Mike Bianchi: Former Florida AD Jeremy Foley: 'Colleges have cash reserves for a rainy day, but this is a hurricane'

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University of Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley during a news conference on December 6, 2014, at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida. - Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

ORLANDO, Fla. — Jeremy Foley, the iconic former athletics director at the University of Florida, is retired now and spending a few weeks this summer in his second home in Vermont.

He began his career at UF more than 40 years ago as a lowly intern stuffing envelopes, parking cars and cleaning bathrooms. He sat in the AD’s chair for 25 years — a span in which the Gators won 24 SEC All-Sports trophies, 130 conference championships and 27 national titles.

Foley still has an office and a title (athletics director emeritus) at UF and serves as an occasional sounding board for current Gators AD Scott Stricklin. Although he is no longer in a decision-making role, Foley still as some strong opinions on the immediate future of college football amid the global pandemic, the long-term future of college athletics and, yes, the importance of wearing face masks.

Foley took some time this week for two separate interviews — one with Marc Daniels and me on our daily radio show and another follow-up phone interview. Here are some highlights of those conversations:

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Mike Bianchi: “Jeremy, everybody knows you’re a music aficionado who loves attending concerts. When Charlie Daniels passed away earlier this week, it made me think about when I was a student at UF many moons ago and I attended a concert at the O’Connell Center with Charlie Daniels and 38 Special. I’m just guessing you were at that show, too.”

Jeremy Foley: “100% I was there! I always admired Charlie Daniels, but I was a big 38 Special fan with them being from Jacksonville. I’ve seen them a bunch of times.”

Mike Bianchi: “What’s the last concert you went to?”

Jeremy Foley: “It was all the way back in August when I saw the Revivalists. I had the Revivalists lined up again for Chicago in March. I had the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dave Matthews lined up in Napa. I had the Revivalists lined up once again in St. Augustine. I had the Black Crowes lined up at Red Rocks (Colorado). Obviously, like everything else in the world, my concert-going has been put on hold.”

Mike Bianchi: “What do you do for fun when you’re up in Vermont?”

Jeremy Foley: “I have great place with an incredible view and privacy. I see bears and deer and foxes walking through my yard. My dog is with me, so we go on journeys every day. I do a lot of reading, and I may drink one or two craft beers every once in a while. When I was an AD, I would come up here and decompress a little bit. When you’re retired, you get to decompress a lot.”

Mike Bianchi: “What are you reading?”

Jeremy Foley: “I’m getting ready to read ‘The Splendid and the Vile’ — a book about Winston Churchill by Erik Larson. My favorite author is Michael Connelly. He’s a Gator, and when he has a book out, I’m reading it. He has a new one out and I just finished it.”

Mike Bianchi: “The Big Ten just announced it plans to play a conference-only football season this fall and the ACC may soon follow suit. If that happens, does that mean the Florida-Florida State game will be canceled?”

Jeremy Foley: I know Scott (Stricklin) will do all he can to protect that game. Obviously, that game is important to both programs and I’m sure both institutions will do everything they can to play it. But this is all uncharted territory right now. Hopefully, we can just play a season — period. Some compromises and sacrifices are going to have to be made. It’s not ideal, but nothing in this world is ideal right now.”

Mike Bianchi: “Do you miss being an AD?”

Jeremy Foley: “Sometimes, I do, but after 25 years in the chair, it was time for me to make the decision I made. I’m still blessed because I still get to be around the Gators. I think people think I’m still involved all the time, but I’m really not. Scott Stricklin is obviously an incredible athletic director for the Gators and my office is nowhere near his. When he needs me, he calls. When he doesn’t, I stay in my office.”

Mike Bianchi: “When you were the AD at UF, the Gators would always battle Stanford for the Directors’ Cup, which goes to the nation’s best overall athletic program. Stanford just discontinued 11 varsity sports. Is this going to become a trend?”

Jeremy Foley: “You certainly hope not. Those are agonizing conversations when you have to cut a sport that impacts so many lives and careers. … You’re looking athletes and coaches in the eye and ripping their dreams away. It’s gut-wrenching, and my heart goes out to Stanford’s programs and all of the other programs that have been dropped.”

Mike Bianchi: “The Ivy League became the first Division I conference earlier this week to announce no football will be played this fall and there is talk they might try to play in the spring. Do you think this will impact what the Power 5 leagues decide?”

Jeremy Foley: “Obviously, people are paying attention and the Ivy League’s reasons are very sound as far as protecting their athletes and the other students on their campuses. At some point, every institution in every league is going to have the same responsibility. That decision for the Power 5 doesn’t need to be made yet, but it’s going to have to be made very soon. If you’re sitting in the chair trying to make the decision (about football in the fall), the Ivy League’s decision is another thing that’s going to weigh in the balance. Maybe you talk to the movers and shakers in the Ivy League and ask them why they made their decision and what was their reasoning.

“Obviously, (comparing the Ivy League to the Power 5 conferences) isn’t apples to apples as far as money being made and fans in the seats, but I don’t think that’s relevant. What is apples to apples is protecting your student-athletes, practicing and travel. These are all things that need to be considered.

“I mean, I just read where North Carolina shut down its on-campus workouts and Ohio State did the same because athletes are testing positive. And those aren’t the only ones. Some schools are shutting down their workouts and they’re just lifting weights and running right now; there’s no practicing or hitting or 100 players on the same field together. We have strong headwinds in front of us.

“I know the people involved — at Florida and throughout college athletics — and they’re going to do what’s right for the student-athletes. Obviously, the money is important, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is taking care of the young men and young women who are entrusted into your care. Every president, every athletic director and every commissioner has that responsibility.”

Marc Daniels: “Can you share the process of how the success of a football program affects every other program in the athletic department at Power 5 programs?”

Jeremy Foley: “At a place like Florida, we have two sports that make money — men’s basketball and, obviously, the main driver for your economic engine is football. When you have 90,000-seat stadiums and a passionate fan base and season-ticket sales, booster contributions and fans being in your sky boxes, buying premium seats and purchasing merchandise in your gift shops — that’s how you run a program. I always took great pride in the across-the-board success we had in our program at Florida. We wanted all of our sports to compete at the highest level, and the reason we were able to do that is because we had outstanding financial resources. Football provides those resources.”

Mike Bianchi: “With all the facilities being built across college athletics, many programs carry a lot of debt. Can these programs pay their bills and loans if there is no football season or a limited season?”

Jeremy Foley: “It’s similar to if somebody lost their job and is trying to figure out how to pay their mortgage. Most major college programs have healthy reserves to get through the tough times. I think you can piece it together (and stay afloat). You have those reserves to get you through a rainy day, but, obviously, this isn’t a rainy day; this is a hurricane.”

Mike Bianchi: “Could this pandemic forever change the way college athletics operate?”

Jeremy Foley: “I go back to 2008 and the last time we had a financial crisis. It was a lot harder to raise money back then. I think that’s certainly going to be the fallout here as well. People who don’t have jobs or have had to take pay cuts and furloughs, they have responsibilities in their own lives and are going to be more protective of their money. Even before the pandemic, I felt one of the biggest challenges in college athletics was maintaining your fan base.

“The world has changed. When I first became AD at Florida, it didn’t matter who we were playing, we had a sold-out game and people were looking for tickets. That’s changed at Florida and at every other program across the country. Television has changed the way people consume sports, and the pandemic will have obvious ramifications as well. Stadiums may need to shrink a little bit. I think 90,000 and 100,000-seat stadiums are a thing of the past.

“But college athletics has survived a lot and is so much a part of the fabric of this county. It’s not going away; it just may need to be different.”

Mike Bianchi: “Last question: Do you get annoyed when you go to the Publix and there’s somebody not wearing a face mask going the wrong way down the one-way aisle?”

Jeremy Foley: “Yes, I do get irritated, but obviously I’m not confronting anybody. I just think it’s incredibly selfish because I think we’re all in this together. I don’t care what your political party is or who you vote for; this is a national effort. I’m up in Vermont — a state that’s leading the country (with the fewest COVID-19 cases). … I get that Vermont is not Florida or Texas and it’s not apples to apples, but what’s happening up here is you cannot go anywhere in this state without having a mask on and everybody has them on.

“It’s the same thing I would tell any sports team: ‘Hey, guys, we’re all in this together. We’re all going to win together or lose together.’ To achieve anything great, everybody has to pull in the same direction.”

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