The biggest Gators in the Swamp (p. 2)

By Brian O'Keefe, Fortune senior editor

It wasn't that long ago that the University of Florida's greatest claim to sports fame was Gatorade, invented in the '60s to help refresh Gator players. Through its first 75 years, the football team failed to win even one SEC crown and operated in the shadow of more successful conference rivals such as Alabama, Georgia, and (may they rot in hell) Tennessee.

The catalyst for change was the arrival of football coach Charley Pell in 1979. Pell, who played for Bear Bryant at 'Bama, looked at Florida and saw a sleeping superpower. He immediately embarked on a crusade to build a fundraising base by encouraging the formation of Gator Clubs around the south. His enthusiasm was infectious. "Charley Pell has a lot to do with where we are today," says Griffin. "He was the one who alerted my father and others that we needed to invest more heavily in our program."

In fact, Pell got some boosters too excited. Despite fielding a formidable team, he resigned in 1984 after admitting to NCAA violations, such as providing money to players. Pell's successor, Galen Hall, also ran into NCAA trouble. (Since AD Foley took over in 1992, the school has avoided further sanctions.) But by the time Florida hired a hot young coach and former star Gator named Steve Spurrier on Dec. 31, 1989, the school had built up the kind of booster support that would allow it to win big and attract new fans.

Fans like Gale Lemerand, who has given well over $5 million - he says he's not exactly sure - and is one of the biggest donors in Florida history. On campus, there's Gale Lemerand Drive and the L. Gale Lemerand Athletic Facility. What's amazing is that Lemerand, 73, didn't go to college at the University of Florida. In fact, he barely went to college at all. He grew up the son of factory workers in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, took a few community college classes after he got out of the Air Force, and eventually got into the insulation business. In 1995 he sold Gale Industries to Masco, a Fortune 500 building products company, for more than $100 million.

Along the way, there wasn't much time for sports. And even after he moved to Florida in 1978 he was barely aware of Gator football. It wasn't until a buddy took him to a game in the early '90s that Lemerand caught the bug.

"I realized I had missed out on the whole college experience," he says. "I decided that I wanted to be around these people. It didn't take long before that turned into a real passion for the Gators." When Spurrier - who would win Florida's first national title in 1996 - wanted money to refurbish the football offices, Lemerand stepped up and launched his career as a booster.

Today, Lemerand enjoys rare access. He's traveled with the football and basketball teams and watched film with the coaches. Now he has an even tighter bond. Word has it Lemerand recently bought the place next to his weekend "Gator House" on Lake Sante Fe, east of Gainesville, and sold it to Urban Meyer. When I ask him about it, he hems and haws but admits that it's true. "He thought he might be able to use the house a couple days a year, but he can hardly stay away," says Lemerand. "He loves it."

Football, business - it's all part of what Coach Meyer might call Lemerand's 110%, results-oriented commitment to excellence. He's involved in five different restaurant concepts, owns 18 title insurance companies, invented a touch-free "Sani-door" for public toilets, and in keeping with his adopted alma mater's history of beverage innovation, recently invested in a new energy drink called Burn. He has no plans to stop giving to the Gators.

"My philosophy is, I don't recall ever seeing a Brinks truck in a funeral procession," says Lemerand. "My children will be taken care of. After that I'm going to give more to the Gators in my trust. They don't even know that yet." Well, they do now.

Back in the Swamp I am confronted by a battle-ax-wielding man wearing a horned helmet and a fur-lined cape: "I am Hjalmar, son of John! I am a Gator Viking ready to beat Auburn!" As Hjalma Johnson breaks into a belly laugh and shakes my hand, I try to imagine him on stage accepting the presidency of the Florida Bankers Association in this very costume, as he did in 1983. (He later served as president of the American Bankers Association, too.) "I thought it was time to introduce the Vikings to the Gators," he says. "We may need 'em to beat the Tigers tomorrow!"

Hjalma - a Norwegian name pronounced, in central Florida at least, as "yomma" - is a 73-year-old Bull Gator whose energy more closely evokes that of a teenage girl jacked up on Red Bull than the semiretired banker and grandfather that he is. As we circulate through the Friday lunch for stadium workers, it's clear he knows just about everyone. ("This is our head of compliance. He does an important job educating our young athletes.")

A native Floridian of Norwegian extraction, Johnson got an engineering degree from Florida in 1958. After a stint in the Army, he got into banking, eventually building up and selling five banks. He still manages $150 million for a select group of clients and sits on boards. But now he's devoting a lot of time to the Gator Boosters.

On Friday night Johnson was in a different costume (tux, Gator bow tie) for the gala banquet to kick off the university's new $1.5 billion capital campaign. Conspicuously absent from that event was much mention of Gator championships or sports of any kind. That was by design.

Concerns about big money in college sports aren't new, but the huge sums now being raised provoke hand-wringing. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, launched an investigation earlier this year into whether athletics donations should remain tax-deductible after a study published in the Journal of Sport Management concluded that bigtime athletics departments have been attracting an increasing share of overall donations from alumni. Sports accounted for an average of 14.7% of all gifts in 1998, the study found; by 2003 it was 26%. At Florida, athletic donations have been between 16% and 18% of total giving to the university for the past four years.

"I know him," Hjalma says of Grassley. "I like him. I've testified before him. But if you said that money paid to Gator Boosters is not tax-deductible you can forget 18 of your 20 sports, because football and basketball are the only ones that pay their own way. Is athletics a builder of young men and women? We think so. There's not one penny of tax support, and we've got an $80 million budget. Who's going to pay for athletics under this plan?"

At kickoff of the Auburn game, the Bull Gators are expecting a blowout. Over plates of catered ribs and pasta salad on the luxury-suite level of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the consensus is Florida by double digits. "We've got speed to burn, and speed kills," one big donor says.

And then the Tigers jump out to an early lead that the Gators never overcome. By the time Auburn lines up for the game-winning field goal, dismay hangs over Hjalma's crowded suite. But Hjalma, no longer in berserker mode, is calm. Thinking long term. (Not even another loss the next week at LSU would shake his optimism.)

"We've had plenty of losing seasons in our 100-year history," he says. "But we're still together and we've got a program that's better than ever." He holds up his hand to show off last year's national championship ring. "Plus, I've still got this, so I feel okay!" And he lets out another belly laugh.

Reporter Associates Doris Burke and Telis Demos contributed to this article. Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.