The Best In The Business
University of Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley implemented and fostered a plan that has fashioned Gators athletics into a model of consistency – and the envy of the nation – on and off the field.
COACH: You were born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in New London, NH. How did you spend your time as a youth in New England?FOLEY: In the summertime I played baseball. In the wintertime I did a little skiing and played around in the snow; whatever you did as a little kid. I played Little League, Babe Ruth, American Legion, and high school. I went to Holderness School, a prep school in Plymouth, New Hampshire. I was a catcher. I loved baseball.
COACH: Your resumé is very interesting. Not only were you the former lacrosse coach at Hobart College, your alma mater, but in 1976, you began your career at Florida with an internship in the ticket office before moving up the administrative ladder and becoming athletic director in 1992. How have your previous experiences help prepare you for your current position?
FOLEY: I get asked that question a lot. If you wanted to bore yourself and look at my entire resumé you would see that I’ve done a lot of different things here. On my way up I ran games, I put together bowl game trips, I sold tickets, and I ran the business office. So I think it helps me understand what our people are going through and what they are dealing with. I think it helps me become a better manager because I understand what their job entails. Obviously along the way I have learned a lot of things as well, in terms of dealing with people and making decisions or what have you. I was blessed that I was given a lot of different opportunities up the ladder.
I think it’s real important to learn all aspects of administration for any aspiring athletic director. An athletic director has to understand the ticket business because that’s how we all make our money. It’s also obviously important to learn how buildings are built and how to run ballgames. I very much believe this is a pay-your-dues profession. The experiences I’ve had have helped me to do my job here as the director of athletics.
COACH: After graduating from Hobart in 1974 you earned your Master’s in Sports Administration from Ohio University two years later. That being said, how important and relevant is it to aspiring athletic administrators to have an advanced degree in collegiate and sport management?
FOLEY: I’ve always encouraged people to do that. I think it’s really important, for a couple of reasons. Number one is, a million people want to work in sports. I get resumés all of the time from people who like sports and watch a lot of sports, just like I did. They read newspapers and all of the magazines like The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated. So you have to do something to separate yourself from the masses. And I think the Master’s degree helps you do that. I also think in intercollegiate athletics, the advanced degree is important. When I applied for the job here one of the requirements was having a Master’s degree. Otherwise I couldn’t even have applied. On more and more college campuses, especially, the advanced degree is going to be required. I also think the extra year of training helped me take some courses that I had not taken as an undergraduate. I don’t sit where I sit today if I hadn’t done all of that, in my opinion.
COACH: As the A.D., you are the face of the athletic department in Gainesville. But you’re only as good as the staff you oversee. Tell us about the chain of command at Florida and how you delegate responsibility?
FOLEY: I may be the A.D. but I have no shot at being successful if I don’t have a great staff. I have several associate A.D.’s and assistant A.D.’s who, in essence, help run the program. They oversee every sport except for football and men’s basketball, which I directly supervise. But it’s a team effort. We’re all in this thing together. I am very much a delegator. When I first became the A.D., I was very much a micro-manager because I had done all of those different jobs. So I had to learn to delegate. When you delegate, you show people you trust them. When you delegate, they grow. And when you delegate, you are much more effective as an organization. Our success is due to the fact that we have a lot of quality people working here.
COACH: You were recently honored with the 2007 John L. Toner Award, as chosen by the National Football Foundation and the College Hall of Fame, Inc. It is designed to honor and acknowledge outstanding athletic directors who have demonstrated superior administrative abilities, especially in the area of college football. What does the award mean to you? Does it have any special significance?
FOLEY: The significance is that it recognizes the total program. Obviously as the A.D., I’m the one that gets the trophy. But as I said before, you’re not getting the trophy unless you have good staff people. You’re not getting the trophy if you don’t have quality coaches. You’re not getting the trophy if you don’t have quality student-athletes. Just as I said earlier, we are in this thing together. I’m honored that the University of Florida was honored. Certainly it’s an honor for Jeremy Foley. I don’t want to minimize that, but more importantly, it’s an honor for our institution. In essence, that’s what it really is.
COACH: Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan caused a big stir last summer when he accepted the head-coaching job of the Orlando Magic before rescinding and returning to Gainesville. How did you deal with that situation? As a follow-up, college athletes are penalized if they want to transfer, be it a coaching change or playing time, yet coaches can basically come and go as they please if the price is right. How, as an A.D., do you justify this double standard?
FOLEY: I’m not sure that’s apple and apples. Coaching is a profession; it’s a job. Coaches have opportunities to move. And in other places it may be better. They may have not had that choice beforehand. I just don’t think it’s the same. I understand the conversation. But what I don’t think people realize is that if players could transfer without sitting out a year the recruiting process would never end for these kids. They would be inundated: “You’re not playing.” “There is somebody ahead of you.” On and on and on and on. I think the rules are in place to protect the kids as much as it is to protect the institution. So is it a double standard? I could see how people say that. But I don’t think it’s the same thing. When kids pick your school, they’re picking you. They have a lot of different opportunities. They could have made a different decision on the front end. That’s not necessarily always the case with the coach. The institution is picking the coach.
COACH: How did Coach Donovan’s situation personally affect you? How did you and the university deal with that internally?
FOLEY: Obviously when he first made the decision to leave there were a lot of emotions involved. Not only as our coach but also on a personal level. He’s a very good friend. I hired Billy and have seen him develop into one of the country’s best basketball coaches. It’s been fun. I think I said that the day he announced he was leaving. We’ve had a lot of fun together. And when something good ends, it’s sad. So there were a lot of emotions on the front end. And conversely, when he called me and said he had changed his mind, there were a lot of happy emotions. I knew there was going to be a lot of negativity and a lot of legwork in order for him to get out of his contract with Orlando. But at the end of the day it was best for the University of Florida.
How you deal with it is simple. You deal with it because coaches leave. Coach [Steve] Spurrier left. One day Billy will leave. I hope no time soon. One day Urban [Meyer] will leave. I hope no time soon. You never want to lose quality coaches. So the professional part then kicks in. You can’t let the emotions override you. When Billy decided to come back then there was some anxiety because you wanted to get it over with and you wanted him to get to the legal situation with the Magic. More than anything else you wanted it over for him because it was a very difficult time for him. As I said before, not only is he my coach, he’s my friend. And I knew he was hurting. In the end you just deal with it by taking it day by day.
COACH: Depending on who you talk to, Title IX is responsible for cuts in non-revenue sports (like fencing, soccer, and wrestling) or Title IX is being used as an excuse by athletic departments to justify cutting non-revenue sports and reallocating that money to the big ones (football and basketball). There’s no shortage of examples of both sides, but in recent years it seems that it’s more to generate a profit for the athletic department. Rutgers has been cited as an example: cutting the rowing team and some other sports on the heels of a successful football and women’s basketball year. What is your take on this? Is there any validity to this argument?
FOLEY: I’ve never been a believer that you can blame Title IX on reductions. Maybe financially you can. At the end of the day, Title IX may be a legal obligation but to me it’s a moral obligation. Certain men’s sports don’t make any money either. Certain men’s sports are expensive to run as well. But you have got to have to equal opportunities for women. I don’t know how you have a conversation; look a woman in the eye, look a daughter in the eye, or look a sister in the eye and say, “Well, your sport isn’t as important or you’re not as important.” Obviously it’s a financial conversation because to have equal opportunity costs money. But you still have to have it. If it means that there are some sports that get eliminated on the men’s side, there’s not a lot that protects the men’s sports. There’s a law that says you have to do what’s right by the women. And as I said, to me, that’s a moral obligation. It is what it is.
For the longest time you’ve had women’s sports that have been under-funded. You’ve had women’s sports that have not been getting the right priority. You’ve had women’s sports where the facilities are abysmal. You’ve had women’s sports that have been treated as second-class citizens. That’s just not right. So that part has to be fixed. And if it means taking away from another area of your program or your university, that’s what you have to do.
COACH: What are the greatest challenges currently facing athletic directors?
FOLEY: Ensuring that the academic focus is appropriate. I think everybody thinks that everybody is going to make a living at the next level and so few people do that having the right priority for academics is always going to be a challenge. I think there are financial challenges. There will be financial challenges at our level, the high school level. Every university in this country is dealing with financial issues. Every athletic program in America deals with financial issues. Some have an easier way of dealing with them, the University of Florida being one of them. We’re blessed to have a very strong financial base. But I think financial problems will always be out there.
COACH: Last season, two college football coaches – Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy and former Navy coach Paul Johnson (now with Georgia Tech) – had highly publicized confrontations with members of the media. What is your take on the coach-media relationship and how do you handle uncomfortable, perhaps probing questions regarding your players, coaches, and your programs?
FOLEY: First, to each his own. I’m not going to comment on Mike Gundy or Paul Johnson. They don’t work here. Besides the fact I know them by who they are. I don’t know anything about them. In the business we’re in, the media covers us. The media is a big part of what we do. You need to have a professional relationship with the media as much as possible. I don’t always agree with the media. As far as disagreeing with the media, I’ve learned through the years that it’s not that big a deal. The only time I have a problem with the media is when they do not tell the truth or they are not accurate. Because I think they have a responsibility to do that. Just as I am talking to you, I need to tell you the truth. I just think that is basic human decency. Trying to work with them, trying to return their phone calls, making your players and coaches available, I think it’s important. It’s part of what we do.
COACH: What is your administrations policy regarding unethical coaching behavior?
FOLEY: It depends. Hopefully, we don’t have coaches cross that line. We have a low tolerance for unethical behavior, whether it’s not telling the truth, breaking NCAA rules, or not being truthful to me. Zero tolerance is probably about as close as you can get. People do make mistakes. The NCAA rulebook is about 900 pages. There is a difference between making a mistake and potentially breaking the law or a rule.
COACH: You are solely responsible for the football and basketball programs. That being said, what do you look for when hiring a coach? Are there certain characteristics or intangibles that you prefer?
FOLEY: A lot of different things. I don’t think there is any particular order: high energy, high passion, high integrity, and high character. Both Billy Donovan and Urban Meyer have those qualities. When it comes to recruiting, can I picture them in somebody’s living room selling them on the University of Florida and all we have to offer here in terms of academics and athletics? I like somebody that fits in here. Do they pay attention to other sports? Obviously football and basketball are very important, but around here volleyball, soccer, baseball, tennis, track, golf; they’re all important. I like coaches who can fit in. I don’t want coaches who think their sport is more important than another sport. I look for someone who I would term as just a good guy, somebody you would like to hang out with. I think that helps your institution if you have that type of person. I’ve been here a long time, so you kind of get a sense of what kind of coach would fit in at the University of Florida. Some good coaches aren’t a fit.
COACH: As the Chief Financial Office for the University Athletic Association (UAA), you have been the driving force and directly responsible for more than $180 million in capital improvements as well as an overhaul and expansion to many of the on-campus sports facilities. How have you been able to perform such a yeoman effort in an era of budget restraints? What are some of the more creative fund-raising initiatives you have implemented?
FOLEY: As I said earlier, we are just blessed to be an institution that has a tremendous fan base. We have a large football stadium that is full every Saturday. We have a number of priority seats that costs some pretty significant dollars in order to sit there. We are blessed to be in a conference that generates significant dollars through bowl participation. We have a booster organization that is second to none – the amount of money they raise. We’ve been able to meet those challenges because we’ve had fans step up. At the end of the day it’s a loyal committed fan base because regardless of the record, they are still buying their tickets and they’re still making their donations. Obviously, when you are winning all of those things are easier. When you have the resources you can be committed to the facilities, you can be committed to women’s athletics, and you can be committed to making sure everyone has comparable facilities. That’s what we try to do here at the University of Florida.
The bulk of our fund-raising is tied into our football seats. Last year we had “100 Years of Gator Football” and that can only happen once in a lifetime. And we had a huge dinner where we sold tables for $50,000 a pop and sold 120 of them. We raised $6 million in one night. Former athletes like Danny Wuerffel came back. Coach Spurrier came back. It was a big-time deal. So we took advantage of the tradition and history of our program. It was a special night. We held it the night before the Alabama game. Everybody thought we were crazy but through the work of a lot of dedicated people we were able to sell all of those tables.
COACH: As of this interview, the University of Florida is the home of the two-time defending men’s basketball champions, the reigning football champs, and the 2007 Heisman Trophy, bestowed upon Tim Tebow, the first sophomore to win the prestigious award. How do you summarize the unprecedented sports achievements that have transpired over the past two years?
FOLEY: It’s special for the institution, special for the fan base, and special for all of us who work hard here and take a lot of pride in the Gators. It’s almost-shake-your-head type unbelievable. We also recognize that those days are short-lived because as you said, as of this interview, because obviously we are not playing for a national championship in football and the basketball situation is a long way off. So I think we have enjoyed the moment and recognize that it took a lot of hard work to do it. And if we are ever going to come close to doing it again we better keep working hard and not think that we are better than we are. How we summarize is that it’s special for a lot of different people. But I think we have handled it the right way. I think we’ve tried to stay humble, which I think you’re supposed to do. We’ve enjoyed it but we’ve moved forward. We still have things we need to get done.
COACH: Are you for or against a Division I college football playoff system? And why?
FOLEY: I go against my president and my coach on this, but I’m a no guy. I like the bowl system. I think it’s good for college football. I just think at the end of the day this game is for the kids. When you see the 32 or 34 teams, whatever it is, at the end of the year running off the field, and they’re winning, and they get to go to some city they’ve never been to before, and get sweatshirts and watches, and they get to pour Gatorade on their coaches. I think that’s good. I think that’s healthy. And I think when it comes to the national championship, sure, there is going to be controversy here and there, but over a 12 game schedule it usually gets worked out. It worked out for us last year. Can it be tweaked? Can you play one more game? Okay. As long as it doesn’t hurt the bowl system I would be in favor of that. But I just think bowls are really important to college football.