Just one year after hiring him, Florida has fired soccer coach Tony Amato, with athletic director citing “a disconnect with his players” as part of the reasoning in Florida’s release.
Florida posted a record of 4-12-4 in the fall of 2021, its worst in program history, regressing even from the 6-8-3 mark in the COVID-marred 2020-21 season that helped lead to the retirement of legendary and beloved coach Becky Burleigh, who was at that point Florida’s first and only soccer coach. Amato, hired from Arizona, was supposed to reinvigorate a program that had won a national title and 13 SEC titles under Burleigh’s watch but had fallen to mediocrity following a trip to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament in 2017.
Instead, Amato’s team bottomed out, starting the year 0-4-3 — with lopsided losses to powerhouse programs Florida State (5-2) and North Carolina (7-1) — before finally recording back-to-back wins over Kentucky and Mississippi State to begin SEC play.
The winning ways would be short-lived. Florida would go 1-6-1 in conference games after that start, its lone win afterward coming over an LSU team that also had a losing mark in conference play, and needed a dramatic shootout win to advance in the SEC Tournament over a Vanderbilt team that it never led during the timed periods of two matches — ones that went to overtime and double overtime, respectively — over the course of the season.
Despite the season’s results, though, Amato appeared to be set to continue as Florida’s coach, with the program publishing a video to its Twitter account on April 19 that depicts him showing his players around upgraded facilities.
Florida announcing his firing eight days later — and especially the way Stricklin’s statement about Amato is worded — is sure to raise eyebrows.
“This decision was extremely difficult. My thorough evaluation of the soccer program is that there is a disconnect between Tony and his athletes. We have worked diligently with Tony since last fall when I first became aware of challenges with relationship building and communication. As the issues continued to be brought to my attention, it became apparent that sufficient progress was not being made and Tony was not a fit for the University of Florida. Therefore, it is my assessment that in order to have the program we all expect, this change is necessary. I appreciate Tony’s hard work during his time here and wish he and his family the best.
“I fully recognize the disruption this causes our athletes and our program. We all wanted this to work, but ultimately it is my responsibility to do what is in the best long-term interest of this program, and thus this decision. We are totally committed to having an outstanding soccer program. I assure everyone this is extremely important to all of us as we begin the search for our new coach.”
If some of that wording sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Stricklin used similar phrasing — about “concerns ... brought to our attention” — in his most prominent public statement on former Florida women’s basketball coach Cam Newbauer, whose departure from Florida in June 2021 was not initially termed or framed as a firing and whose alleged widespread abuse of players in his program would not be revealed until reporting from Zachary Huber of The Alligator months later.
Prior to Wednesday, no similar reporting or public allegations of abuse were known to exist for Amato’s program. But Payton Titus, writing for Fresh Take Florida, published such a report early Wednesday afternoon, with allegations from unidentified players that Amato’s stated and implied preferences for tall, lean physiques in players led to a host of other issues within the program.
Titus’s report — which also notes that Florida has had significant turnover in its program since Amato’s hiring, with 17 players with remaining eligibility either quitting the team or entering the transfer portal — includes one player claiming Amato’s comments about and handling of players’ fitness and weight led her to develop an eating disorder and another saying that she considered suicide as a result of her experiences.
Another former Florida player said she fell into a depressive spiral playing under Amato during the fall. She said she gained 10 pounds and drank excessively on weekends. After Thanksgiving, when Florida’s frustrating season had finished, she said she considered deliberately crashing her car.
“He made me want to kill myself,” she said. “I wanted to die because of the way this man ran this program.”
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Florida continuing to present Amato as the face of its program as recently as just more than a week ago and then firing him today at least suggests that something has dramatically changed since then — and Stricklin acknowledging a “disconnect” between Amato and athletes and “challenges with relationship building and communication” while choosing now and not the end of the fall season or semester to part ways with him suggests that the program’s worst record ever was not going to result in his firing, but that something that has happened or been brought to light since has necessitated it.
The “since” there might be crucial to evaluating Stricklin’s handling of Amato. Titus reports that some Florida players and support staff “signed a letter to the university athletic association’s compliance office describing the team’s frustration with Amato’s conduct and concerns it would become worse” “one day after a 1-0 loss at home against Ole Miss that left Florida with a 3-6-3 record,” which dates the letter to October 4.
Titus also writes that “a UF athletic department therapist held a group session for players to air their concerns that Amato did not attend,” that Amato issued a general apology to players in a meeting on March 22, and that Stricklin promised in March that Florida would conduct a formal investigation and that Amato would take steps to repair relationships.
So what changed? Titus suggests media attention might be part of it. (Emphasis mine.)
Florida’s athletic director, Scott Stricklin, notified players of the decision regarding coach Tony Amato after only one season in a private meeting Wednesday. That came just before Stricklin and Amato were scheduled to discuss the complaints in separate one-on-one media interviews for an investigative news article that was to be published later this week.
Stricklin scheduled an afternoon press conference to announce the news, which he described as an “extremely difficult” decision. The university was careful not to describe Amato’s departure as a resignation or say whether he was fired. Amato abruptly canceled his media interview.
And media attention to Stricklin’s coaches has been intense of late. He has now had to fire all of the first three external hires he brought to Florida — Newbauer, football coach Dan Mullen, and Amato — in the span of less than a year, without any of the three men coaching into a fifth regular season in Gainesville, and while acknowledging problems those coaches have had in relating to other people in statements on two of the three dismissals.
The early reviews on his subsequent hires and promotions — of swimming coach Anthony Nesty, football head coach Billy Napier, women’s basketball coach Kelly Rae Finley, and men’s basketball coach Todd Golden — have generally been strong. But those are early reviews, and having as many hits as misses would leave Stricklin far, far short of the standard set by former athletic director Jeremy Foley, whose track record of hiring coaches proved almost unimpeachable outside of Florida’s football and women’s basketball programs.
(Whether Stricklin gets significant credit for elevating Nesty, hired by Foley hire Gregg Troy as an assistant before Foley’s retirement, is also debatable.)
Furthermore, Florida’s reputation as a relatively clean athletic program under Foley — the exception being a football program that has had a fair few scofflaws in its midst — was never marred by significant allegations of abuse or mistreatment of players. The public allegations about Newbauer’s misdeeds shocked and appalled large swaths of Florida’s fan base, but that was a scandal largely contained to a women’s basketball program rarely thought of by Gator Nation; if what Stricklin alludes to in his statement about Amato and the comments and conduct that Titus reports registers as similar things happening in the soccer program, similar dismay is likely to follow — and Florida’s soccer program obviously counts the outspoken Abby Wambach among its alumni, which could lead to a magnification of any issues.
There is, of course, a sunnier possibility. If Stricklin and the University Athletic Association that he leads were able to learn lessons from Newbauer’s tenure and intercede on the behalf of athletes before the typical tension and friction of a new coaching staff working with players turned into abuse or worse — and, though a coach managing his players’ weight and physical conditioning brusquely is certainly a thorny topic, it could certainly be argued that this alone did not rise to the level of abuse, or the equivalent of what Newbauer allegedly did — this could reflect procedures put in place after mishandling Newbauer bearing fruit and benefiting athletes and Florida.
Granting that as a possibility does not make it likely, though. And Florida — and Stricklin — are not currently likely to receive the benefit of the doubt from fans, especially because any transparency about Newbauer’s tenure has arguably been very limited at best.
If Florida wants to prove that it has done a good and difficult thing by firing Amato, being more open about not just why it has done so but the process leading to it — and any processes that will lead to the hiring of another coach who will not produce this result — would be a substantial effort that I suspect stakeholders would appreciate.
Admittedly, for a large segment of Gator Nation — one mostly comprised of fans who are surely primarily agitated this week by the travails of Florida’s football program on the recruiting trail — this could also end up being a footnote.
But for those who invest significant stakes in Florida being the Everything School that we dubbed it to be, this is likely to be yet another reason for concern about Stricklin’s stewardship of the Gators.