GAINESVILLE, Fla. — March Madness is one of Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley’s favorite times of year.
Foley left for Atlanta this week to attend the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament and hopes to spend much of the month on the road with the No. 1-ranked Gators, who won a school-record 29 regular-season games and became the first team in SEC history to finish 18-0 in the conference.
The Gators, seeking to win their first SEC Tournament since 2007, will find out Sunday night their destination for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Meanwhile, the spring sports season is underway and several Gator teams are atop or near the top of the national rankings.
Foley sat down with GatorZone.com recently to discuss the latest on the SEC Network, football season-ticket sales, Billy Donovan’s impact on this year’s Gators, and more.
Here is our Q&A:
Q: What is the impact of the recent news that the DISH Network reached an agreement to carry the SEC Network, set to launch in August?
A: I think that’s significant news for the SEC Network. The DISH Network is distributed throughout the whole country and gives fans an option. We’re confident that cable companies are going to jump on board. I know ESPN is working diligently to get that done.
Q: The O’Connell Center has been a popular place this season as the Gators ascended to No. 1. What’s the latest on the potential renovation of the facility?
A: The fundraising efforts continue. I feel confident by the end of this month that we are going to be in a good position hopefully to get with the president, the university, our [University Athletic Association] board of directors and begin to make some plans to hopefully design the project this summer. All of us here are feeling a sense of urgency. We don’t feel like it’s a project we can delay another year. If everything works smoothly, we begin designing it this summer and start construction at the end of next basketball season. But we’ve still got some work to do on the fundraising. Our target has always been to see where we are at the end of March. I know our fundraising folks are working diligently and we have a lot of fans that have expressed an interest. I think at the end of the day it’s going to come together.
Q: What did you think about the atmosphere in the O’Connell Center to honor the senior class and celebrate the 18-0 SEC season?
A: I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an environment such as that. Obviously we’ve played a lot of big games in there and it’s been special and it’s been loud, but the whole vibe — the crowd, the seniors, the ranking, the students camping out, CBS being here — it was as tight a ticket as I can remember. It was an ultimate feel-good day for our program.
Q: What’s the latest you are hearing about a potential nine-game conference football schedule?
A: The athletic directors have had ongoing conversations and the presidents have recently. I’m sure we’ll talk about it again in Atlanta [at the SEC Tournament] and in May at our spring meeting. I think everybody would love to have it done before Destin, but it’s conceivable that we’ll go into Destin still without a decision. It’s a significant issue that has to be thoroughly vetted. It’s not like there is a bunch of fighting going on, it’s just we’re looking at options: eight games with no permanent opponents, eight games with permanent opponents, nine with, nine without. There are a lot of different variables to be considered. Certainly by June we are going to have a decision because we have to. We have to begin scheduling for the future.
Q: What is the message to fans interested in watching the Gators in person during the NCAA Tournament, when tickets are distributed differently than during the regular season?
A: In the first round you get 350 [from the NCAA] and you can buy an additional 200. If we’re in a place that is close by, we’ll attempt to purchase some tickets from teams coming in that aren’t going to use the full allotment. Bottom line, tickets are going to be tight. People don’t quite understand why that is. The individual arenas have no idea of the schools that are going to be sent in. I’m sure when Orlando bid on the tournament, they would love to have a Florida team, but they don’t know that. So they’ve got to sell their tickets locally and can’t hold back a lot for the teams because if they get teams that don’t have a proximity to the city, then they are stuck with them.
Q: What stands out to you about the job Billy Donovan has done specifically with this year’s team?
A: The chemistry on the team, the unselfishness on the team, I think that’s a direct result of Billy’s teaching and coaching, his relentless efforts in that regard. Obviously talent wins games but those things are significant contributors to our success. That’s what stands out. A bunch of guys that buy in to what he believes in terms of being unselfish, putting the team above everything else, caring about each other, that’s what this team is. I’ll be honest with you — I could say the same thing about the ’06 and ’07 teams. I could talk about the overall talent, the top-10 draft picks, but it was the exact same chemistry, the exact same unselfishness, the exact same caring about each other. The common denominator is Billy Donovan. His teams that have exhibited those qualities have all been very, very successful.
Q: The depth of the athletic department is on full display this spring with so many teams doing well. What are your thoughts on the importance of that success?
A: We’ve always taken pride in having an across-the-board commitment to 21 sports. If we’re going to be in the business of competing, we’re going to try and compete at the highest level in all sports. We understand there are a couple of sports around here that need to be successful because they generate much of the revenue, but I can assure you the success in the other sports is equally important to us. That’s a reflection of the job our coaches do and also a reflection of our commitment, to make sure they know and our athletes know that their success is very important to us. I think it’s just indicative of a university and an athletic program that has a commitment to 21 sports.
Q: What is the significance of head football coach Will Muschamp opening nine practices to the public this spring?
A: You hear a lot about that. I think spring ball is a good chance for us to showcase some of our young players and some new additions to the coaching staff. We’re coming off a difficult year, so maybe fans can come in and see how hard these guys work and see how hard these kids work. I do think there is a point, especially in the fall, when practices should be closed. It’s their office so to speak. When it’s OK to open them up, you open them up, let fans enjoy the experience and hopefully when it’s time to shut them down when you’re trying to get ready to open the season, fans can understand that as well. We’re all in this thing together. We all want the same thing. I just think it’s a great chance this spring to expose our football team to our fans and vice versa.
Q: What’s the latest update on football season-ticket sales?
A: They are going very, very well. Our fans have reacted very positively. We have great fans. We talk about and talk about and talk about it — it’s not lip service, it’s the truth. We want the same things our fans want. We want a very, very successful football program. Obviously Coach Muschamp wants that. No one is working harder than he is to get the ship turned, but our fans are with us. They have been with us as long as I have been at the University of Florida and nothing is different right now. We’re on pace to do exactly what we did a year ago and maybe surpass it a little bit. What does that say when you come off a difficult year? It says something about our fans, something about their commitment. We talk about commitment to our programs — our fans have a commitment to our programs as well.
Q: The men’s basketball team is playing in the Battle for Atlantis in the fall. What’s the importance of competing in that event?
A: I think it’s something that maybe Billy has opened himself up to more. I think if you look at our schedule the last several years, bottom line when the season tips off, we’re not afraid to play a quality, quality schedule before the conference schedule starts: Kansas, Wisconsin, Florida State, Connecticut this year, the Battle for Atlantis next year, that field is off the charts. I think it’s good to expose our program. We have a high-profile program and a very high-profile coach, and I think the more exposure you get from things like that, it helps in recruiting, which helps you win games. We like playing the big boys and I think Billy has proven that time and time again the last several years.
Q: What went into the decision to permit both teams in the annual Florida-Georgia game in Jacksonville to wear their home jerseys?
A: It’s just something a little different. To be honest, a fan suggested it. He sent me a picture of what they used to do when Coach Spurrier was playing. He had a blue jersey on and whoever was tackling him had a red jersey on. It’s a unique rivalry and just a little different something to do. There is no particular reason. Georgia agreed and we agreed. At the end of the day, you’ve still got to win the ballgame no matter what color jersey you have on. I think it’s just a little something that makes the game even more unique.