On the heels of one of the biggest transitional offseasons in program history, Florida Gators executive associate athletic director Mike Hill sat down with OnlyGators.com for 45 minutes to discuss chances to the football and basketball programs, the inner workings of the University Athletic Association and whether athletic director Jeremy Foley really is that resistant to special uniforms for the football team.
Hill, who has just begun his 23rd season at Florida, is also largely responsible for the Gators’ basketball scheduling, which has been turned upside down due to changes in renovation plans for the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
OnlyGators.com conducted the below interview with Hill ahead of the start of Florida’s 2015 football season.
Adam Silverstein (OnlyGators.com): Florida’s football facilities have been upgraded and obviously there is a change in personality at the top of the program now with Jim McElwain at the helm. What is the most discernible difference you’ve seen with the program over the last few months?
Mike Hill: “Every head coach has their own approach, their own personality. For Coach Mac, what impresses me about his approach is that he is very methodical. He’s very thoughtful in his evaluation of what he wants to accomplish and how he wants to accomplish it. He makes very few decisions cavalierly. He sees that everything that comes into play that somehow interacts with our football program could in some small way affect our football program positively or negatively, so it matters. I wouldn’t call it ‘micromanaging’ at all. I have been impressed by his attention to detail in a way that isn’t so absorbing that it gets in the way of seeing the big picture.”
Silverstein: The indoor practice facility, in a lesser form, was in the planning stages, but obviously McElwain requested a larger facility. There have also been upgrades to the athletic dorms and a large expenditure for additional support staff. Have his requests and his very purposeful management of the team opened some eyes as to what the Gators didn’t have – that perhaps was needed?
Hill: “Any time you hire a new football coach, you go into it knowing that your new coach is going to add a new perspective, a fresh perspective. It happens every time, not just when you hire a new football coach – that’s part of the advantage of getting a fresh perspective, a new perspective. The football practice facility – already in the works; the dorm upgrades – already in the works. And yet, he still put his fingerprints on those projects and shed some different light or new light on the program and how we need to approach things. And that’s healthy.”
“We all talked about it as a staff when we were going through the hiring process. We had to have an expectation that the next person we brought in – we knew if we brought someone in that some things would be shaken up. That’s OK. That’s healthy.”
Silverstein: It sounds like McElwain has a ceiling-to-floor checklist he is going through, and he has previously mentioned in general terms his 18-month plan. Would you say that, over the next 2-3 years, that players, recruits and fans will see more of these adjustments coming, whether involving facilities, infrastructure or the stadium?
Hill: “I can’t really get into specifics, but I will tell you that, yes, I would expect that this will be a trend and not a six-month honeymoon period where all the ideas are on the table. He and our staff and our football program are looking for ways to reinvent our program and get it where it needs to be. That work never stops and that growth never stops.”
Silverstein: McElwain was far from the only major hire made this offseason, so let’s transition over to basketball for a second. What has Mike White done already that has been a change of pace from Billy Donovan? Everyone is so concerned about White following in Donovan’s footsteps, but it seems he is ready to carve his own path from the get-go.
Hill: “It’s hard to say at this point because, first of all, there’s been limited interaction with players although there has been interaction. They’ve had a chance to work those kids out. The overall sense of the program I have is that Mike is his own man, he’s his own guy and he’s got his own style about it. It’s a great style. It has gone over extremely well with our team. In fact, the whole staff I would say has been embraced by our players. You never quite know how that’s going to go. Of course, we hired him, so we were excited about the hire, but you never know how student-athletes are going to react and respond to a new staff.
“So far, rave reviews. We’ll see how they feel after they’re practicing full-throttle when they get back and they’re able to start practice later this fall full-steam, but I’ve been impressed by the structure of how he works the kids out. It’s a very fast-paced environment and yet structured. There’s an order and a sensibility to his workouts with those guys that maybe at first wasn’t readily available to those guys but after they had their third or fourth workout with the staff, they got it and understood the expectations. Now they’re calibrated to what practice in the fall will look like.
“Mike’s got a really, really good big-picture vision of what it takes to have a successful program. That comes from all of his experiences, not just being the coach at Louisiana Tech for four years. … It’s been a resounding success so far. And the reception that our fans have given him has been extremely positive. When you hire someone to replace a guy like Billy Donovan, who’s a future hall of famer, in a lot of places the scrutiny can be really overbearing and overwhelming. He’s really been embraced by our fan base, which has been great to see.”
Silverstein: Florida fired its football coach, saw its basketball coach leave for the NBA and then had its three-time defending national championship gymnastics coach (Rhonda Faehn) plucked away by the national team. What was the feeling around the UAA this offseason – not just losing coaches, but a change in leadership with President Kent Fuchs? Was it the most difficult period you and Jeremy Foley have experienced since you got into your current positions?
Hill: “It was an intense time period in terms of all that we had to accomplish and the magnitude of what we had to accomplish. And yet, I don’t feel like it was overwhelming to our staff. I don’t feel like it was, in any way, that the morale was warped at all. It was a pretty remarkable stretch. As I’ve told many people, I experienced a career’s worth of coaching hires in six months, and that’s just not normal. The others involved in the process experienced something that’s really, really rare. Never did we stop and pause and say, ‘Oh boy, woe is me, things are not going great for the Gators.’ No. No. To be perfectly honest with you, probably the hardest part of the whole deal was watching football not work out under Will [Muschamp]. That was the hardest.”
Silverstein: You have a heavy hand in Florida’s basketball scheduling. Obviously delaying renovations to the Stephen C. O’Connell Center took what appeared to be a well-laid scheduling plan and threw it into a blender. One of those plans that appears to have been messed up was the home-and-home with Michigan State, which was announced after the O’Dome renovation delay. Why is UF still set to head to East Lansing next season and not the other way around, given the need for road contests in 2016-17/
Hill: “When we first started the conversations with Michigan State, the plan was that we were going to be out of the building this year. And so they went through incredible gymnastics to rearrange some things in their schedule to make that happen. And then we flipped the switch. And so, that was one of the factors. The other factor was that our scheduling model is based on having two major power five-quality opponents at home, which also usually means you have to go on the road because you’re returning or starting a series. We have two already in Florida State and the SEC/Big 12 Challenge in West Virginia. It just made sense.
“The series to me was so important, I felt like it needed to happen. Michigan State was tremendous in working with us to basically skip a season where we weren’t available to play in our building so that we could get them in here the following year and play them at home. It works out great. If you weren’t having the O’Connell Center situation to deal with, no one would be any wiser. They would say, ‘OK, you got two big ones at home, two big on the road.’ It was really a byproduct of those two factors.
“Our scheduling model was in place to have two [big nonconference] home games and we and Michigan State had gone through enormous gymnastics to make the series work with the understanding that the building wasn’t going to be available this year. And so, we didn’t and they didn’t want to see the series disappear because of our change in our facility plans. I give Tom Izzo and Kevin Pauga, who was their director of basketball ops and scheduling group, a lot of credit for working with us and making it happen.”
Silverstein: Many fans believe the Gators are generally opposed to wearing special uniforms in football due to not seeing them for a number of years, primarily since the departure of Urban Meyer, who was famously a fan of switching things up when Nike provided the opportunity. Is this an accurate representation of Florida’s stance on alternate or special uniforms, especially since Foley has said that he prefers to stick with tradition? Is there an actual resistance to doing this now? It seems a bit strange when you guys are seemingly doing everything you can to market to fans and garner support.
Hill: “There’s no resistance to that all. We love it … when the timing’s right. It has been a few years [since we’ve worn a special uniform]. Part of that is your uniform partners also want to capitalize on programs that are having big success. Obviously, we had a couple years where we struggled there. I think though it’s definitely on our radar, on Nike’s radar, to have those conversations. We’re open to doing some special uniforms.
“Now to your point, we absolutely intend to maintain our traditional uniforms. To have an occasional special uniform is something we’re very interested in and we know that the fans love it. We also know it has an impact on recruits, on your players. It’s a fun part of college football, and it’s really become a part of the pageantry of college football is what these teams are wearing, and kids love it. We’re not resistant at all to that.”
Silverstein: A couple of years ago, the UAA decided to add an in-house media team as part of the communications department. Why did you feel that was necessary to have and what factored into that decision? Was it something that was pushed for by IMG in order to create additional content and revenue? Lastly, how has it developed and worked out for Florida?
Hill: “It’s been fantastic. The plan that we designed was to develop a staff of writers – and now we have a photographer – that can really provide more content for our fans. It has generated tremendous readership. It’s given us content for social media, for the website. IMG, there’s no question IMG likes that, but IMG did not drive the decision. It was an organizational, a UAA strategic decision.
“It also allows us to have a voice so that we can share the athletic department’s perspective on things that sometimes does not always get out, that is not always portrayed in traditional media. That’s not being critical of traditional media. When you have a forum and you have a means to communicate directly to your fan base, there’s real value in that. That is the impetus behind that decision, and it’s been hugely successful. We’ve had numerous schools contact us to learn more about it and potentially model their own operation from that.”
Silverstein: Is it fair to say that there was an extended period of adjustment within that team, not just within the department itself but as it related to the traditional media that covers the program without that additional level of access?
Hill: “Absolutely. You’re spot on. I do think it’s better now. I don’t think it’s perfect, but I think it’s much, much better. There was some resistance and some resentment, I think, among the traditional media, but our goal has never been to shutout the media that’s been covering the Gators forever. It’s important that media outlets in Gainesville, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, Miami and across the state have access to our program. It can’t just be the Gators’ voice either, and we understand that.
“We work really, really hard to strike a balance there. It’s not often that we are breaking news. Occasionally, we will if we feel it’s a necessity. But typically we’re not breaking news. It happens on occasion, but it’s not commonplace. Sure, there’s some exclusive access our writers have because they’re embedded in our staff. That’s been valuable to our program and our fans. It’s not intended to be to the detriment to members of the media that need to cover our programs.”
Silverstein: When cost of attendance figures were released by CBS Sports and USA Today, there was a striking disparity between the numbers offered by Florida and Florida State. Is that something that the UAA was aware of prior to the release of those numbers, and is there any particular reason that the disparity between UF and FSU – and other members of the SEC – is so drastic?
Hill: “We are certainly very aware of the discrepancies not only between the state but between the SEC. This is an issue that programs across the country are wrestling with right now. Schools are maybe providing less than others in cost of attendance are certainly more up in arms about it than others. It’s an irritant, I think, for some programs. I would not say that the Gators are up in arms about it. Would we like it to be consistent? Well, sure. But there’s not a perfect way to do that.
“Cost of attendance is something that has been calculated by financial aid offices for years and years and years for the federal government. It’s not something you can instantly go in and make it top dollar as it compares to the highest cost of attendance figure in the SEC or even within the state. You want to make sure everything is above board as a program. The calculations vary based on what they use to determine basic expenses for any student, not just for athletes. … There’s not a consistent methodology and not a consistent organization those calculating these figures. That’s why we’re seeing these discrepancies.”
Silverstein: This is your 23rd year with the Gators. Anyone who has worked with a single organization for that long usually feels there is something about his job or company that is constantly misunderstood. So this is an open-ended question for you: What do people currently believe that is a mischaracterization of Florida or the UAA.
Hill: “I don’t know that there’s one overwhelming issue that would stand out. The narrative that athletics and the UAA is only about money, it doesn’t reinvest, is sometimes an internal frustration because it’s just false. We try really, really hard to run a fiscally-responsible department for a long, long time. There are expenses that are incurred as part of running a program at this level, at this magnitude, and I know fans take great pride in the successes of all of our programs. When we win a national title in softball, the exposure that gives our institution and the feedback that we get from the alums and fans that maybe have never attended a softball game in their life, but they are so proud and it matters to them. To sustain excellence across the board for an athletics program like this – the only program ever to be in the top 10 of every Director’s Cup in the history of the Director’s Cup – is not an inexpensive proposition. So when we make financial decisions, it’s always related to sustaining and building and growing our program and not because the organization only cares about money.
“I think it’s also important to know that, as you see other schools operate in a way that seemingly puts the Gators ‘behind,’ whether it’s facilities or operations, our fiscal responsibility has been directly tied as well to our ability to manage our debt. Many, many schools in this league and across the country have taken on a frightening amount of debt, something we’re not willing to do. Our total debt I think in this conference ranks 11th out of 14 schools. When we are in the process of building facilities or taking on new initiatives, we rely very, very heavily on raising those funds rather than just borrowing the money. We think that’s the right thing to do, the right way to do it so we don’t mortgage the future of this program and the institution. I would say those are the things, as it relates to our finances and how we manage them, we find frustrating that that message seems to get misunderstood by people that don’t realize what our priorities are and why we do what we do.”