GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As Jeremy Foley spoke over the phone Monday afternoon on his last official day as Florida’s athletic director, he was already discussing his next challenge:
Finding where he had put everything after packing up his old office following a 25-year run leading the Gators’ athletic department.
“I told Scott it would be easier for me if I could just put a desk in his office,” Foley quipped. “My key fits there and I wouldn’t have to take down all my pictures. But I have a new office here, and I have a lot of stuff I’m looking for because I don’t know where everything is.”
Foley isn’t going far, nor is his shadow after an accomplished career as one of the most high-profile athletic directors in the country, but the Scott Stricklin era officially began Tuesday. The former Mississippi State AD formally took the reins in Gainesville.
For Foley, 63, the final day Monday was nostalgic and certainly emotional.
He attended football coach Jim McElwain’s news conference as usual and made his rounds from there, all the while reflecting on a career at Florida that actually spans 40 years in all. He came to the university in 1976 as an intern in the ticket office before becoming athletic director in 1992.
In the years since, he presided over the Gators’ rise to prominence as one of the most successful programs in the country with 27 national championships in 13 sports for Florida teams in that time.
“Yeah, hard not to have (some emotions), to be honest with you,” Foley said Monday afternoon. “This is where I’ve been going to work for 40 years and the last 25 as AD. This place has been my life. It’s been incredible. I’ve had an incredible run here, and obviously I’m not leaving town. I’ll be here to help Scott and help with some of the facilities (projects) moving forward. …
“A lot of people came by the office today and we’ve had a lot of laughs today. We’ve done so many things together, but not (surprisingly) there’s a little nostalgia because something good is coming to an end.”
Foley said his biggest source of pride from his tenure is seeing the stature of Florida athletics grow to what it’s become.
“I didn’t do this by myself, but I was part of it. But we took a program that was OK, that had had success in certain areas — no disrespect to all that — but wasn’t recognized as we are now with respect to all the programs,” he said. “You have to have success in all 21 sports and have to have the head coaches doing their job (in each). You can talk about the best athletic departments in the nation and have your opinion on that, but Florida has to be in the conversation.”
Foley took the top job a couple years after Steve Spurrier had taken over the Gators’ football program, and while the Head Ball Coach was turning Florida into a national power in that sport— ultimately capturing the 1996 national title — Foley was busy trying to do the same across the board.
He hired Billy Donovan prior to the 1996-97 men’s basketball season and watched that program win back-to-back national championships in 2006-07. He hired Urban Meyer to rejuvenate the football program after a lull, which he did with national titles in 2006 and 2008. He hired Kevin O’Sullivan to take over the baseball program prior to the 2008 season, and the Gators have since reached the College World Series five times.
And then there are all the successes in the non-revenue sports, which are almost too many to list.
Rhonda Faehn won three national titles coaching the gymnastics team from 2003-15. Foley and Florida decided to add a softball program in 1995 and recently won back-to-back titles in 2014-15. Becky Burleigh, one of his earliest hires, has led the women’s soccer program to a national title (1998) and numerous other notable achievements. The women’s tennis team has won six national titles since 1992, as has the men’s track and field team with indoor titles from 2010-12 and outdoor championships in 2012, 2013 and 2016. And the list goes on.
Foley is the only athletic director in Division I history to oversee a program that won multiple national titles in both football and men’s basketball, and the Gators’ 14 national championships overall since 2009 are tied for the most in the country.
As for disappointments along the way, Foley points to a couple of misfires on football coaching hires in Ron Zook and Will Muschamp.
Zook had the unenviable task of following Steve Spurrier and lasted just three seasons, going 23-14. Muschamp was in much the same boat. Following Meyer, he went just 28-21 in four seasons in Gainesville.
“Obviously when you sat in the chair that I’ve sat in for 25 years, you make some tough decisions and some of those haven’t worked out,” Foley said. “I’ve made some high-profile hirings in the sport of football that didn’t work out and I hate that. I hate it for those people. They tried hard to make it work, that being Ron and Will and their staffs. … There’s a lot of divisiveness and ugliness (that comes when the program struggles). For them and their staff and their family, you hate it turned out like that, but not all decisions are perfect. They’re made with good intentions. You wish they could succeed, but they didn’t.
“You wish you could bat 1.000 with all successes, but it doesn’t work that way. Anytime the program take a (hit) from a decision you made, you regret those for sure.”
For every Zook and Muschamp, though, there is a Meyer, a Donovan, an O’Sullivan and maybe a McElwain, who is 16-5 so far at Florida.
“When I made the decision I did (to retire), I said you want to leave when the stock is high,” Foley said. “And I think our stock is high.”
As for his successor, Foley has nothing but confidence in Stricklin, whom he had recommended to the university leaders and the search committee tasked with finding his replacement.
He calls Stricklin one of his best friends in the business and says there’s an “unbelievable amount of trust between us.”
Foley is going to stay involved, though his exact role is still to be determined. He said he and Stricklin had a meeting Monday and will continue to discuss how he can help with the transition and be a resource moving forward.
In the meantime, he has plenty to do while settling into “retirement.”
“In the short term there’s things I need to get done here in terms of fixing up my new office and unpacking some boxes,” he said. “The last three or four months I’ve gotten an unbelievable amount of mail and emails and I haven’t responded to any of them. People reach out and you want to get back to them.”
He rattles off some of the former Florida athletes who have reached out to him, like basketball star Mike Miller, PGA Tour golfer Billy Horschel, softball star Stacey Nelson and gymnast Bridget Sloan. He had just received an email Monday morning from former Gators wide receiver Chris Doering that really resonated with him.
Feeling he had an impact on the lives of the athletes makes it all worthwhile, Foley said.
He’ll have plenty of time now to reflect on all of those highlights and memories, and for all the emotions and nostalgia that came Monday, he said he has never second-guessed the decision to retire, which he announced back in June.
“I never have. I’ve never looked back. I think it’s right for me personally. I think it’s right for the organization,” he said. “It doesn’t make it any less emotional or difficult. At the end of the day, it’s the people I’m going to miss. …
“I’ve had a tremendous career. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world, but time moves on and this is good for everybody.”