Jim McElwain didn’t give the game ball to one of his players or coaches after the Florida football team defeated Missouri on Oct. 15.
Instead, the second-year UF head coach passed the ball off to Athletics Director Jeremy Foley following the homecoming victory, the last Foley will see inside The Swamp as the head of Florida’s athletic program.
Foley’s almost quarter-of-a-century term as AD came to a close Monday, with former Mississippi State director of athletics Scott Stricklin set to take his place.
“[To] see the guys stand up, give him a standing ovation and have him break them down when it was all over,” McElwain said, “you know guys, that’s what life’s all about.”
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Foley, 63, worked up to his last day.
Board meetings, traveling with the football team one last time, helping with the committee search to find his replacement and spending two weeks working with the Southeastern Conference to reschedule the LSU football game that was initially postponed due to Hurricane Matthew have consumed his final month on the job.
“I’m well aware of what’s coming down the stretch here,” Foley said, “but I haven’t had the type of time I’d like to reminisce.”
Foley’s journey to the top of one of the most prominent college athletics programs started 40 years ago when he accepted an offer to be a ticket sales intern in 1976. It was the final step to complete his master’s degree in sports administration at Ohio University.
UF was the only school to offer him a position.
But as the years progressed, they learned the name of the wide-eyed ticket office intern who spent most of his life in New Hampshire and played college football and lacrosse at Hobart College in New York.
Over the ensuing 15 years, Foley moved his way up the association’s totem pole before being named AD in March 1992.
And between the day-to-day grind his job entailed, Foley had an added perk about the job that he embraced throughout his tenure as AD: The chance to be a fan.
To him, the job couldn’t be done right otherwise.
“You can’t make every match. There’s a thousand of those. But you better pay attention and better know.”
And Foley was there.
During the fourth quarter of home football games, he stood behind the goal post at the south end zone, waiting to greet players and coaches regardless of the final score.
At basketball games, he sat on press row in front of the Rowdy Reptiles student section, cheering and hollering and slamming his fists on the table in front of him after every play.
On one occasion, after a Florida gymnastics meet, Foley approached then-head coach Rhonda Faehn asking when one of her gymnasts would have Aerosmith for her floor exercise music.
“It was just awesome,” said Faehn, the three-time national championship-winning coach who now serves as the senior vice president of USA Gymnastics. “You could see that he was passionate and excited. It was those little things that stuck out to me more than anything.”
The players recognized Foley’s passion and commitment to their success.
Every summer, incoming student-athletes are required to attend an orientation, during which they participate in meetings and workshops with members of the University Athletic Association.
During one of the meetings, Gabby Mallette remembers Foley walking in and telling the group, “You’re at the University of Florida. This is our brand. You guys are great. We are reaching this common goal.”
“He just kept us to a standard at such a young age that we just ran with it every year,” said Mallette, an outside hitter on Florida’s volleyball team from 2012 to 2015. “He understood that school comes first, and that’s something that even us student-athletes forget. It’s not all about your sport. It’s about you as a person.”
Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and current SEC Network analyst Tim Tebow, who helped lead Florida to two of the program’s three national football titles, said he would talk with Foley prior to each game. After some small talk, Tebow’s message to him was always the same.
“Well, we’re here,” Tebow would tell Foley. “We might as well play it now. We might as well take the field and we might as well try to win.”
And for the most part, Florida programs won under Foley.
In 25 years, the Gators won a combined 27 national team titles in 13 sports.
UF has brought a trophy back to Gainesville each of the past seven years and has ranked in the top 10 of the Directors’ Cup standings each year.
He created three women’s varsity sports during his tenure — soccer (1995), softball (1997) and lacrosse (2010) — that are all national championship contenders every season.
Becky Burleigh, who has been the soccer team’s head coach since its inception, still remembers her first interactions with Foley when she was interviewed for the job in 1994.
A 26-year-old head coach at Barry College in Georgia at the time, she went through about two-and-a-half hours worth of meetings before she had a chance to soak it all in.
“Jeremy obviously took a big risk hiring me ... but he must have had some type of faith in me to be able to do this,” said Burleigh, who has gone on to lead the soccer program to a national championship and 14 regular-season SEC titles. “I really appreciate that because I think it was a pretty bold step.”
After 40 years, Foley still finds it hard to believe that he is still in Gainesville.
“I don’t ever want a clean break from the Gators,” Foley said.
For the immediate future, he won’t have to.
And even though Stricklin is taking over as the school’s athletic director, Foley will still be here. Per his contract agreement, Foley is able to remain at the school as Emeritus Athletics Director through 2018, a position that enables to him to still see a share of his projects, including the $100 million master facility plan, come to fruition.
“No one knows the Florida Gators better than Jeremy Foley does,” Stricklin said, “and to have him available at a moment’s notice is such an incredible resource and a great benefit.”
But in his new role, Foley will remain behind the scenes while Stricklin takes over.
“He’s one of the good guys,” Foley said. “I think we’re blessed as heck to have him.”