A 23-year old kid from Vermont, still looking for an internship to complete his Master’s degree at Ohio University, arrived in Gainesville in the summer of 1976. He had driven down with his father and had no idea what to expect. Little did a young Jeremy Foley know that double-checking paper tickets against a master list for the upcoming football season would lead to 40 years in Gainesville and a legacy that would include National Championships in 13 different sports.
“In all sincerity, when I came down here, and I laughed about the heat, usually when you’re raised in New England you stay in New England,” Foley said on Tuesday. “You’re a New Englander. That’s why I have a home in Vermont still. I thought when my internship was over I’d head back north and get a job. That’s what us New Englanders did … I would have told you you were crazy.”
Foley worked his way from a room known as “The Vault” to a full-time job at Florida in just months. He parlayed that first job to an associate athletic director job in just five years and in 1992, became the University of Florida’s Athletic Director. Foley, now 63, announced his retirement on Monday, effective October 1, 2016. The news came as a shock to the coaches he has hired and an outpouring of affection, gratitude and respect flowed throughout the day on social media.
When Foley became AD in 1992, Florida was largely known for mediocrity, cheating and scandals, all of which had led to sweeping changes both at the coaching and administrative levels. Foley recalls winning the Southeastern Conference championship in 1984. He remembers 50,000 people waiting in the stadium to welcome the team and celebrate the accomplishment. He also remembers it all being taken away.
“Two, three, four months later the trophy, the championship was taken away from us because the issues we were dealing with,” he said. “And I can remember back then saying to myself: What was that all about? I have a ring somewhere at my house that I could wear it but it doesn’t stand for anything because the championship was vacated.”
This stuck with Foley and it made him do things differently at Florida when he took over. Focus was placed on winning, sure, but not at all or any costs. “When we compromise ourselves to win a game, I don’t got it. I never got it,” he said.
“Jeremy is committed to the student athlete, and he puts a high priority on creating a culture of integrity and academic success,” University of Florida President Kent Fuchs said. “Since 2005, Florida has averaged an NCAA graduation rate of 85.2 percent, second highest in the SEC. UF has 105 Academic All Americans, the highest among sitting athletic directors during Jeremy’s tenure. A new facility that will open later this month is a testament to his tangible support for student athletes.”
He set off on his own path, with mountains of success but also failure. Foley didn’t hire Steve Spurrier, but the two became close friends and when Spurrier got the football team going, Foley made sure that the rest of the athletic teams in Gainesville fed off that success and reaped the benefits of it as well.
Foley took an interest in every sport at Florida.
“It’s just so important if you’re going to do things right and represent an institution like this and be a national brand, you got to be more than a one or two sports program,” he said. “That’s always been our philosophy.”
Foley also took risks, hiring young, up and coming head coaches. He relished being able to find a young coach and watch them flourish in Gainesville. There were miscues, or coaches that didn’t work out, most notably in football, but there were more home runs than whiffs.
“I was an assistant coach, never had head coaching experience,” head baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan said after Florida advanced to the College World Series. “At a place like Florida where they could probably pick and choose from a lot of different people, to go out and believe in me and give me the opportunity and our family the opportunity; I’m gratefully indebted forever. These opportunities don’t come around very often and I’m grateful that nine years ago he took a chance on an assistant coach.”
O’Sullivan is taking his baseball team to the College World Series for the fifth time in the last seven years. Foley brought Billy Donovan to Gainesville and Billy won two National Championships. He helped bring Urban Meyer, although he doesn’t seem to get credit for it, to Gainesville and Meyer delivered two championships.
Foley’s time in Gainesville will be highlighted by championships. 27 teams have won National Championships in 13 different sports under his watch, tied for most among sitting athletic directors. Foley is the only AD to have multiple football (1996, 2006, 2008) and basketball (2006, 2007) championships, and the athletic program has won 130 SEC championships during his tenure. He also oversaw a budget that grew from $30 million in the 1991-92 academic year to $119.3 million (according to a press release) for the upcoming season.
In his press conference on Tuesday Foley beamed and smiled like a proud parent when remembering the championships, recalled watching the men’s track team win an outdoor championship a few days earlier on his cell phone while at dinner. He’s built a powerhouse program in 21 sports and that is an accomplishment, but not everything.
For the man who has accomplished so much, the trophies are nice but the people behind them, the relationships with coaches, staff, players and even interns at Florida is what makes stepping aside hard. Foley choked back tears and needed a moment to collect himself when questions turned to those relationships.
“They’re walking into an incredible place,” Foley said when asked what he would tell his successor. “Not just championships and facilities and stuff. The people. Whoever takes over this year has no idea about the people. And that’s what I’ll tell them. I’ll tell them about the coaches. I’ll them about the commitment. The way we get along and the culture. How much fun it is. That’s what I’ll tell them.
“The people is what I’ll tell them [about] because we’ve got some really special people here.”