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Friday, June 1, 2007
Foley makes Florida job even more attractive

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Jeremy Foley.

Those were the first two words out of Memphis coach John Calipari's mouth Thursday night in saying why the now-vacant Florida position is a great job. Because whoever succeeds Billy Donovan will end up working for Foley, one of the best athletic directors in the country.

Foley's reputation across the country will be the reason why any coach will listen if Florida calls.

"He is as good as there is out there," said Calipari, sitting in the stands at the Milk House on the campus of Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex on Thursday night at the NBA's pre-draft camp. "I'm not a candidate, but there are six or so ADs in the country I say you go and work for. And he's one of them."

And Foley is one of the main reasons why Donovan wrestled with leaving Florida for the Orlando Magic.

Donovan has told ESPN.com on numerous occasions how close he is to his athletic director and how much he appreciated Foley's loyalty to him. When asked earlier Thursday about the decision, Donovan's father, Bill Sr., said that his son's relationship with Foley made the decision even tougher. The trust and loyalty the two share meant the world to Donovan. That relationship was cited as one of the main reasons why Donovan didn't want to entertain a potential offer to go to Kentucky: He'd be leaving one good friend as an athletic director for another AD who he didn't know that well.

And it is Foley who will likely pick Donovan's successor. Foley was the athletic director who, in a stealth form, swooped out of his vacation home in Burlington, Vt., to grab Utah's Urban Meyer out from under Notre Dame in 2004.

This time around, Foley could go in a number of directions.

Foley told ESPN.com on Thursday night that he seriously hadn't thought about a successor to Donovan because he didn't think the coach would leave. Throughout the NCAA Tournament, Foley constantly said he believed Donovan would stay at Florida if Kentucky called. He wasn't fretting an overture from the Memphis Grizzlies. But then, once Orlando's offer arrived in its totality Thursday, he knew he would most likely be facing a decision on the Gators' next coach.

He has stayed close with Donovan's former assistant Anthony Grant, who left after the 2006 national title to lead VCU to an NCAA Tournament first-round win over Duke. Grant is the populist choice among the current and former players. But he's more reserved than Donovan and Meyer.

If Foley wants to look beyond Grant, and he might, then Villanova's Jay Wright could top that list. Wright fits the Foley profile -- he's a high-energy coach who is viewed as having few if any deficiencies from running an entire program. And going to a major BCS power could be enticing to Wright. Villanova wouldn't be able to match Florida's money if Foley were to call.

There could be others -- plenty at the national level -- who would be interested because of Foley. He's a lifelong Gator. He's spent his career working his way up through the athletic department. He bleeds orange and blue. His passion for the place, his personality and his commitment to keeping the programs financially sound, mean he won't have a problem luring Grant or a national name like Wright or anyone else.

"When we hired Billy Donovan, we sat down and made a conscious effort to make it our goal to change the culture of Florida basketball and make it relevant to the fan base and to prove we weren't just a football school," Foley told ESPN.com on Thursday night. "We have changed that here with the two-time defending national champs and a committed fan base and a practice facility. It's a different gig than when Billy took it 11 years ago. The bulk of the credit, or rather 99.9 percent of it, goes to Billy."

Billy Gillispie will have Kentucky back as a national power again next season (the Wildcats never left in terms of their popularity and overall NCAA status) and a likely SEC title contender year in and year out. But there is an expectation that Florida will be there as well. Certainly, Donovan would have kept the Gators competitive despite losing his top six scorers.

Former Gators Al Horford, Taurean Green, Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah all said Thursday they expected the Gators to be just fine. Green said he thinks the Gators will be a sleeper next season and an NCAA team with Walter Hodge, Marreese Speights and a talented group of newcomers led by Nick Calathes and Jai Lucas.

Assuming everyone on the roster stays put and the incoming recruits remain committed, the Gators should be a player in the SEC.

Regardless of who is chosen as the next coach, Foley will ensure that this program won't slide farther than one would have expected after losing the top six scorers off a team that won two straight titles. Sure the Gators are losing a bit of their cache without Donovan, but Foley isn't about to let a program with back-to-back titles slip out of being one of the top-10 programs in the country.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.