Jeremy Foley's surprising retirement as Florida's athletic director leaves one of the most powerful and successful athletic departments in college sports without a leader — or a single obvious candidate to replace the man who led the Gators for a quarter of a century.
Instead, Florida has three, none of whom may be the clubhouse leader for the role.
Those people are the athletic department's executive associate athletic directors: Mike Hill, executive associate athletic director for external affairs; Chip Howard, executive associate athletic director for internal affairs; and Lynda Tealer, executive associate athletic director for administration, who is listed under the "Women's Administration" header of Florida's staff directory.
All three have been at Florida for at least a decade. All three are thoroughly steeped in Foley's leadership style, and committed to the culture that he developed over his tenure as athletic director. Two of the three, Hill and Tealer, were hired under Foley's watch. And all three have cases to be Florida's next athletic director.
For Hill, that case boils down largely to the thing most important to any athletic department: Money. His background is in marketing, and since his arrival at Florida in 1993, he has spent much of the last two decades crafting and commissioning the marketing messages that have made the Gator Nation part of the national lexicon. Hill has also worked extensively with men's basketball, often helping shape schedules.
I've personally interacted with Hill, having spoken with him in a sports marketing class that I took and he guested in while at Florida, and I came away impressed by his command and knowledge of what was then an exceptionally fluid market for sports on television. Hill is also the most vocal of the three on social media, though none is exactly a chatterbox — for the very little it's likely worth, he was the first of the candidates to tweet out a message about Foley's retirement.
Simply put, you're the best. Thank you,Jeremy, for everything you've done for the #Gators and for all of us whose lives you've touched.— Mike Hill (@rmikehill) June 13, 2016
Hill, a graduate of North Carolina, will also occasionally give interviews, as he did to Adam Silverstein of Only Gators in November 2015. And while I expect all three to remain at Florida, if any of the three is truly a flight risk, it's Hill, who was briefly a candidate for athletic director at Clemson in 2012.
Howard is the longest-tenured of the three, having arrived at Florida in 1989, while Bill Arnsparger was still the Gators' athletic director. He's worked largely in internal improvements, and typically in operations and management; Howard could probably tell you more about the saga of getting the O'Connell Center renovated or future plans for tweaks to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium than Hill and Tealer, in other words, though he's certainly a bit less prone to give interviews than Hill is.
Howard's also been closer to Foley's right-hand man for football than his two fellow lieutenants, and works closely with the baseball team. (Like Foley, who was raised in New Hampshire, the Massachusetts-born and University of Rhode Island-educated Howard is a New Englander.) Longevity is obviously his best asset, though Howard is also the only one of the three associate ADs over the age of 50, and that might work against him.
Tealer, meanwhile, might be the most intriguing candidate. A former basketball player at San Diego, she's the only one of the three with a law degree (from Texas), and the one whose day-to-day job, as a sort of unofficial athletic director for Florida's wildly successful women's sports programs, has been most akin to Foley's.
Tealer's also known as Florida's contract specialist, and it was her presence in the traveling party that famously flew to Fort Collins, Colorado to hammer out the details of the complicated deal that pried Jim McElwain from Colorado State that signaled to some how set on McElwain Florida's brain trust truly was.
But despite spending more than a decade in Gainesville, Tealer has a decade less experience with the Gators than both Hill and Howard. And she's a bit more reticent with the press and publicity. Her private Twitter account has issued just 10 tweets ever, and an interview with her can be rather concise. In a 2012 Orlando Sentinel story about the 40th anniversary of Title IX, Tealer is quoted less extensively than Foley and about as much as her predecessor, Ann Marie Rogers, and in a 2003 Gainesville Magazine piece on her hiring, she's no more chatty.
Tealer's promotion to athletic director would be historic on many levels. She would be the first black woman to head an FBS athletic department, and the second black (following former Georgia AD Damon Evans) and first female SEC athletic director.
None of the three stands out to me as a particularly great choice relative to the other two, but none of the three feels like a bad choice, either. If I had to bet on one of the three becoming AD, I would lean toward Hill, who strikes me as more likely to want to shoulder the public-facing aspects of the job.
But I also believe that a promotion of one of the three might well be celebrated by the other two, and I was told even today that it might be more important to any one of them to stay together than to ascend to Foley's vacant chair. Such is the power and strength of the culture instituted and nurtured by Foley, one that Florida is poised to maintain after his departure, thanks to an athletic department that is staffed almost entirely with people hired under his watch.
And an internal promotion just makes the most sense. While Florida could seek an external hire for athletic director, the decision on whether to broaden the search for Foley's replacement is likely to hinge partly on who, exactly, will run it. Foley's presence as AD until October and as emeritus AD beyond then suggests to me that he will have some significant sway on picking his successor, and I'd imagine he would value continuity, or argue for its value.
While it's likely that wealthy boosters will be involved in the search in some way, I doubt that any one will have the pull to successfully insist on an external hire. I've also always thought that the occasionally rumored booster unrest with Foley was usually overblown message board chatter — Foley may not have been every booster's favorite friend, but he survived 25 years at a high-pressure job without ever dealing with a coup attempt that went public, to my knowledge, and that's difficult to do. Likewise, there's no groundswell to replace Foley with a completely new face that I know of, and I'd be surprised to learn of such a sentiment.
University of Florida president Kent Fuchs, the single person with the most sway (outside of Foley) on Florida athletics, also does not strike me as the type to disrupt an existing culture with an external hire. The disastrous tenure of former Texas athletic director Steve Patterson, an external hire whose hirings of Charlie Strong and Shaka Smart were seen as coups and whose alienation of virtually the entire Longhorns community with a variety of tone-deaf, penny-pinching moves led to a coup d'AD, would seem like an instructive cautionary tale in that regard.
Given all that, and what I have heard both over time and since this morning in speaking to observers of the program, I have gotten the sense that an external hire is unlikely.
Florida's next athletic director — whether Hill, Howard, Tealer, or someone else entirely — will surely find Foley's old job duties challenging, and the additional challenge of operating in his wake and his shadow, as Foley continues to aid the program as an emeritus AD, may only make that position harder. But thanks in part to Foley's skill in selecting talented people to work with, the Gators have three pairs of very capable hands on deck who could continue steering the ship.