With now two consecutive national championships in men's basketball sandwiched around a BCS title in football, the University of Florida stands unquestioned atop college athletics. Gators' athletic director Jeremy Foley has gotten a lot of the credit for the schools' unprecedented success, and rightly so, but before we approach the Vatican for Foley's canonization, let's not forget he's also responsible for one of the most laughable and embarrassing hires in the history of major college athletics – Ron Zook, the Zooker!
Florida football, and its entire athletic department for that matter, was college sports' greatest underachiever until the arrival of Steve Spurrier in 1990. Over the next 12 years, Spurrier would turn the Gators' football program into one of the nation's elite, capturing six SEC championships and one national title while coaching a Heisman Trophy winner along with numerous All-Americans and top NFL Draft choices. Spurrier made Florida matter nationally. He changed the face of the SEC and all of college football by proving a major program could win throwing the ball out of four and five wide receiver formations, he put a face to the athletic department that was previously anonymous and he spearheaded everything that Gator athletics has become.
Jeremy Foley didn't hire Steve Spurrier, he inherited him, and largely rode his coattails as acclaim, attention, top recruits (in all sports) and dollars poured into the athletic department.
When Spurrier resigned following the 2001 season, Foley was faced with his biggest decision as AD – who would replace the Old Ball Coach? Granted, no one could ever replace Spurrier and legends are rarely seamlessly transitioned from, but Florida was one of the top five football programs in America, the University had unlimited resources to pay a head coach and his staff whatever was necessary, there was direct access to the richest recruiting ground in all of the country, not to mention a location in Gainesville with as high a quality of living as you could find anywhere.
Jeremy Foley had arguably the plum football job in the nation and a blank check to hire the absolute best person to lead it and he came up with Ron Zook. The Zooker!
Supposedly, the Broncos' Mike Shanahan was contacted about the job and there were even rumors that John Gruden might be interested, but when it came time for the press conference to announce Steve Spurrier's replacement, there were Foley and Zook. The Zooker! (If you haven't guessed by now, I love writing "The Zooker," the only thing I love more than writing "The Zooker" is saying, "Zooker!")
The most influential coach in SEC football since Bear Bryant was being replaced by a man who'd never been a head coach before, who'd been demoted previously by Spurrier from one of his staffs and someone who no one considered an elite college football mind.
I'll never forget living in Birmingham listening to Zook's introductory press conference at Florida on the radio. The manic, near hysterical, erratic, panting Zook sounded like a crazy person. No coherence, no gravity, no idea how wacko he sounded. I couldn't believe my ears. This guy had no clue! The mighty Gators were going down! Ding, dong the witch is dead. What Spurrier built, Foley hath killed. Following that debacle of a press conference, there wasn't a single talk show host or columnist who didn't mock Zook's first impression or Foley's decision.
Foley may have been the only one surprised when three years later he had to fire Zooker for turning the Gators into a laughingstock.
Foley would take more arrows when it was rumored that he would require Spurrier, who'd since resigned from the Redskins, to interview for his old job and there was speculation he was interested in coming back.
Can you imagine the ego and hubris of Foley expecting Spurrier to come to him with a resume and references in hand having to interview to be head coach at Florida? Galling.
Foley sat at the throne of one of the most powerful athletic departments in the country, but the natives were more than a bit restless; another hire like Zook and it wouldn't just be the football coach who was looking for a new job the next time around.
Here is where the story gets interesting, where Foley's legacy will ultimately reside and where we can learn a lot from him and his initially folly.
Since Foley fired Zook midseason, he got the jump on all the other schools who would be looking for new coaches at season's end and he immediately set his sights on Utah's Urban Meyer who was soaring up the coaching ladder in college football. Foley zeroed in on Meyer, wined him and dined him, refused to take "no" for an answer and ultimately landed his prize, prying him away from his dream job at Notre Dame where there was also a vacancy that was his for the taking. Foley showed tenacity, guile and brilliance in nabbing Meyer and it's obvious now he made the right choice.
What Jeremy Foley went through, and how he came out on the other side, should be a lesson for us all.
Once Foley knew his decision to hire Zook would never work out as expected, he fired him, immediately. He worked to correct the decision today. It was painful, it was embarrassing, but Foley didn't go down with the ship, he didn't isolate himself from public opinion or dig in behind a decision that was clearly a loser. Foley admitted his mistake and worked doggedly to resolve it.
By doing this, Foley took ownership of his mistake, he didn't allow his mistake to own him. Each and every one of us makes mistakes. Big ones. We all make bad decisions and have failures, but it's how we respond to them that determines our future.
George Washington had a losing record in battle. Ulysses S. Grant suffered more casualties than any other Union general in the Civil War. Teddy Roosevelt lost an election, so did John Adams, so did Abraham Lincoln.
Like Jeremy Foley, none of those men allowed their failures to own them. They pressed on, they took ownership of their failures, they worked to correct their mistakes and history regards them as heroes for it.
Jeremy Foley is a great athletic director. He bravely picked a largely unknown 30-year-old assistant at Kentucky, Billy Donovan, to lead his basketball program. He has kept Donovan in Gainesville for over a decade despite more tradition rich schools like Kentucky regularly pursuing him aggressively to leave. He wrestled college football's brightest star Urban Meyer away from Notre Dame. Florida has the best coaches, the best athletes and the best facilities in college sports and it's due in no small part to Jeremy Foley's successes, but it is from his greatest failure that we should most admire him.