Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley is right.
The statement he released Wednesday – crafted into a story for the Gators’ official website – was “not the quote-unquote dreaded ‘vote of confidence.’”
It was much more than that.
It was arguably the best athletic director in the country putting his unequivocal support behind a first-time head coach in Will Muschamp, one who currently possesses a 22-13 record in less than three full seasons at his school.
Foley said he was “a thousand percent convinced” that Muschamp was his man when he hired him and is still the right person to lead Florida going forward. “Nothing has changed in what we feel about Will Muschamp from the day we hired him.”
Simply put, that’s not how a growing number of fans feel.
Some Gators understandably questioned Foley’s hiring of Muschamp from the get-go.
Replacing offensive-minded Urban Meyer, he of two national championships and three BCS bowl game victories, with a first-time head coach who earned his chops on being a premier defensive coordinator and outstanding recruiter made Muschamp resemble Foley’s first-ever head football coach hire, Ron Zook, a bit too much.
But Muschamp had other qualities of which to boast. He was the quote-unquote “coach-in-waiting” at Texas and a quote-unquote “son of Gainesville” in that he and his brothers were raised just miles from Florida Field. Muschamp certainly had to fight an up-hill battle to win the affections of the fan base, but he went a long way to overcoming that obstacle with an 11-2 record in just his second season.
Also unlike Zook, Muschamp was forced to clean up an exceedingly messy situation inside the program, promising at his introductory press conference to run the Gators football program the quote-unquote “right way.” So far it appears to have lived up to that promise off the field, even if it has not been reflected in his composite record on it.
The problem is that fans have taken such a sharp turn against Muschamp this season, especially following Florida’s loss to Vanderbilt – the first since 1988 and first at home since 1945 – that Foley’s “not the quote-unquote dreaded ‘vote of confidence,’” rather than achieve one of its intended effects – to calm the noise inside the program – has made fans start unjustifiably questioning Foley’s own leadership and hiring aptitude.
There is even the growing notion that Foley’s only football hires have been Zook and Muschamp – two so-called failures – while bringing in Meyer is being credited more and more each passing day to former Utah president Bernie Machen, who officially started his tenure at UF exactly one month after Meyer’s hiring became official.
CHOMPING: Let’s just take a moment and squash that notion. Meyer was one of the preeminent coaching names in college football and on everyone’s short list, at least those considering hiring a new head coach. There is no doubt that Machen helped convince Meyer to ultimately choose Florida as his destination, but that does not mean Foley had not decided Meyer was his man, nor that he would have been unable to lasso him on his own without Machen’s assistance.
No matter what Foley has done for Florida’s athletic program as a whole – like serving as the unquestioned catalyst for head basketball coach Billy Donovan being hired, retained and him ultimately deciding to return – an athletic director’s legacy at an institution like UF is largely determined by how he manages his football program.
Foley has made some of the most brilliant hires in college sports history when it comes to basketball (as noted above), soccer, gymnastics, track & field, swimming, lacrosse – and the list goes on – but making the right decisions with the football program is what Gators fans, alumni and boosters care most about.
That’s why Foley’s statement – again, “not the quote-unquote dreaded ‘vote of confidence’” – was indeed much more than that.
A vote of confidence is usually a half-hearted attempt by an administrator to throw support behind an embattled head coach in an effort to get fans’ discontent, media-created hot seats and the like under some sort of control.
Foley went way beyond that. He linked his legacy at Florida to Muschamp’s success and has risked his reputation being tarnished – whether briefly or permanently – by his decision not just to hire Muschamp but back him with “a thousand percent” certainty.
He is an intelligent man and did not do this while unaware of the consequences.
Muschamp was not a hire made on a whim by Foley. He had a full year to vet candidates, poll references and make what he believed to be the right decision.
Unlike Meyer, one of a couple names on Foley’s list heading into the 2005 season, he claimed to have no list or decided back-up plan in 2011.
It was only Muschamp, No. 1 with a bullet.
“We will get better under Will Muschamp’s leadership,” Foley proclaimed Wednesday. “This is not the quote-unquote dreaded ‘vote of confidence.’ This is just how we all feel around here. We have a strong faith and a strong belief in his capabilities, his leadership skills, in his ability to evaluate what needs to be fixed.
“Go back a year ago: we’re 11-1 and beat four teams in the top 10 [in the regular season] and he was SEC Coach of the Year. I don’t think that was a fluke. I think coaching has a lot to do with that. We’ll stay the course here. We’ll get it right. We’re not going to let Gator fans down. We want the same thing they want.”
What Florida fans want are wins and titles, but they’ll probable settle for relevance in the near future. The Gators had that in 2012 but lost it as quickly as the injuries started piling up and the season began slipping away in 2013.
What Florida fans see in Muschamp is a coach who has only led his team to victory in 63 percent of its games under his stewardship, an average that will likely decline closer to 60 percent as UF will only be favored in one of its final three games of the season.
But no matter how much distrust there is for Muschamp right now, Foley deserves the benefit of the doubt. His words carry water, which is why he decided to make such a strong statement – “not the dreaded ‘vote of confidence’” – in the first place.
He has now officially stuck his neck out for Muschamp, twice as far as he did when he hired him in the first place.
Foley’s career will never be defined by this hiring – and it will certainly not be on the line if it fails – but his legacy is most certainly at stake. In that there is no question.