Florida fires soccer coach amid allegations of player mistreatment as greater concerns emerge

By OnlyGators.com Staff
April 27, 2022
Florida fires soccer coach amid allegations of player mistreatment as greater concerns emerge
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Image Credit: UAA / @GatorsFB

The Florida Gators fired head soccer coach Tony Amato on Wednesday as a report alleging widespread player mistreatment during his lone season leading the program was awaiting publication. On the field, Amato led the soccer team to a 4-12-4 record in 2022, by far the worst regular-season mark in program history.

In announcing the firing, athletic director Scott Stricklin did not address the allegations as the university referred to his departure as the two parties “parting ways”.

“This decision was extremely difficult. My thorough evaluation of the soccer program is that there is a disconnect between Tony and his athletes,” Stricklin said in a statement. “We have worked diligently with Tony since last fall when I first became aware of challenges with relationship building and communication. As the issues continued to be brought to my attention, it became apparent that sufficient progress was not being made and Tony was not a fit for the University of Florida. … I fully recognize the disruption this causes our athletes and our program. We all wanted this to work, but ultimately it is my responsibility to do what is in the best long-term interest of this program, and thus this decision.”

Amato, who signed a six-year contract last May, is exiting just 11 months after he took over the program, which under his tenure saw significant declines both in play on the field and in morale off the field. In fact, 17 players (four direct departures, 13 transfers) have exited the program under his leadership.

Allegations against Amato, as uncovered by Fresh Take Florida’s Payton Titus, include the coach “making comments about [players’] eating habits and body shapes despite knowing that some players have struggled with eating disorders”.

In her reporting, Titus clarifies that Amato runs a fitness-first system where lean physiques and speedy athletes are ideal; however, actions taken and comments made in regards to his players nutrition and physical fitness went beyond what’s acceptable from a coach.

Among the actions allegedly taken by Amato were not providing sufficient food on a road trip, not letting players see the field who ate ice cream the night before a game, directly admonishing players for food choices and forcing players to weigh-in before charter flights. At least one player developed an eating disorder, and at least one other fell into depression, Titus learned as part of her reporting.

Players and staff reportedly expressed their concerns to the University Athletic Association in an official letter. That resulted in a group counseling session where the players were heard out by a therapist, though Amato was not in attendance. In March, Stricklin reportedly promised a full investigation, and Amato “issued a general apology to players during a team meeting March 22” with Stricklin in attendance.

Just one month after that apology, Amato is now out with Stricklin facing a familiar crisis as two of his first three external head coaching hires at Florida have now departed amid allegations of player mistreatment.

Former head women’s basketball coach Cameron Newbauer resigned on July 16, 2021, as a similar report was nearing publication alleging abuse and the creation of a toxic environment within that program. Just six weeks earlier in June 2021, despite a mountain of internal allegations against Newbauer, it was announced the coach had signed an extension offered by Stricklin.

Stricklin chose not to directly address the details of the allegations and subsequently went on an extended media blackout, including during the ensuing football season, one that was filled with performance issues from head coach Dan Mullen and a rising public sentiment for the coach’s ouster.

Mullen, who previously led the Gators to sterling performances on the field, had already incurred a one-year show-cause order and one year of probation from the NCAA amid recruiting violations, and he also gave the university a black eye with public comments about desiring to “Pack The Swamp” during the raging COVID-19 pandemic. Coupled with the failings of the team in 2022 and his refusal to significantly change his coaching staff, Mullen’s firing came swiftly before season’s end.

However, since Mullen’s departure, much of the shift that the Florida football program has undergone under new head coach Billy Napier has been internal. It was revealed that there was significant dissatisfaction among players about their living situations, team meals and even on-campus parking; issues that were ignored by Mullen’s staff but have quickly been addressed by Napier.

While quite different than the allegations against Amato and Newbauer, some of Mullen’s failings — and the fact that Stricklin has been forced to fire the first three head coaches he hired since taking over the Gators’ athletic department — raise plenty of questions about Stricklin’s future.

Did he and his staff simply not vet Amato and Newbauer well enough? Were issues uncovered but not considered to be disqualifying factors for their employment? Why was Newbauer given an extension and allowed the opportunity to resign rather than be fired given the overwhelming level of allegations against him? What changed in the last month between Amato’s internal apology and his sudden departure?

These are all questions Stricklin still needs to answer, and they should be asked not only by those covering the program but UF president Kent Fuchs and the university’s board of trustees.

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