Gator booster


Published: Monday, January 8, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 7, 2007 at 10:43 p.m.

John James chuckled when asked if playing for championships increases donations to the University of Florida athletic program.

Facts

JOHN JAMES JR.

Executive director/secretary, Gator Boosters Inc.

PERSONAL

Married, four children

BEST BOOK HE'S READ

"The World is Flat" by Thomas Friedman

BEST BOOK HE'S READBEST MOVIE HE'S SEEN

Anything with my family.

DREAM PARTNER FOR LUNCH/HANG OUT WITH

Winston Churchill

BEST ADVICE HE'S RECEIVED

"My dad always taught me to evaluate all situations and just do what is right in every regard."

WHAT CD IS PLAYING IN HIS CAR

A mix daughter Helen burned with the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, the Beatles, Mozart and Willie Nelson.

"Oh, absolutely," he said from his office inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

James is executive director of Gator Boosters Inc., a nonprofit foundation that raises donations from Gator fans to fund athletic scholarships and facilities.

He is hoping boosters will pony up endowment funding in honor of this year's SEC champions playing tonight for the national championship.

When UF won the NCAA basketball championship last year, fans donated $130,000 for an endowment. Football has the potential to raise more, accounting for 88 percent of the $27 million donated during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2005.

Endowment funds go into a savings account and the interest rate of about 4 percent per year funds scholarships in perpetuity.

UF offers more than 250 athletic scholarships — 85 in football — worth $3 million annually. More scholarships are coming with a new women's lacrosse team. The endowment account has about $30 million and would need about $65 million to $70 million to completely fund scholarships — at about $250,000 per scholarship.

Of course a win generates more enthusiasm and James likes the Gators' chances while he is in Arizona to cheer them on.

"I think we've got a very good chance." he said. "We match up well defensively. Our offense is going to come up with some surprises."

He also pointed out that Coach Urban Meyer is undefeated when he's had more than two weeks to prepare.

The Gator Booster club includes 13,000 members who donated $30 million toward the Athletic Department's $70 million budget. Memberships start at $50 for the Orange & Blue level, up to more than $12,000 annually to be a Bull Gator.

When James started in his position 21 years ago, the club included 30 Bull Gators and raised $1 million a year. Now, the club has than 800 Bull Gators and raises $30 million. James said his organization has raised half a billion dollars during his tenure.

Most members, he said, are not UF alumni nor local, although a majority live within a 200-mile radius of the campus.

They have adopted the Gators and are motivated to donate for better stadium seating, James said.

Seat assignments are like a bid system with points assigned for every $100 donated. Most donors get four seats, Bull Gators eight seats. Bigger donors also get better parking assignments.

At a Sept. 29 Gala dinner, boosters bought more than 100 tables for $50,000 each, raising $6.1 million in one night, an unheard of sum for an athletic fund-raising event, James said.

The next facilities project is a $25 million renovation of football offices, weight room and a new Gator room to host recruitment events. The football program has been using a tent on game days to welcome recruits.

James is just the third executive director in the Gator Boosters' 47 years, following John Eibner and Gene Ellenson. The position came open when he retired from his first career — as NFL punter.

He was an unlikely pro football success, not having played football for Bay High School in Panama City. But he did have good Gator pedigree, the son of All-Southern Conference guard and fullback Wilbur James, who played for the 1928 squad John James described as the greatest UF team before the Steve Spurrier era.

The Gators needed a punter and James walked on as a junior for new Coach Doug Dickey.

"I was really his first player," James said.

After college, James was not drafted but thought he had NFL-caliber ability. Dickey gave him a choice. He would call Don Shula in Miami or Norm Van Brocklin in Atlanta. James chose the Falcons and Van Brocklin gave him a shot.

He remembers the date — June 6, 1972. The Falcons sent him a plane ticket. He tried out in left field at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium before a Braves' game, punting to Falcons Tommy Nobis and Harmon Wages. He would punt for Atlanta for 10 years, then in two games with the Detroit Lions and three more years with the Houston Oilers. He was a three-time Pro-Bowl selection and one-time All-Pro player.

At the time of his retirement, he had the most punts in NFL history.

"I'm not real proud of that because it says a lot about our teams."

But he is proud of what the Gators have accomplished.

"It just is so exciting," he said. "The interest and the enthusiasm and the excitement around this event is unbelievable."

Anthony Clark can be reached at anthony.clark@gvillesun.com or (352) 374-5094.

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