Florida's Jeremy Foley started as an intern in the ticket office. He retires as arguably the best collegiate athletic director ever.
The message was a couple of days old by the time I played it. I hadn't been answering my phone that week in December 2006 unless the call related to funeral arrangements. My mother had died a few days earlier after a fight with cancer, and I didn't want to talk to anyone. But the voicemails had piled up, so I pressed play. All were from longtime friends and relatives—except one.
"Hi, Andy, this is Jeremy Foley…"
At the time, I covered Florida sports for The Tampa Tribune. Florida's athletic director had called me plenty for work-related reasons. We had a good working relationship. He didn't always like what I wrote, but I tried to be fair, and he appreciated that. He was always willing to answer questions—even difficult ones—and I didn't realize how much I appreciated that until a few years later when I began dealing with other athletic directors who seemed scared to talk.
Foley was known to place the occasional phone call to a reporter to yell about something he didn't like, but I knew this wasn't one of those calls. Foley had heard about my mom's death, so he called. I don't remember exactly what he said, but it felt reassuring. He had lost his mom in 1992 and soaked in the same stew of frustration, anger and sadness.
Less than three years later, I wasn't answering the phone for a much happier reason. My wife and I were celebrating the birth of our first child. When I cycled through the voicemails, there was another one from Jeremy Foley offering congratulations.
Foley didn't have to make those calls, but he made them anyway. He didn't have to learn the name and personal history of every employee and intern in Florida's athletic department, but he did it anyway. Foley also didn't have to fire winning baseball, gymnastics and tennis coaches, but he did it anyway and wound up winning bigger. That's how Foley handled his business during a 25-year run as Florida's athletic director that he has decided will end on Oct. 1.
In the process, Foley helped change the way everyone in major college athletics handled their business. Hired as the athletic director at a time when the job typically went to an ex-coach, Foley was a CEO who understood every facet of the athletic department because he'd worked at most of the jobs in the department. The Gators' success on the field and on the balance sheet made him the model for the ADs who came later. Monday, Foley announced his retirement. During his tenure, Florida's teams have won 27 national titles and 130 SEC titles. Not bad for a guy who only found the school because he really, really needed an internship.
Foley's tenure will be remembered as the time Florida established itself as a national power in nearly every sport it offered. He presided over the majority of Steve Spurrier's tenure in The Swamp. He brought Billy Donovan to Florida, and Donovan brought two basketball national championships. Foley will be forever dinged for hiring Ron Zook and Will Muschamp, but he also hired Urban Meyer, who brought Florida its second and third football national titles.
Foley arrived in Gainesville in 1976 to intern in Florida's ticket office. Florida ticket office manager Hardee McAlhaney had requested an intern from Ohio University's sports management graduate school, and the Bobcats sent him the only student in the program who hadn't secured the internship necessary to complete his master's degree.
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When McAlhaney picked up the 23-year-old Foley at the airport, Foley had come from home in New Hampshire, where he had been working a landscaping job. Foley had dressed for winter and landed in the sticky Florida summer. One of Foley's first tasks was to enter a room McAlhaney called "The Vault" and double-check every paper ticket for the upcoming football season against a master list. "He probably did ticket checks for a month," McAlhaney said in a 2006 interview. By the end of Foley's six-month internship, McAlhaney had taken a new job and Foley was hired to replace him. "I was happy as hell," Foley said. "I was making $11,000. I had a full-time job, and I was working in sports. I was thrilled at the opportunity."
Forty years later, Foley has made the most of that opportunity. He hasn't always been popular. The Zook hire launched the cottage industry of Fire[InsertCoach'sName].com sites. The Muschamp era had some donors ready to revolt. His decisions to fire winning coaches such as Andy Lopez (baseball), Judi Markell (gymnastics), Ian Duvenhage (men's tennis) and Pat McMahon (baseball, again) were locally controversial at the time, but those programs won bigger after each move.
Foley's last high-profile hire, football coach Jim McElwain, was criticized at the time, but those criticisms vanished when McElwain led the Gators to the SEC East title in his first season. Foley always demanded success from his coaches, and national titles in soccer and gymnastics meant as much to him as titles in football and men's basketball. "He was the first who said, 'Look, you're going to win in golf. You're going to win in tennis. I'll pay you, but you're going to win,'" former LSU baseball coach and athletic director Skip Bertman said 10 years ago. "And by God, they won every year."
Foley has most recently faced criticism for Florida's football facilities, which for years lagged behind their SEC counterparts. The Gators finally opened an indoor practice facility last year, but McElwain is pushing for a dedicated football building that more resembles the ones at other SEC schools. For years, Foley resisted building the indoor facility. Perhaps it was because the guy who occupied the office next door until 2001 made fun of the "big schools" that had them and kept right on winning games until he left for the NFL. Or perhaps it was because Foley didn't want to carry the same debt as the programs that went on building sprees. Former Florida president Bernie Machen loved that Foley kept the debt low and always kept cash in reserve, but that became an issue in an age when recruits expect waterfalls in the training room.
In many ways, Foley's athletic department still runs much as it did when the Gators were building up in the 1990s. The next AD likely will reorganize it to function better in the 21st century, but if that AD is smart, he or she will keep many of the policies that made Foley's run so successful. Pay well, but demand success. Care about every employee. Remember that the personal touches matter. Answer questions—even the tough ones.
No matter who gets the job, they'll be replacing the man who provided the model for the modern athletic director.