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Florida finishing in the top ten has become almost so routine that it's taken for granted. Gator fans have grown to expect excellence from every sports team and when a Florida team doesn't finish among the best in the country, fans wonder why?
While Jeremy Foley didn't lay the initial foundation for Florida's all-sports excellence, he has to be given a ton of credit for the job he's done to maintain Florida's position among the nation's elite athletic programs since taking over in the spring of 1992. Keeping the Gators at the top of the SEC and in the top ten of the nation's athletic programs has not been an easy job but Foley has done his part to ensure excellence for UF.
Foley's job is complicated in that he has to manage sports, personnel, finances and compliance for a booming business that requires 18 to 22-year-old kids to perform well on a variety of stages. He's the CEO of a $63 million corporation that turned a profit of nearly $9 million in the last year. Considering the financial blows the University Athletic Association took in football because of hurricanes in the month of September that caused serious attendance declines and having to pay off the contract of former football Coach Ron Zook, a $9 million profit is phenomenal. If this were Wall Street and not college athletics, that kind of profit margin would get Foley's face on the cover of Forbes and Business Weekly.
If you think keeping Florida athletics profitable is an easy task, consider this. When Tennessee fired Buzz Peterson as its basketball coach with four years remaining on his contract, the athletic department had to borrow a couple of million from the general fund of the university just to maintain solvency.
Think about it. Tennessee's football stadium seats 107,000, a full 17,000 or so more than Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and while women's sports typically operate in the red, the Vols regularly draw crowds in excess of 10,000 for women's basketball while at Florida a big game is when the Gators of Coach Carolyn Peck draw 2,000. Yet, when the bean counters do their final tallies, it's Florida that is operating in the black year in and year out, the most solid athletic program in the south for sure, perhaps the most solid in all of the nation.
Foley had the tough job of firing Zook back in October and he recently fired Karen Johns as the Florida softball coach. Both Zook and Johns had winning records each year they were at the helm of their sport, yet they didn't live up to the expectations that are set so high at Florida.
I'm sure that Foley would be the first to tell you that he loves everything about being the director of athletics at Florida with the exception of that day when he has to give someone the pink slip, particularly when those people who get the axe are good people. Ron Zook the person? Not many folks are better. Karen Johns the person? Another one who's right up there.
But with the bar set high, neither coach could get their team over the top, so Foley had to do the dirty part of his job. It can't be easy to look people that you hired in the eye and say "Your time's up. We have to move in another direction."
Foley has had to make coaching changes several times in the 13 years he's been at the helm of Florida athletics and there have been those moments when he had to find a coach unexpectedly, such as when Andy Brandi decided to quit after years of taking women's tennis to the national finals what seemed like every year. Or when Lon Kruger bolted for Illinois. Brandi was replaced by Roland Thornqvist, who has a national championship and probably will get another one next spring. Kruger was replaced by Billy Donovan, who has taken the Gators to seven straight 20-win seasons, seven straight NCAA tournaments and to the national title game once.
Yeah, he did hire Andy Lopez and that didn't work out, but to Foley's credit, he replaced Lopez with Pat McMahon, fresh from taking the Gators to the championship game of the College World Series. And yes, when Steve Spurrier decided to test the NFL after the 2001 season, Foley brought in Zook, whom he had to fire. Give Foley a mulligan for that one.
Zook's been replaced by Urban Meyer and never have Gator fans been so enthusiastic about a new football coach. Meyer has appeared before record crowds at Gator Gatherings throughout the state and the money is flowing into UAA through the boosters in record amounts. Have you tried buying football tickets lately? The 2005 season is a sellout. If you think you'll hop over to E-Bay to find a pair for any of Florida's games, be prepared for serious sticker shock.
So the stage is set for a banner year for Florida athletics in 2005-2006. It's not unrealistic to think that Meyer could win the Southeastern Conference championship in football in his first year at the helm. There's that much talent, that much enthusiasm and he's that good as a coach.
Volleyball, women's tennis and gymnastics could bring home national titles on the women's side. Even with the loss of David Lee, Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson, Billy Donovan's going to have his team winning 20 again and Pat McMahon's set the stage for bigger and better things in baseball. We can't forget Buddy Alexander's got everyone back in golf and the Gators could be a sleeper for national honors there. The men's tennis team almost won a national title this year and they will be in the hunt again.
So give Foley his props. He doesn't have the easiest job in college athletics but he's once again proven he's got a handle on making Florida a success both on the playing fields and at the bank. He's kept Florida athletics among the nation's best for 13 straight years now which is exactly 13 more times in the top ten than all the other athletic programs in the state combined.
So, here's to you, Jeremy, for another great season. Pardon us if we've taken those top ten Sears Cup finishes for granted. You've done your part, for sure, to keep the Gators among the best.