The following report is based on a Sunday interview with Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley.
Published: Monday, December 6, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 5, 2004 at 11:30 p.m.
There were a lot of restless nights. In Salt Lake City; in Stowe, Vt.; in Gainesville. Jeremy Foley knew there would be a process, but he didn't know it would be this exhausting.
In the end, it was worth the mornings when his alarm went off at 3 o'clock. Tonight, he will fly to Utah to pick up his new football coach for a Tuesday afternoon news conference at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
How Foley got from Point A (the firing of Ron Zook on Oct. 25 two days after the Florida football team lost at Mississippi State) to Point B (the hiring of Urban Meyer on Friday) is chronicled in dozens of thick notebooks locked away in his office desk. In those notebooks are scribblings that detail everything Foley and his staff could find out about 15 football coaches who made up the pool of candidates for the Florida job.
To that end, Foley brought in four of his staff members at the University Athletic Association to form a search committee that developed contacts and began checking backgrounds.
But the first call Foley made was to a coach who was unemployed. On the Monday night that Zook was fired, Foley left a voice message on Steve Spurrier's cell phone telling the former Gator coach he was looking forward to talking to him about the vacancy.
And so the process began.
Spurrier eventually would pull his name out of consideration Nov. 4, saying he felt that 12 years was enough at one school. On Nov. 17, Foley called Spurrier one final time just to make sure he hadn't changed his mind about being considered for the job. Spurrier said he had not, that he wasn't sure where he was going to coach but that hopefully he wouldn't be coaching against the Gators.
"If I am, it's only once a year," Spurrier said.
The next day, the story broke that Spurrier would be the next head coach at South Carolina.
Meanwhile, Foley and his staff continued to do their homework. One of the things they needed to find out about potential candidates was their level of interest in the Florida job.
To do this, Foley did not contact the coaches directly because of the pledge he and UF President Bernie Machen made Oct. 25 not to talk to coaches until their regular seasons were over. Instead, Foley talked to agents, lawyers and close friends of the coaches on his list.
In some cases, he found out they were not interested in being on the list. Iowa's Kirk Ferentz was one of those coaches. So was Bobby Stoops, despite reports that the Oklahoma coach was offered a $3.5 million contract.
Foley never got an indication either way on California coach Jeff Tedford.
There was a level of interest shown by Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis early in the process, but on Nov. 27 Foley was told by two people close to Davis that he was no longer interested.
After Davis was fired on Nov. 30, Foley checked back to make sure he still didn't want to be part of the process, but was told the former University of Miami coach planned to sit out of coaching for a year.
By then, the Florida athletic director had already been to Urban Meyer's house.
Trip to Salt Lake City
On Nov. 20, Meyer coached Utah to a 52-21 win over Brigham Young to complete a perfect regular season and secure a BCS bowl berth for the Utes. Two days later, Foley spoke with Meyer for the first time, calling him to try to set up a meeting for later in the week.
On Nov. 24, Foley left Gainesville for the house he owns in Stowe, Vt. On the morning after Thanksgiving, he boarded a plane at the Burlington Airport for a 5 a.m. commercial flight to Salt Lake City.
At noon, he met Meyer for the first time. At the Meyer house, Foley and Meyer both had a lot of questions for each other during the 4¶-hour meeting. Meyer wanted to know about Foley and UF; Foley wanted to know about Meyer's philosophies on offense, defense, assistant coaches, weight training and discipline.
Foley's mission was to let Meyer know the University of Florida is a special place. Meyer made it clear that Utah is as well.
In the middle of that initial face-to-face discussion between Foley and Meyer, the Utah coach had to excuse himself to do a previously planned interview. During ABC's television coverage of the Texas-Texas A&M game in Austin, Meyer was interviewed via telephone by the network.
When he was done, Foley told Meyer, "You could have really caused a stir if you told them who was sitting in your living room."
Foley left the meeting impressed with Meyer. Meyer indicated he had an interest in the Florida job, but he still had some homework of his own to do.
Foley couldn't get a flight back to Vermont and instead to took one to Boston. He landed at midnight, rented a car and drove to Stowe, getting home at 3 a.m.
On Sunday, Nov. 28, Foley returned to Gainesville and phoned Meyer to tell the coach how much he enjoyed the visit. Meyer said his wife, Shelley, wanted to know more about Gainesville.
Foley turned to a strong recruiter named Donovan. Not Billy, the Florida basketball coach, but his wife, Christine. Christine Donovan called Shelley Meyer on Nov. 29. Their call was cut short because Mrs. Meyer had to pick up one of her children. The next day, Christine Donovan called again to answer any other questions about the home of the University of Florida. A day later, Billy Donovan called Meyer to talk about what it is like to work at UF.
Earlier that Tuesday, Foley met with Machen, who had been kept informed about the search but had yet to speak to Meyer about the job. Foley told Machen that Meyer was the coach he wanted to hire. Machen agreed and told him to pursue the Utah coach.
Foley spoke to Meyer three times that day. One of those conversations took place after Notre Dame surprisingly fired Ty Willingham. Meyer called Foley while the athletic director was at the Florida-Florida Atlantic basketball game.
Foley let Meyer know he wanted to return to Utah on Wednesday. Meyer said he couldn't meet because of a previous commitment. They settled on Thursday.
Foley knew that he had new competition for the coach he wanted. Until that day, he felt the biggest threat was that Meyer would stay at Utah, where the school had improved facilities and was promising more money. But Meyer had long ago stated that Notre Dame, where he had been an assistant, would be his dream job.
At 5 a.m. Thursday, a plane chartered by the UAA from Jacksonville landed at the school's private hangar at the Gainesville airport. Foley and associate athletic director Greg McGarity quickly jumped on board and took off for Salt Lake City.
Foley and McGarity knew they weren't the only suitors with an appointment that day. On the previous night, Meyer had informed Foley that Notre Dame officials would be meeting with him Thursday night.
The game and the competition had changed.
Reaching a deal
By 9 o'clock, Mountain Standard Time, on Thursday morning, Foley and McGarity were at the Meyer house. Foley started the meeting by letting Meyer know that he was the choice to be Florida's next coach. More than three hours later, Foley offered a contract proposal to Meyer.
The seven-year deal would average out to $2 million a year. The first year's guaranteed salary would be $1.5 million plus another potential $250,000 in bonuses.
Foley left the meeting realizing that this certainly was not about the money. And that the next few hours would be agonizing while Notre Dame made its pitch.
Foley and McGarity checked into the Marriott hotel in Salt Lake City under assumed names. While rumors swirled (including a report about a plane that was supposed to be carrying Foley that turned out to be delivering organs for transplant procedures), the two UAA officials went to see the Pierce Brosnan movie "After the Sunset."
Foley felt good about Florida's chances, but he also knew Meyer had special feelings about both Utah and Notre Dame. As the Irish officials were making their pitch at the Meyer home, Foley found himself looking at his watch every few minutes.
At 10 p.m. (MST), Meyer called Foley and set up a meeting for Friday morning. He said the meeting with Notre Dame had been a good one. He and his wife had a lot to think about.
At 10 a.m. (noon back in Gainesville) Friday, Meyer welcomed Foley and McGarity into his home again.
As they sat at a table, Meyer told Foley, "I'm close to walking across this room to shake your hand."
He had a few more questions, none of them about money. After 45 minutes, Meyer looked at his wife, got up and walked to Foley with his hand extended. Florida had a new football coach.
But Meyer was worried about his Utah team. He wanted to hold the announcement back until after Sunday's announcement that the Utes would be playing in the Fiesta Bowl. This was to be their day. Their BCS-busting day. He didn't want it ruined.
Foley said he understood. But when he turned his cell phone on as he drove away from the Meyer's home, he saw that he had 26 messages. Web sites were reporting that Meyer had accepted the job.
Foley turned the rental car around and returned to the Meyer house.
"We're going to have to do this sooner than later," Foley told Meyer. "It's all over the place."
Meyer wanted to at least wait until he could talk to his team Saturday morning. Foley agreed. Although newspaper Web sites, Internet sites and cable television networks reported Meyer was UF's coach Friday afternoon (newspapers also had the news in Saturday's editions), Florida didn't make it official until Saturday afternoon.
Foley and McGarity returned to Gainesville on Friday evening. Tonight, the Florida athletic director will take one more flight to Salt Lake City. This time, he'll come back with more than jet lag.
On Tuesday morning, he'll come back with his Urban hire.
You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at email@example.com or by calling 374-5053. You can hear The Pat Dooley Hour each weekday from 11 a.m. to noon on The Star 99.5-FM.
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