The Monday hiring of former Belmont coach Cameron Newbauer — Cam, from here on in — to replace the departed Amanda Butler as Florida’s women’s basketball coach was a swift pivot for the Gators from a reported failure to land San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon after a conspicuous pursuit.
But in Newbauer, Scott Stricklin’s first major hire as Florida’s athletic director, the Gators ended up with a coach not unlike most of the ones that Jeremy Foley made during his legendary tenure at the top in Gainesville.
Newbauer is 38. He has just four years of head coaching experience, all at Belmont. And he hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game — though that, at a school with zero NCAA Tournament victories in women’s basketball, was probably to be expected.
In 2015, when he was hired, Mike White was 38. He had four years of head coaching experience, all at Louisiana Tech. And he hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament with the Bulldogs — though that, at school without an NCAA Tournament appearance since 1991, was probably to be expected.
Newbauer was Florida’s first major hire under Stricklin. White was Florida’s last major hire under Foley.
And White wasn’t the only such relatively young coach with minimal or no head coaching experience Foley brought to Gainesville. That archetype is one shared by virtually every coach on Florida’s campus: White, yes, but also soccer coach Becky Burleigh, softball coach Tim Walton, golf coaches J.C. Deacon and Emily Glaser, tennis coaches Roland Thornqvist and Bryan Shelton, gymnastics coach Jenny Rowland, baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan, track coach Mike Holloway, cross country coach Paul Spangler, and volleyball coach Mary Wise — whom Foley didn’t hire, but whose career as a head coach at Florida is the only one to predates Foley’s elevation to athletic director and outlast his tenure.
Even Steve Spurrier — also not a Foley hire, but obviously Foley’s football coach for about a decade — fit the mold. He was 45 when he coached his first game in Gainesville, and had just four years of head coaching experience — two of them with the Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL — before Bill Arnsparger tapped him to revive the Gators.
The exceptions to the Foley Formula — the Florida coaches hired after either more than a decade of coaching experience or after they turned 50 — are few. Florida swimming coach Gregg Troy had spent almost two full decades coaching the powerful Bolles School program in Jacksonville before Foley imported him to coach the Gators. Lacrosse coach Amanda O’Leary had been Yale’s coach since 1994 when Foley hired her to helm the Gators in 2007. And Jim McElwain, 52 at the time of his hiring in 2014, is the very rare coach who has taken over a program in Gainesville after more than a half-century on Earth over the last three decades.
Foley mostly found success when following the rule of hiring young coaches and hoping they would become championship coaches in Gainesville. Burleigh, Thornqvist, Holloway, and Walton all have national championships to their name, as did former hires Billy Donovan, Rhonda Faehn, and Urban Meyer, who also fit the criteria. O’Leary, White, and Wise have all been within no fewer than three wins of a national title, while Rowland got the Gators to the Super Six in her first year, and seems poised to do so again this season.
But Foley’s two notable misfires on football hires came while arguably ignoring the formula — Ron Zook was 47 when he was hired, at the upper end of “relatively young,” and his recent experience was all in the NFL — and getting a bit too attached to it, as Will Muschamp checked every box for youth and promise, but had no previous experience as a head coach. A lack of head coaching experience is considered a bigger obstacle to success in football, inarguably the most complicated and cutthroat collegiate sport, than in any other sport, and Muschamp’s errors in his time in Gainesville were often blamed on mistakes of inexperience.
And, maybe most relevant to Stricklin’s hiring of Newbauer, both Foley’s tried-and-true formula and the most notable deviation from it under Foley failed to make Florida’s women’s basketball program a perennial contender.
Butler was as quintessential a Foley hire as could be: Not only was she a Gator great, much like Spurrier, but she had two years of significant success at Charlotte prior to her hiring, making her salable as a cross of Spurrier and Donovan early on. 10 years later, without a single Sweet Sixteen to her credit and with a parade of transfers out of Gainesville as her albatross, Butler’s time was unquestionably up this March, with no major arguments to retain her made publicly.
Prior to Butler, though, Foley had hired another women’s basketball coach.
Carolyn Peck was the deviation. Foley plucked her from the WNBA ranks, persuading her to move north from a job coaching the Orlando Miracle to Gainesville in 2001 — and, in so doing, landed a coach who had won a national title elsewhere before coming to Florida, a rare coup. (Of the above coaches, only Shelton had won one as a head coach prior to his time in Gainesville — and his was as Georgia Tech’s women’s tennis coach, making Peck the only Gators coach hired by Foley with a previous national title in the sport she was hired to coach.)
Peck was also, frankly, a disaster. The Gators made two NCAA Tournaments in her six years, but won only one game in them, and got blasted by 24 points by No. 11 seed New Mexico in 2006. In 2006-07, Florida went 9-22, bottoming out with a 13-game losing streak that featured 10 double-digit defeats, and Peck was on her way out, leaving behind enough of a nucleus to help Butler make the NCAA Tournament in her second season in Gainesville, but not enough to be remembered particularly fondly.
Part of that was due to Peck replacing the coach who had been the best in Florida’s program history, Carol Ross. Ross was another Arnsparger hire, but she would have fit the Foley Formula, coming to Gainesville at 41 and without a day of head coaching experience to her name.
Still, she made the Gators — a cellar-dweller in 1990, when she arrived — an NCAA Tournament mainstay, earning nine bids in 12 seasons, and led them to their only Elite Eight in 1997. When she resigned in 2002, it came as a surprise: She was Florida’s winningest coach, and had not had a losing season in her tenure.
Foley’s two subsequent hires had three — each.
Florida is further up the rungs of women’s college basketball than it was when Ross was hired, thanks to the progress Ross did and the faltering steps toward a stable foundation made by both Peck and Butler. At minimum, the expectations for the Florida program Newbauer takes over — one that has beaten SEC powers like Tennessee and Kentucky on their own floors in the last few years, wooed talented players like Ronni Williams and Eleanna Christinaki to Gainesville, and leaves reigning SEC Co-Freshman of the year Delicia Washington for Newbauer to build with — are higher now than they were a quarter-century ago.
Newbauer has a rich deal, and one with enough security to allow him to grow his program: Five years, $500,000 a year, per Pat Dooley, the richest deal any Florida women’s basketball head coach has ever had — a deal probably on par with the “lucrative” offer made to Hammon, as Florida flirted with deviating from the Foley Formula once again. Yet Newbauer, Florida’s first male women’s basketball head coach, will probably be viewed as a failing coach if he cannot make the NCAA Tournament within the next two years, and a failure if he’s not winning games in March by the end of those five years.
That’s a level of success commensurate with his compensation, one that would reflect him being an upgrade on Butler. And it’s a level of success that is attainable for a good coach at Florida, which will now have the Sunshine State’s most vital young coach at a time when the talent level in Florida and Georgia — home to 13 of the top 100 players in the Hoopgurlz rankings of the 2017 class — is high enough to sustain multiple programs, so long as coaches can keep some of those locals from heading to national powers. (Just two of those 13 top-100 players will be attending college in the Sunshine or Peach States.)
And given how well Newbauer’s profile matches those of wildly successful Florida coaches past, it’s not a huge stretch to see him finding that level, or one above it.
The problem with the Foley Formula, though, is that identifying and hiring rising coaches is far less exciting than compelling sure things to come from the mountaintop to Florida. Florida’s most exciting hires under Foley, relative to both program and national prominence, were probably Meyer, Peck, and Muschamp, in some order — and it’s easy to forget that Meyer, the most exciting of those hires, was still viewed with acute skepticism until his Gators started winning in 2006.
Hammon, as a hire, would have blown even Meyer out of the water, given her profile in the basketball coaching ranks. That’s how well-known and well-liked she is, and missing on her — after what seems like a whole-hearted pursuit that simply wasn’t quite enriching enough to dissuade Hammon from her dogged chasing of an NBA head coaching job — is missing on an opportunity to instantly make Florida’s program a national story in 2017-18 and beyond.
Newbauer isn’t and can’t be that exciting. Honestly, no other realistic candidate would have been.
But that doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t be successful.