“At the end of the day, there's always another championship, there's always another game, but your integrity … there's nothing worth that.” – Jeremy Foley
The day Jeremy Foley vacates the athletic director’s office at the University of Florida, those words should be forged in steel and bolted to the entrance of every athletic venue on campus. They are that important.
On September 30, when Foley walks away from the only job he ever really wanted, most people will speak glowingly of the national and SEC championships as they should, but more important, they should remember the 25-year record of transforming the image of the entire athletic program from the outhouse to the penthouse. When Foley took the AD job from Bill Arnsparger early on in 1992, the national perception of the Florida Gators was an athletic program that cut every corner and broke every rule.
Tuesday at his retirement announcement press conference, Foley recalled those dark days.
“When I first got here, all anybody wanted to do was win one Southeastern Conference football championship, just one,” Foley said. “In 1984 we won one up in Kentucky. We flew back into Gainesville. There were 50,000 people in the stadium waiting for us.
“There were parades, people lining the streets of Gainesville, and it was an unbelievable night. For those of you that were there, you remember; it was an unbelievable night.”
A couple of months later, the Southeastern Conference took the unprecedented step of stripping the championship from the Gators because of 109 NCAA rules violations that had forced UF to fire Charley Pell three games into the season. Other SEC schools had gone on probation following a championship year, but they kept their championships.
“Two, three, four months later the trophy, the championship was taken away from us because the issues we were dealing with,” Foley said. He was an associate athletic director to Bill Carr in those days. “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 but it doesn't stand for anything because the championship was vacated.”
In the fall of 1989 Galen Hall lost his job as the football coach and Norm Sloan was fired as the basketball coach over more run-ins with the NCAA. Florida’s first even SEC basketball championship won in the spring of 1989 was forever tainted. Steve Spurrier took over as Florida’s football coach in 1990 but those Gators paid quite a price. What the NCAA accused Galen Hall of doing happened before any player on the 1990 roster had ever played a down for the Gators but Florida’s reputation as an outlaw school allowed the NCAA to deny a bowl game and the SEC to deny UF a chance at winning the league title. Even though the Gators had the best record in the SEC, there was no championship trophy to go in the case.
Those were dark days for the entire Gator Nation, days that Jeremy Foley never forgot. Even though the events of 1984 and 1989 occurred before he succeeded Bill Arnsparger, they were burned into his memory and shaped the philosophy that has been the cornerstone of his 25 years as the man making the tough calls for the Florida athletic program.
“I always thought we were a program that had two strikes against us,” Foley said. “I told my staff often: We're not going down the three strike route, the place that it is too important to this institution to run this, to run this right. So it was a constant message. Obviously we have coaches and staff who buy into that and that’s the key.
“At the end of the day, there's always another championship, there's always another game, but your integrity … there's nothing worth that. So, again, that's something we talked about time and time again.”
From a program with two strikes against it to one whose integrity is rarely if ever questioned – that’s quite a legacy. Without Foley’s commitment to doing things the right way, I do not believe the University of Florida athletic program could have ever reached the heights it has in the last 25 years. My grandfather died dreaming of the day the Gators would win an SEC title in either football or basketball. My father died in 1986 with a pain in his heart because the one thing he had lived for as a Gator – and he was there in Jacksonville in 1942 when Georgia beat UF, 75-0 – was taken away by the powers that be in the SEC. He waited until there were no more next years. There were few regrets in my dad’s life but never seeing the Gators win the SEC in football was one of them.
When the Gators finally clinched their first SEC title that would count, on November 16, 1991, at The Swamp – ironically with a win over Kentucky – the late, great Gene Ellenson bear hugged me as only he could, then put his hands on my shoulders and wept like a kid. This is a man’s man who had two Silver Stars pinned on his chest at the Battle of the Bulge by General Patton himself.
“I wondered if I would ever see this day,” Gene told me as big old crocodile tears rolled unashamedly down his face.
I cried, too, and as I looked around, I saw lots of old Gators who couldn’t contain their emotions. I thought about my grandfather and my dad and my heart ached because they weren’t there to finally see the Gators win the SEC. I often think about what they would have said and how they would have reacted if they could have been around on January 2, 1997, the night the Gators won the national championship in football.
I contend that while UF may have won a championship here or there – there were only nine in five different sports in all the pre-Foley years combined – it couldn’t have been done with anything close to the frequency we’ve seen without the commitment to integrity that Foley drilled into every one of his coaches and assistants. Every head coach and assistant I’ve known in any sport through the years at UF has told me the exact same thing: You win with integrity or else you’re gone. No excuse for losing. No excuse for breaking the rules.
Foley should also be applauded for making the tough decisions. While championships won the right way eliminated the stench of the 1980s and turned Florida into the success model that every other school in the SEC was compared to, there were painful, agonizing moments when Foley had to pink slip coaches. He fired Joe Arnold (1994), Andy Lopez (2001) and Pat McMahon (2007), the three baseball coaches who combined to take the Gators to their first five trips to Omaha for the College World Series. McMahon was fired just two years after the Gators went to Omaha. Foley fired Judy Markell (2002) who took the Gators to nine NCAA gymnastics championship events in ten years. He fired men’s tennis coach Ian Duvenhage (2001) a year after he won the SEC title. He fired Ron Zook and Will Muschamp.
Yes, Foley hired Billy Donovan, Urban Meyer, Rhonda Faehn, Mike Holloway, Kevin O’Sullivan, Tim Walton, Becky Burleigh, Roland Thornqvist and other very successful coaches, but he tends to deflect their success back in their direction. The pain of having to fire coaches has always stuck with him.
“I regret decisions that didn't work out, because when they don't work out, especially hiring coaches, tremendous turmoil within a program, within a fan base, obviously to the coaches themselves and their families and their staff,” Foley said.
He always understood that you’re not just firing a coach. You’re firing his family as well.
“None of those decisions were made with ill intent,” he said. “They were thought through and they didn’t work as I envisioned them to work.”
Not every decision works out as planned. Not every coach gets the job done. Not every athlete turns out to be a good fit at the University of Florida. Dealing with the successes is as much a part of being athletic director as dealing with bad or unintended consequences and Foley always handled the situations with dignity and compassion.
When he turns off the lights in his office for the last time and walks away, Foley will leave an athletic department that is in far better shape than the one he inherited. Instead of the program people used to laugh at and use the term rogue, he will leave behind a mountain of integrity and good will that he’s built for 25 years.
Take a moment once again and think about those words – “At the end of the day, there’s always another championship, there’s always another game, but your integrity … there’s nothing worth that.”
If you were around in the bad old days, then you know exactly what I’m saying now. If you weren’t around, take the word of someone who was. Nothing is worth going back to the bad times ever again. Nothing.
MUSIC FOR TODAY
One of the things Foley says he’s going to do after retiring is catch a few more concerts. Since he’s a devoted Bruce Springsteen fan, today’s music is Springsteen’s show in Dallas at the Final Four in 2014.