File this under fact, stranger than fiction.
After two losses last week that dropped Florida (14-5, 5-2) from the #3 national RPI down to #11, the Gators managed to remain in both the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches polls. The Gators are hanging in there by a thread at the #25 position in both polls, but ranked is ranked.
The South Carolina loss last Tuesday night really didn’t hurt the Gators all that much. South Carolina was ranked (#24 in last week’s poll; #23 in the AP and #24 in the USA Today after taking a big loss to Kentucky) and at home plus the outcome was decided by a mere four points. The Vanderbilt loss was hard to take. That’s a game UF should have never lost and it is the kind of loss that can put a team into a tailspin. We’ll see just how well Mike White got the Gators attention tomorrow night when the Gators travel to Baton Rouge to face an LSU team (9-9, 1-6 SEC) that is teetering on the verge of total collapse. If Johnny Jones is to save his job, beating Florida can only help his cause. The Tigers aren’t the worst team in the SEC – that is Missouri – but Missouri at least has the excuse of no talent. LSU doesn’t lack for talent but folks who watch the Tigers closely say Johnny Jones is in over his head but these people should have figured that out last year when his lineup included the likes of Ben Simmons, Craig Victor, Keith Hornsby and Antonio Blakeney. That’s a team that should have been a high NCAA seed and didn’t make it to the postseason.
It can’t be stressed enough just how much White and the Gators need these next three games (at LSU, at Oklahoma, Missouri) because the February schedule is brutal. The Gators have gone from a potential 6 or better NCAA seed to one that might struggle to get into the big dance if they don’t score three straight wins.
To win on the road this week, the Gators need KeVaughn Allen (29 points vs. Vandy) and Devin Robinson (12 points) to continue to climb out of their slumps, but they will need double figures production from Canyon Barry off the bench and a combined 15 points and 10 rebounds from the center tandem of John Egbunu and Kevarrius Hayes. It would also help if Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza can do at least a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. When they are high on assists and low on turnovers, the Florida offense is usually pretty good.
SEC teams in national RPI: 3. Kentucky 17-2; 11. FLORIDA 14-5; 20. South Carolina 14-4; 33. Arkansas 15-4; 45. Georgia 11-7; 46. Ole Miss 12-7; 58. Vanderbilt 9-10; 62. Tennessee 9-9; 70. Auburn 13-6; 88. Alabama 11-7; 98. Texas A&M 10-8; 120. Mississippi State 12-6; 129. LSU 9-9; 278. Missouri 5-13.
IN FAIRNESS TO FOLEY
Later in the week I’m going to do a review of the entire athletic facilities at every school in the Southeastern Conference. From a Florida standpoint, it’s not going to be pretty but it is important to know where the Gators are and what they’re up against in this battle to keep up with the SEC Joneses.
When I brought up the topic of facilities on Monday, there was a bit of grousing about former athletic director Jeremy Foley. Now, one thing is perfectly clear, Jeremy’s strong suits were not long range planning for facilities and fund raising, which has a lot to do with Florida’s current situation. But, in all fairness to him, when he was hired his chief task was to clean up Florida’s dreadful reputation and make sure he balanced the books. What he did in those two areas deserve eternal debts of gratitude from every Gator.
Indulge me for a moment if you weren’t around during the dark days when Florida was better known as an outlaw school. Back in the 1980s Florida football had a reputation only slightly better than SMU and Clemson football and UF basketball was considered just a tad higher on the despicable pole than UNLV. Florida almost got the death penalty twice. The first time was in 1984 for the football violations that occurred during the Charley Pell era. The only thing that saved the program was that Charley fell on the sword and offered himself up as the sacrificial lamb. He took all the blame and was fired. You’ll never catch me saying Charley was pure as the driven snow, but he should have known better than hiring the likes of Sonny McGraw and Jim Parker. We can argue till the cows come home that everyone in the SEC was cheating at the time and what Florida did pales in comparison to say Georgia in its recruitment of Herschel Walker, but what they did is irrelevant. Florida cheated. Florida got caught. Florida paid the price.
Five years later, there was once again talk of the death penalty when both football and basketball ran afoul of the NCAA. Norm Sloan was fired and UF went on a serious probation for far less than what Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim got a few games suspension for last year. Galen Hall was canned for the NCAA equivalent of a parking ticket. But the violations were considered major and they fell within the five-year stay clean window imposed by the NCAA. And, that Florida had just come off of one of the worst probations (in terms of scholarship reductions) in NCAA history, the NCAA had the option of shutting down both the football and basketball programs. Fortunately, they had better sense and UF dodged the bullet.
Then along came Steve Spurrier and Lon Kruger, boy scouts when it comes to playing by the rules. Athletic director Bill Arnsparger didn’t want Spurrier but had his hand forced by boosters such as Ben Hill Griffin Jr. (yes, Mr. Stadium). More than one person I consider impeccably reliable has told me Mr. Griffin looked Arnsparger in the eye and said, “Steve Spurrier is going to be the football coach at the University of Florida, Bill. You don’t have to be the athletic director.”
A couple of people I’ve talked to who were prominent in what was going on at UF swear to this day that the reason Arnsparger resigned in late 1991 was because he felt humiliated by the hiring of Spurrier. Outwardly, he acted as if he was happy, but folks tell me inwardly he was boiling.
So that brought us Foley at a time when the reputation was rotten but at least had Spurrier and Kruger as the faces of the program. Think of Jeremy as a Hazmat unit who steam cleaned the entire athletic program top to bottom and made playing by the rules the ultimate requirement. To his credit, Jeremy proved that Florida could win big in all sports and do it the right way. There was only one NCAA violation in 25 years (Joker Phillips was fired immediately in 2014) and Florida was as close to a mortal lock as it gets to win the SEC All-Sports Trophy every year.
Now, you may not think that’s an accomplishment, but I can assure you that after the dark days of the 1980s, what Foley did to restore and maintain integrity is nothing short of remarkable. Give him an A+ for that.
Okay, that’s the good stuff.
Now to the part that isn’t quite as good. When it comes to long range planning for facilities and mobilizing Florida’s wealthy alums to contribute, Foley missed the mark. I’d give him a generous C- although I’m tempted to make it a D+. Because there was some progress at the end of his reign, he gets the C-.
I’ve been asked at least 100 times since Foley announced his retirement and since he stepped aside on October 1, why Foley let the facilities situation get so out of hand. There isn’t a simple answer except to say that Foley was so concerned with bottom line that he wasn’t about to take any financial risks even when the SEC Network was up and running, assuring UF of a substantial cash infusion. Jeremy Foley was a bottom line guy who was determined that UF would be well prepared in case an economic catastrophe were to hit. He was also a fine people guy who hired a lot of outstanding coaches although he will be remembered as the AD who hired Ron Zook and Will Muschamp to replace coaching legends who won national championships.
I can’t tell you all the reasons why Foley let facilities fall so far behind but I do know that some of the fingers should be pointed at former UF presidents (Up)Chuck Young (what a disaster he was) and Bernie Machen. Young and Machen were all too happy to raid the athletic department tills and for what reason? Did you know UF is sitting on nearly $2 billion in hard cash and that’s not endowment money? Did you know the UAA is required to pay nearly half the salary of the school president? Why?
In some respects, Foley’s hands were tied. He should be given a certain amount of slack for that. He’s not the one who hired (Up)Chuck and Bernie. Still, there was never a long range plan in place to deal with the necessary facilities upgrades and Foley was never very good in raising money. Yes, the O-Dome got renovated and an indoor practice facility was built, but these only scratch the surface of what’s needed and UF is still scrambling for private money to help pay for those two additions to the facilities.
Rather than bash Foley for his shortcomings in those areas, understand that (1) he was hired to steam clean the athletic program and he did it and (2) he was hired to balance the budget and he did that well. So, he accomplished what he was hired to do.
Scott Stricklin has been hired to survey the entire situation, come up with a long range plan to upgrade the facilities and raise the funds. It’s not an impossible situation but it is challenging. In fairness to Foley, Stricklin won’t be burdened with an athletic program under the NCAA microscope while he’s assessing and dealing with the situation.
The New England Patriots have opened up as a 3-point favorite to beat the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl. The over/under is 57, which is the highest in Super Bowl history.
SEC represents in Super Bowl (number of players in parenthesis): Alabama (5); LSU (4); Auburn (3); Georgia (3); Florida (2); Texas A&M (2); Arkansas (1); Kentucky (1); Missouri (1); Ole Miss (1); South Carolina (1); Tennessee (1)
Conferences represented in the Super Bowl: SEC (25); Pac-12 (20); Big Ten (19); ACC (18); American (9); Big 12 (7); Mountain West (5); Conference USA (2); Independents (2); MAC (1); Small schools (14).
Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett says his decision to return for his senior season was cemented when Urban Meyer overhauled the offensive staff, bringing in Kevin Wilson as the offensive coordinator and former Gator grad assistant Ryan Day to coach up the quarterbacks.
Now that Greg Byrne has taken the Alabama AD job, expect Arizona to zero in on TCU AD Chris Conte, who was an assistant AD at Arizona from 2000-06.
If I’m an NFL GM looking for a head coach, one of the people I’m going to interview is Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. His willingness to spread the ball around and get all the skill people involved is a big reason why I think the Falcons have a real shot to upend Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Duke is now 3-4 in ACC basketball play after losing at Cameron Indoor Stadium to North Carolina State Monday night. Coach K can’t get back quick enough from back surgery to rescue the Blue Devils.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
If Tom Brady leads New England to a Super Bowl championship with an MVP performance, will he be vindicated for his 4-game suspension for Deflate-Gate?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
Phil Lesh might be 76 years old but he’s not slowing down. The former guitarist for the Grateful Dead and his band Phil Lesh and Friends still do a rigorous concert schedule. I found this concert from Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads Bar in San Rafael, California recorded back on January 10.