FLORIDA FOOTBALL & RECRUITING COVERAGE
- Napier talks transfer portal, player living arrangements and more
- Inside the Gators: Mock Signing Class 1.0
- Watch: Counting down Florida’s Top 20 March Visitors
- Anonymous Player Q&A III: Recapping Offseason Phase I & II
- ITG TV: Video from spring practice
- Behind the Scenes look at recruiting under Dan Mullen
- Anonymous Player Q&A News Feed
Fresh off a University of Florida Athletic Department record $12.6 million donation, Hugh Hathcock still was not finished finding ways to contribute to Gator athletics.
It started with a tweet on April 20, 2022, by Fort Lauderdale-based lawyer and UF alum Darren Heitner.
“There may be a big thing happening behind the scenes to make the University of Florida a much greater powerhouse when it comes to #NIL. I may have knowledge of such a thing,” Heitner tweeted.
Less than 24 hours later, Heitner announced the creation of the Gator Guard, a new and exclusive group run by Hathcock to raise NIL funds for UF athletes. Additionally, Hathcock had already raised $3 million at the time of the announcement.
Less than 30 minutes later, Heitner announced another $1 million donatation. 18 minutes later, another $1 million was committed. In a little over 24 hours, the Gator Guard had already reached $5 million in donations.
Heitner was not prepared for the immediate response to his tweet.
“I didn’t (expect the reaction)” Heitner said. “Perhaps Hugh did. He had a lot of faith in my reach and following, but no, I had zero expectations.”
Hathcock did not share Heitner’s reaction to the immediate donations.
“No, I’m not surprised,” Hathcock said. “You talk about something that people are passionate about, and you have something for them that enables them to help and feel like they're part of a special team, people will respond to that.”
Behind the scenes, Hathcock says he’s been talking about this idea for about six months. Heitner says communication between himself and Hathcock began about two weeks ago, when Hugh came forth with the idea of the Gator Guard and its intentions.
“I had received communication from Hugh Hathcock… And he indicated his desire and intention to do something significant when it comes to NIL, so we are not just competing, but we’re leading as a university,” said Heitner.
The difference between the Gator Guard and the Gator Collective
When the Gator Guard was first announced, questions immediately arose from Gator Nation. What is the Gator Guard? Is it the same as the Gator Collective? Are the two organizations related or intertwined?
Hathcock made one thing clear: the Gator Guard and the Gator Collective are not the same organization.
“We (the Gator Guard) are a completely separate, private organization that I run,” Hathcock said. “I work with these guys that want to contribute, and all of our money, 100%, goes to athletes and whatever the deal we do with them. We’re not part of the Gator Collective.”
As for the Gator Guard itself, Hathcock and Heitner both emphasized the exclusivity of the group with the goal of raising NIL-specific funds intended for Gator athletes.
“The Gator Guard is a separate organization I put together with a lot of feedback from the people that understand this,” Hathcock said. “It’s really a group of people that are high net worth individuals that are going to passionately give back to Florida athletics. And the Gator Guard is all about NIL. It’s about gifted funds to really have the ability to compete in that space.”
Heitner explained, “The Gator Guard is intended to be an exclusive group of individuals who are existing contributors to the University of Florida’s Athletic Department and have an interest beyond that existing support to fund a platform that’ll be NIL specific, and each individual donation exceeding a certain threshold. Again, the intention is to keep it compact and composed of very highly influential individuals.”
While both organizations’ goals are to raise money and create NIL opportunities for student-athletes at the University of Florida, each group targets different sides of the fanbase. The Gator Collective is meant for average fans to donate what they can when they can, while the Gator Guard is an exclusive group meant for those who can provide much larger donations.
“The Gator Collective is a great organization, but 90% of their members pay $10 a month or something. That’s not what this is,” Hathcock said. “This is nothing like that. That’s a great deal. They need to do it. It’s great for the average fans. If you depend on Gator Collective to get NIL money at that rate, we will not compete because there’s not enough people giving $10.”
Becoming part of the Gator Guard not only helps Florida become competitive in the NIL arms race, but it also provides the donors themselves with certain perks and privileges.
“There will be exclusive events for these guys and ladies. There will be meetings, dinners, special tailgates, sideline deals, things we do with Coach [Billy] Napier and Todd Golden,” Hathcock further explained. “(The Gator Collective)’s a great thing, but this is above and beyond that. This is something exclusive for people that want to put in a lot of funds to help get this thing going quick.”
Other potential benefits are special tailgates, which Hathcock does every game or gamedays in his skybox.
“All the benefits of this are being put together now because it’s so new,” he said.
Hathcock further explained that while the two groups work in public relations with each other and the leadership bounces ideas off each other, the organizations are two separate entities.
Additionally, Heitner says the Gator Guard has no direct affiliation with the University of Florida or the University Athletic Association.
“The only distinction with the Gator Collective is that the Collective has an agreement in place with Gator Properties that allows the Collective to advertise in-stadium and in-arena,” he explained.
Despite the separation of the organizations and the different demographic of membership, Heitner says the two groups have a positive relationship with each other.
“It’s a very friendly relationship. One where each group will do its best to support the other,” he said. “From a public perception standpoint, these are separately pooled resources, but together create a reservoir, a war chest of money that will be ultimately going to the same destination which are the players at the University of Florida. There have been and will continue to be conversations between the two groups, and I think a lot of synergies.”
“Gator Guard is nothing but an elite group of individuals of high network that can go above and beyond what they can do at Gator Collective,” Hathcock explained. “We want to make it a special thing where it’s exclusive. When you see a Gator Guard blazer, or you hear about Gator Guard, know that’s a very select group of Gators that earned that recognition with their financial contributions.”
This coexisting relationship between the two groups gives Florida a competitive edge over other universities across the country that are just now implementing their own “collectives” and “guards.”
However, the true competitive edge dates to almost a year ago, when NIL legislation was first put into place, and the state of Florida got a head start.
Florida in the NIL world
On July 1, 2021, the state of Florida became the first state to have NIL legislation go into effect, and Gator fans and alums jumped on the opportunities to create deals for Gator athletes.
According to Heitner, when former UF baseball player Eddie Rojas led a group of Gator fans and founded the Gator Collective in the summer of 2021, the University of Florida immediately solidified itself as the leader in the NIL world.
“UF got out to a very strong lead. The Gator Collective was the first collective. In fact, the name itself is what caused other groups across the country to borrow and use the word collective,” Heitner said.
“Since the creation of the Gator Collective, and Eddie and Jen (Grosso, the VP and operations manager) have done a tremendous job building it up and getting over a thousand members and over $500,000 in annual commitments. We’ve seen the development of other groups across the country and rumors of even more money being appropriated towards some of these other groups. So, Florida continued to be very competitive, but I think that the creation of the Gator Guard once again establishes Florida at the very top.”
Hathcock shares this belief, explaining that the creation of the Gator Guard changed the game of NIL.
“Yes, we were at the forefront with the Collective because everybody is about where the Collective is,” he said. “They’re trying to figure out things, get as many people involved. Everybody’s well-intentioned, but the Gator Guard is not taking one level. It’s taking it 100 levels. “
As with other universities around the country creating their own “collectives,” Heitner says the possibility of “guards” for other universities is now a real possibility.
“We live in a copycat society, so I don’t believe it’s out of the realm of possibilities,” he explained. “I think, in fact, it’s rather likely that you’ll see other major donors or influential alumni of other universities decide that they wish to put their money where their mouths are and create something similar and pool resources to effectively compete. So, I think there’s a real possibility, and who benefits the most? It’s the athletes.”
NIL recruiting and regulation
With the implementation of NIL came questions about the recruiting process, especially those at major universities.
For the University of Miami, NIL is helping the Hurricanes gain recruits through the transfer portal through deals with LifeWallet.
On April 23, Coral Gables-based attorney John Ruiz announced the commitment of Nijel Pack, a basketball transfer from Kansas State, and announced Pack and LifeWallet made a two-year, $800,000 NIL deal.
A few days later, the Hurricanes made a big splash in the football transfer portal with the addition of former Maryland defensive lineman Darrell Jackson. Like Pack, Jackson’s commitment came with the announcement of a NIL deal with LifeWallet.
Gator fans began asking questions as to whether Florida would be doing the same. Hathcock made it clear that the Gator Guard is not in the business of directly recruiting, but rather providing what the staff and athletes need in terms of NIL.
“It’s not just buying players. It’s a structure. It’s a process and Billy Napier’s great at that. So, whatever he wants, however, he wants to do it, that’s how we’ll do it,” he said.
“The reality of it is all these transfers that merited are your five-star players, some of them your four-star players, are going to expect to be in some kind of NIL deal. That’s how we’ll be involved,” Hathcock added.
With the expensive NIL deals and recruiting potentially being affected brings up the debate as to how involved, if any, should the NCAA or state governments be in NIL regulation, which Hathock believes should happen.
However, before that happens, Hathcock said that the Gator Guard will make the most of the current NIL landscape before any additional regulation is put into place.
“If Texas A&M is buying their class like they did last year for millions of dollars, and it’s fair, and it’s legal, and it’s part of the NIL landscape, that means Florida should have the funds, and a NIL partner like Gator Guard that provides them the opportunity to do that,” Hathcock said.
“Whatever we do, we’ll do it the right way. We’ll do it the legal way,” he added.
Additionally, Heitner believes that, although there is an NIL policy in place by the NCAA along with various individual state laws, the states won’t be proactive in enforcement. However, he does believe that the NCAA has concerns over how NIL affects recruiting.
“I think first and foremost, the main purpose for passing these bills and signing them into law were to create these rights for athletes even when the NCAA was not allowing it. And then thereafter, to further codify it in case the NCAA decides at some point to be more restrictive,” he said.
“I hate to assume or speculate with regard what, if anything, the NCAA will do. Although I do think there are some concerns with the NCAA’s perspective as to how much this may be being used to induce athletes to attend certain universities.”
Although Heitner’s involvement with the Gator Guard is not as extensive as it is with the Gator Collective, he does not believe potential NIL regulation will affect the Gator Guard.
“To the extent that I’m involved, I don’t think (potential NIL regulation) does because I would venture to do everything in my power that everything is done above board and that there are no violations of any regulations or laws,” he said.
“I think where other groups across the country may be taking more risk, I think those connected to the University of Florida have done a very good job of maturing to the best of their capacity that they are not putting themselves out there for exposure or putting the athletes at risk.”
The Future of the Guard and Gator Athletics
Right now, the Gator Guard’s immediate plans are to continue to grow and educate potential donors.
“We just need to grow it and get as many people as we can get involved,” Hathcock said. “Once you find and get Gators that understand how this works and how this exists, we’ll get the people that we need to talk to. We’ll explain how this is going to work, and we just want to grow a lot. It’s already May, so I expect the next 90 days will about dialing this thing in and figuring it out right.”
Entering the 2022-2023 athletics season, UF will have four new head coaches with football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, and soccer making changes, if you include Kelly Rae Finley’s promotion from Interim Head Coach.
As Billy Napier takes over the football program and Todd Golden takes over the men’s basketball program, Hathcock has high hopes for the futures of the programs, while praising athletics director Scott Stricklin for his last two hires.
“I’m excited about Billy (Napier). I’m excited about Todd. I’m a huge Scott Stricklin fan. These last two hires are great hires, and Scott Stricklin is the reason I gave $12.6 million,” he said. “I like his values and what he’s doing at Florida. Gator Boosters is still a big part of what I want to do. And there will be more money I give to them in the future.”