By sticking with Will Muschamp, Florida AD puts legacy on the line
Less than two weeks ago, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley came out with a bold and wildly unpopular endorsement of coach Will Muschamp. Foley backed his hand-picked successor to Urban Meyer with the strongest possible statement.
"I'm a thousand percent convinced that Will Muschamp is the guy to lead this football program," Foley declared after the Gators suffered a 34-17 loss to Vanderbilt in Gainesville on Nov. 9.
In the wake of Florida's disastrous loss to Georgia Southern on Saturday, the worst in school history, many assumed Foley would retreat from his stance. But as the Orlando Sentinel reported Sunday and SI.com confirmed, Foley intends to stick with Muschamp for another season. In a college sports landscape filled with empty words (see any recent USC video press releases) and contracts that are merely suggestions, Foley appears ready to back up his statement.
Foley, who turns 61 on Dec. 1, is making perhaps the boldest and most controversial move in a career defined by them. With Florida sitting at 4-7, coming off the worst loss in school history and not heading to a bowl game for the first time since 1990, Foley is stiff arming convention and exposing himself and the program to the thorniest of 2014 seasons. As one former Florida staffer said on Sunday: "It's not a crisis, it's a nuclear meltdown."
It's only November and we already have the most compelling storyline of the 2014 season: How will Foley, Muschamp and Florida clean up the mess?
In an era of quick triggers and athletic directors making decisions depending on whichever way the wind is blowing, Foley is doubling down on Muschamp at a time when Florida State, Miami and UCF are all playing better football. The biggest risk is enduring another losing season and falling even further behind Florida State, which is sprinting toward a spot in the national title game. The same scenario happened in reverse order last decade, as Urban Meyer bolted past FSU while Bobby Bowden napped through his twilight.
Despite Florida's pathetic season, Foley's decision ties back to Muschamp's potential as a young head coach. Florida did go 11-2 last season, with Muschamp winning SEC Coach of the Year. The Gators were a whisker from playing for the national title, and in this reactive Twitter-centric world, Foley deserves some credit for holding the perspective that Muschamp can be as good as last year as opposed to as bad as this one. He's also one of the few athletic directors in the country with enough fortitude and stored up good will to make such a move.
Foley's hiring track record in football and basketball is highlighted by unconventional moves. Foley hired Billy Donovan in 1996 when many thought Donovan was too young. He swayed Urban Meyer to choose Florida over Notre Dame in 2004 when no one thought a spread offense would work in the SEC. (Those hires led to four national titles between the two). He even hired Ron Zook, an anonymous former assistant coach, to replace Steve Spurrier in 2002. (That was just bold, not good.)
In the quaint days before conference TV networks and $5 million coaching salaries, Foley's move to fire Zook in October 2004 was considered controversial because of its timing. In retrospect, it was genius.
"I don't want to advocate firing coaches, but if someone is headed down that road, I think it does help,'' Foley told me in 2006. "You need to do your due diligence, especially in a high-profile program where the scrutiny is going to be very, very high. I don't think I'll have to, but I would not hesitate to do it again."
As Florida has sputtered through this disastrous 2013 season, few thought that he would hesitate to take his own advice. But that's exactly what he's done.
The 2014 Gators should look much different because of a talent influx and staff changes. On Saturday against Georgia Southern, Florida played without eight players slated as starters heading into the season, including quarterback Jeff Driskel, defensive tackle Dominique Easley and tailback Matt Jones.
The biggest question inside the Florida program will be how many offensive staff members will be gone. The firings of offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis are considered foregone conclusions. (Former UF quarterback Kerwin Bell, the head coach at Jacksonville, is a big name to take over at offensive coordinator. Former UAB Coach Neil Callaway, now an assistant at Western Kentucky, is a strong candidate to coach the offensive line.) Is that enough to save the Gators? Will the defensive staff or strength staff turn over as well?
Interviews with a handful of industry sources over the weekend revealed that there haven't been any rumblings about Foley looking for a head coach. Staff changes are a guarantee, but the Florida head job hasn't come up on anyone's radar. Foley's track record shows that when he's going to make a change, as he did in deftly moving to hire Meyer and Muschamp, he has a plan in place. For now, there's no signs of Foley searching for a head coach. And with USC, Texas and Nebraska all potentially open, he'd have to have started back channel movement if he was going to replace Muschamp. So far, there are no signs of that.
It's worth remembering that when Meyer stepped down in 2009 for health reasons before later returning, Foley coveted Greg Schiano more than any other coach. Both Muschamp and Schiano appear safe despite rocky seasons. (Schiano, Tampa Bay's head coach, won his third straight game on Sunday to give himself some breathing room.)
The 2014 Florida season will play out a lot like USC's this fall, with every move magnified through the prism of a coach on the hot seat. If the Gators slip again, it could be an excruciating season filled with empty seats and heated vitriol.
Foley is regarded by many in college athletics as the most respected athletic director in the profession. And as Florida's bleak 2013 season crawls to a close, he's putting his legacy on the line by standing by his man.