Heaven for the sports fan
Published: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 3:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 3:36 p.m.
Some people may look at Gainesville and see a sleepy college town that moves at a laid-back pace. Some people may see our town as a place where very little happens and there is nothing to do.
So maybe I’m lucky to be a sports fan.
My wife might disagree, especially when I shut myself on the back porch (also known as the Dooley Dome) for an afternoon of golf, basketball, spring football and whatever else comes on that involves people sweating.
But if you have any interest in sports, especially college sports, there aren’t many places better to live than Gainesville.
Because Florida is so good in everything.
OK, so women’s basketball is still struggling to get back among the better teams in the country, but it’s coming. In everything else, the Gators excel.
That’s why Florida almost annually wins the SEC All-Sports Trophy. It is given out by Halifax Media Group now. Before that, it was the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. The translation — we at The Sun tabulate the results.
And you know why we do?
After 1994, the SEC quit giving out the award because Florida was winning it every year. This didn’t look good for the other schools in the league. But as Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley told me once, “We knew someone would keep score.”
It’s up to us now.
Florida has won the award 22 times in the 25 years there has been an award. Points are awarded based on the finish of each sport in the SEC standings.
That may be a tangible way of measuring Florida’s all-sports success, but it’s more than that. It’s being able to take your little girl out to the softball stadium and know that she’s not only going to be in a nice facility but she’s going to see softball played at a high level.
Florida just started a lacrosse program three years ago. In its second year, it played for a national title. Gator teams win conference championships with as much ease as you pick out a pair of socks (207 so far).
But you know all of this. You know that Florida’s athletic program is the jewel of the SEC and offers cheap entertainment for much of the year.
The question is why?
The easy answer is Foley, who has overseen so much of this success. His secret isn’t much of a secret. He gives every coach in every sport the opportunity to succeed. A perfect example is softball. Tim Walton, the softball coach, could schedule nothing but in-state games during the pre-conference season. But that wouldn’t get his team ready for the SEC and the postseason.
So in 2013, Florida has made separate trips to Tempe, Ariz., and Palm Springs, Calif., for tournaments. Because that’s where the best teams are playing.
Foley has been adept at hiring young coaches who have a passion for recruiting. Billy Donovan, Rhonda Faehn, Kevin O’Sullivan, Mandee O’Leary. His record isn’t perfect, but it’s better than most. And then he gives them what they need to win, whether it be facilities or locker rooms or weight rooms or charter planes or extra sweet tea with their meals.
Foley’s tough, but he expects the best. And he has a quick hook. If a program is heading south, he’s not going to allow a coach to tread water in the hopes he or she starts to swim again.
Andy Lopez won a national championship in baseball before he came to Florida and he’s won one since leaving Florida. But after reaching two College World Series in 1996 and ’98, the program started to slide. In 2001, after a mediocre 35-27 season, he was let go. Ditto Pat McMahon, who went to the CWS finals in 2005 and was fired in 2007.
And we all know that Ron Zook got only 2 1/2 years as the football coach before being dismissed.
It may seem ruthless, but Foley’s track record places him among the best athletic directors in the country.
It’s not just Foley or the athletic department. Some of it is location. It is Florida after all. Some of it is money. Again, it’s Florida, with a huge booster base.
And some of it is the Florida brand. Athletes want to come play at UF. Stacey Nelson, the All-American pitcher for Walton who played from 2005-09, once told me she became interested in Florida because she saw a Gatorade commercial.
The Gator Nation is everywhere, right? And it’s all over Gainesville with athletes competing at the highest levels.
Florida may be a football school, but it’s heaven for someone who is diverse enough to like all sports.