Urban hire one of Foley's best


Published: Friday, January 2, 2009 at 12:15 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 2, 2009 at 12:15 p.m.

It was a night in mid-November, Homecoming at Florida in 2004. It was an uncomfortable night because the Gator Nation was hurting, its SEC hopes dashed again and its coach a lame duck.

Jeremy Foley looked up at the stage and thought about who the next guy would be introducing the seniors in 2005.

"I hadn't talked to anybody yet, but I had done a lot of research on Urban Meyer," he said. "I remember thinking that I could see him on that stage because he is so ingrained in college football."

Who would have thought this is where Florida would be a little more than four years later? Two SEC championships. On the verge of playing for a second national title. A coach with a 43-9 record. The Swamp reclaimed. The rivalry games owned.

But back then, it was not the best of times for Florida football.

"Obviously, we weren't in a good place," Foley said. "I didn't pay attention to the noise out there, but I knew it was out there."

The Florida athletic director was dealing with the heat. His risky hire of Ron Zook had not paid off on the field, where every coach is ultimately measured. Although Florida played in three bowl games under Zook, the bar had been set much higher than second-tier bowl games. And the perception was that Foley and UF president Bernie Machen had turned their backs on the legend that was and is Steve Spurrier.

Think there was some pressure on Foley?

"No question there was a lot of pressure," he said. "Obviously, I had a job to do. The thing that kept you awake at night was that you have this candidate and this candidate, a few people in the hat. What if you look up and the hat is empty? Then you're scrambling again and this program couldn't afford that.

"So obviously, those were some very tense and emotional times."

The heat was ratcheted up when Notre Dame entered the picture. But in the end, Meyer said yes and Florida football went back to being one of the elite programs in college football.

The Urban hire was one of the best moments in an illustrious career for Foley, who is in charge of the SEC's best overall athletic program. But we all know that football drives the train. Success in other sports is great, but success in football is mandatory.

Not only did he have to convince Meyer that Florida was the right choice, he had to know that Meyer was the right choice for Florida.

"The stakes were pretty high," Foley said. "You just got a sense meeting with him that he was the right guy. He asked the right questions. He didn't ask about his salary or his cars. He wanted to know about his assistants and the academics and whether Gainesville was right for his wife and family. How invested were we going to be in his program?

"You could tell right away that what was happening at Utah was no accident."

While Meyer seemed like a no-brainer to so many, not everyone was convinced a coach who had won at Bowling Green and Utah could win in the SEC.

But not everyone was making the hire.

"People say, 'It's easy for you to say now that you knew,' and there are no guarantees," Foley said. "But I wasn't worried whether or not he could be successful at this level. It's a fragile thing to be playing for two national championships in four years. It's when you lose, who you lose to. It's hard to do. I hope Gator fans enjoy it.

"But could I see him being successful in this league? Yeah, that's why we hired him."

I don't think any of us thought it would be like this. We all knew Meyer was a good coach. We wondered about the spread offense, about recruiting in the South, about a staff of coaches that (for the most part) we knew little about.

We wondered in Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge that first year. Did this guy get it?

He got it.

And he has Florida football in a special place.

During our conversation, I asked Foley if there was something he has learned about his football coach that he didn't know when he hired him.

"I'd say it's the unbelievable grasp he has on all of the different pieces it takes to be successful," he said. "Obviously, it's recruiting. Obviously, it's calling plays on game days. But you have to have a great staff, you have to challenge your staff. You have to have high character kids in your program and when you have issues you deal with them and you fix them. How do you win the academic component? He does a great job reaching out to former players, to our boosters. He's done a great job of reaching out to our staff, appreciating things we do but also demanding things and making us better.

"I told (Executive Senior Associate Director) Greg McGarity the other day I think working with Urban has made us all better."

And it's getting better all the time.

Contact Pat Dooley at 374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com.

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