Monday, October 09, 2006

The New York Times Discusses Florida Athletic Director's Strategy, Cornrich Comments

October 9, 2006

With a Decisive Dismissal, Florida Remakes Itself


GAINESVILLE, Fla., Oct. 8 — Two years ago this month, the Florida football program was in crisis mode after a loss at Mississippi State.

Things had become so bad that in less than three seasons under Ron Zook the Gators had lost six home games, more than in Steve Spurrier’s 12-year tenure.

So the athletic director, Jeremy Foley, fixed his own mistake by firing Zook the Monday after the Mississippi State debacle. The move, considered unusual and controversial at the time because it was so early in the season, looks ingenious two years later.

Now, under Urban Meyer, Florida is 6-0 for the first time since 1996 and is ranked No. 2 in The Associated Press poll for the first time since 2001. In two years, the Gators have gone from a complete mess to the elite team in this football-rich state, rocketing past Miami and Florida State, both unranked for the first time in 24 years.

One of the legacies of this swift and stunning Florida revival may be a blueprint of how to fire and hire a head coach.

“I don’t want to advocate firing coaches, but if someone is headed down that road, I think it does help,” Foley said of a dismissal early in the season. “You need to do your due diligence, especially in a high-profile program where the scrutiny is going to be very, very high. I don’t think I’ll have to, but I would not hesitate to do it again.”

And with this season crossing its halfway point on Saturday, there is the potential for a slew of high-profile jobs to open. Last season, only four jobs changed hands among the 65 in the six major conferences. Only one of those, Colorado, came from a university firing its coach.

In this short-fuse world of college athletics, where instant results are not quick enough, that low job turnover led to predictions last off-season of an avalanche of job openings.

Most of the speculation will revolve around Bobby Bowden at Florida State and Larry Coker at Miami. Both programs are mired in relative mediocrity.

It is unlikely both of those jobs will open. But if one does, those universities will probably be competing with several others for the top available coaches. Topping the list of jobs likely to be open are North Carolina, Michigan State and Arizona State. None of those jobs are the caliber of Miami and F.S.U., but they offer good tradition, salaries in excess of a million dollars a year and good facilities.

“I think what Foley did was astute and showed clearly there was a strategy,” said Neil Cornrich, a lawyer and agent who represents numerous college coaches, including Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops. “I think that’s the trend. The smart athletic directors will follow Foley.”

What the early firing of Zook did was give Foley five weeks to thoroughly research Meyer, who was coaching at Utah, and other candidates. While Foley did not contact Meyer until after Utah’s regular season ended in late November, he did talk to Meyer’s former bosses and players and his friends. Foley said he ended up with a notebook full of material he would not have gotten had he waited to fire Zook.

“How do I make calls about Urban Meyer when I still have a coach?” Foley said.

The week that Florida hired Meyer, three other programs — Illinois, Washington and Notre Dame — were trying to do the same. Representatives from Washington and Notre Dame ended up in his living room.

But Foley had an advantage when his turn came to try to lure Meyer to Gainesville. Through his research, Foley knew exactly what Meyer wanted.

Instead of dropping off clunky piles of books with generic information about the University of Florida, Foley gave him an itemized book with sections on everything he knew Meyer cared about.

“It was very succinct, very clear,” Meyer said. “It was about how the athletic department worked, the academic structure and where my kids would go to school and where we’d live.”

Foley knew from his research how important family was to Meyer. So Foley had Florida’s basketball coach, Billy Donovan, call Meyer and Donovan’s wife, Christine, call Meyer’s wife, Shelley. They talked about schools, neighborhoods and living environment.

If those interactions and early research had not happened, Foley is not sure things would have worked out the way they did.

“To be honest with you, I don’t think he’d be here,” Foley said of Meyer. “Urban is a thorough guy who doesn’t leave many stones unturned. One reason among many he’s here now and not in South Bend is because we did our research and established a relationship as soon as the season was over.”

Meyer has long loathed the way coaching searches are handled, saying they can be a distraction to a team and often force a coach to make a momentous decision with little time to research. Meyer did not even have a chance to visit Gainesville before taking the Florida job.

“You’re making career decisions and decisions that affect a bunch of young people and universities and you basically have 24 hours to do it,” he said.

With the college coaching landscape appearing ripe for an overhaul this off-season, it will be interesting to see who strikes first.

“The timing allowed us to do our job and allowed us to be where we are today,” Foley said.

And No. 2 in the country two years later shows that a quick hook can yield big results.

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