 30-minute interview in his Ben Hill Griffin Stadium office Friday morning. "Right now, we obviously have a great group of coaches, we have had a good year and we've got things moving in the right direction. I just think that makes it a good time to transition."
"I want to do what's right for Florida. That's why I have spent a lot of time thinking it through. And I want to make sure everyone understands this is my decision. I'm not sick; I'm not dissatisfied; I'm not getting pushed. It happens to all of us. The time comes."
Foley, 63, has been Florida's athletic director since March 1992, and has presided over arguably the greatest sustained run of success in college athletics in the history of the endeavor. Under his watch, Florida Gators teams have won 27 national championships in 11 separate sports (counting indoor and outdoor track as distinct), in 17 of the 25 academic years he has been Florida's athletic director, and in each of the past seven seasons.
Prior to Foley's tenure, Florida had won just nine national titles.
Foley did not hire Steve Spurrier, the man most closely associated with Florida's rise as a football power in the 1990s, but worked closely with him while he was in Gainesville, and worked to honor him after his departure, first with a statue outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, then with his name on the stadium itself.
He also did not hire men's golf coach Buddy Alexander, who captured two national titles under Foley, nor women's track coach Beverly Kearney, who piloted the women's track program to Florida's first national title under Foley, nor Andy Brandi, whose women's tennis program won the Gators' second national title under Foley, then two more before his departure.
The other seven coaches who have combined to lead Florida to 20 national titles under Foley? Those were all his hires, from Becky Burleigh, still Florida's only soccer coach, to Billy Donovan, a future Basketball Hall of Famer, and from Rhonda Faehn, who left Florida after three straight titles to help mold Olympians, to Mike Holloway and Gregg Troy, who have split time between coaching the Gators and the United States.
One can leave Urban Meyer out of a list of Jeremy Foley's hires and still leave that paragraph stuffed.
Florida has never won the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics' Directors' Cup under Foley, a distinction that he will probably be frustrated about for the rest of his life. But it has also never finished lower than seventh for the award, which has existed since 1993-94.
The only SEC school to ever finish ahead of Florida in that competition — one Foley privately aimed for yearly, despite a scoring system that heavily favors Pac-12 teams like Stanford and UCLA which field a greater number of varsity programs, like men's and women's water polo and fencing teams — is Georgia, which has only done so twice. And Georgia is also the only team to break Florida's iron grip on the SEC All-Sports Trophy under Foley — something it did just once in his 25 years, while Florida racked up 15 sweeps of the overall, men's, and women's SEC All-Sports awards, 15 more than any other school in the conference has ever had.
For most athletic directors, Donovan, who built the only basketball program in the country to win back-to-back national championships this century before decamping for Oklahoma City, would be an inarguable best hire.
But Burleigh's upstart Gators all but ended a North Carolina dynasty in women's soccer, and Burleigh recruited and coached Abby Wambach, arguably the greatest American soccer player ever. Roland Thornqvist has led Florida to three women's tennis titles. Faehn built a powerhouse that fell just short of four consecutive titles on either end of a three-peat. Urban Meyer won two national titles in three years, and brought in Tim Tebow, perhaps Florida's most beloved athlete ever. Tim Walton has built Florida softball from mediocre SEC outfit to national leader. And Holloway leads all Florida coaches with six national titles, all of them this decade, none more unexpected than the last, which came just days ago.
Foley has, simply, hired — and worked with — too many coaches who have become titans in their field to single out any one as his unquestioned best decision.
His worst decisions are easier: Hiring Ron Zook and Will Muschamp to replace Spurrier and Meyer produced ebbs in Florida football. Though both coaches left Florida with winning records, and Muschamp left with a Sugar Bowl berth, neither won the SEC East in their combined seven seasons in Gainesville — and the colossal expectations begat by the glorious and unprecedented heights that Spurrier and Meyer found while summitting mountains made sitting just higher than base camp untenable for Gators fans.
In truth, those expectations speak to, and maybe constitute, Foley's legacy. He has built an athletic program that continued a path to greatness late athletic director Bill Arnsparger helped chart out of NCAA-mandated darkness in the late 1980s, and taken it to heights so dizzying that fans can legitimately expect the Gators to shoot the moon.
Florida, after all, remains the most recent program to break through for a national championship for the first time in both football and men's basketball, a fact that some Gators fans who treat competing for titles as a divinely ordained right would seem to either forget or not know in the first place.
Of course, given that Florida is also the only program to win both in the same academic or calendar year, and did so just one decade ago, that sort of presumptuousness is really just par for the course.
Foley was integral to Florida before Arnsparger was hired from LSU in 1987, rising in the athletic department to a spot where he could serve as interim athletic director at 33 after Bill Carr's departure in 1986, at the end of Florida's two-year ban from appearing on national television as a result of sweeping NCAA violations committed by Charley Pell's football staff. He arrived at Florida in 1976, serving first as a ticket intern, and worked his way up without ever leaving Gainesville in the 16 years between that arrival and his permanent installment as athletic director.
Perhaps those humble roots are part of why Foley has remained beloved by current and former staff, and why he retains a human touch that includes holding doors for and remembering the names of even the lowliest members of Florida's sprawling athletic department, which annually rakes in revenues north of $100 million.
Surely, that dark period in the 1980s has much to do with Foley's strenuous efforts to maintain a clean bill of health for Florida. The Gators' lack of major NCAA violations and reputation for strict NCAA compliance are both points of pride for the program, which quiety adopted "A Championship Experience with Integrity" as its slogan in recent years, and includes a goal no less lofty than "Be the model collegiate athletics program" in its vision statement.
No one person has ever done more to make the Florida Gators just that than Foley, though the man himself would probably argue that Donovan, Meyer, and especially Spurrier — at least — have done just as much. And for him, a retirement at 63, while he remains healthy and capable of seeing the world — and capable, many thought, of continuing his work at Florida for many years to come — is a fitting end to the career of a man whose work never ceased to be a credit to the University of Florida.
"What must be done eventually must be done immediately," Foley said of firing Zook in 2004. That quote became both an albatross and a cliche, and it was said about a difficult decision that set a precedent for early parachute pulls on failing coaches, something that discomfited Foley for years.
Still, it's not hard to imagine that Foley recognized recently — per an interview with Florida writer Scott Carter conducted Friday and posted Monday, retirement has been on his mind for months — that he was, in fact, going to have to eventually leave a role he has performed brilliantly for a quarter-century, and decided that it was best to do so on his own time, on his own terms, and sooner than anyone expected.
Foley is remaining through October to help get facilities planning done, as he explained in Florida's release.
"I want to get some of the facility planning off the ground because I've looked some coaches in the eye and told them we are going to do some things. I'm not going to back out on my word on that,'' Foley said. "I feel really good about that."
Foley expanded upon that topic in speaking to Carter.
I've still got work to do for the University of Florida. I've got work to do for some coaches. I'm talking about building buildings. I'm talking about living up to commitments to (Jim McElwain), to (Kevin O'Sullivan), to Tim (Walton), to some other folks. That's what we're talking about doing here. Those commitments are really important to me.
It's most likely that Foley is alluding to new or revamped facilities for Florida's baseball and softball teams, as he's spoken openly about the need to expand a softball stadium that is packed on most home weekends, and reportedly made a commitment to keep baseball coach Kevin O'Sullivan around that is presumed to be tied to significant facilities upgrades.
But an October 1 retirement means that Foley won't be Florida's athletic director for the opening of the remodeled (Exactech Arena at the) O'Connell Center, and that, by Halloween, Florida will have turned over its athletic director, football coach, and men's basketball coach in a span of just under 22 months.
Foley will remain as emeritus athletic director, and will surely be a useful resource for whomever succeeds him, though his presence in town and in the program will cast shadows similar to ones that writers have loved to cast aspersions on over the years, as Foley's hands-on and vocal style grated on more than one football coach. His successor would seem most likely to come from the staff he has assembled, and specifically from the three-person team of associate athletic directors — Mike Hill, Chip Howard, and Lynda Tealer — that has served as his brain trust in recent years.
Jeremy Foley will never, however, be replaced.
Florida's next athletic director will be able to see to the horizon in any direction, and could conceivably take the Gators ever further and higher. That person will be able to do so because the foundation of the program now sits on the shoulders of a giant.