New Florida AD Scott Stricklin, hired away from Mississippi State, will need to innovate an athletic department that has fallen behind its competitors.
Athletic director Scott Stricklin has convinced Mississippi State staffers over the past six years to think like David, who couldn't use his size as an excuse when facing a giant. Stricklin is about find out what life is like on the other side of the sling when he moves from Starkville to Gainesville to take over Florida's athletic department. "It's going to be different because Florida is a Goliath," Stricklin told Campus Rush. "But you can't just sit back and rely on that to be the reason for your success—just because you have a lot of resources and you've had success in the past."
Stricklin will move from the lowest revenue athletic department in the SEC to one of the highest. Mississippi State made $68.1 million in revenue for the 2014–15 school year, according to data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. Florida made $130.8 million in the same school year. But that doesn't mean Stricklin will have it easy as he leaves his alma mater to take over for Jeremy Foley, who is retiring after 25 years running the Gators' program. Stricklin will need to strengthen his donor-shaking hand and polish his sales pitch because he's going to need to raise money for facilities upgrades to bring Florida even with its SEC rivals. Stricklin also likely will have to reorganize a department that has operated basically the same way since the days when Steve Spurrier was running four verticals on the field in The Swamp.
Stricklin seems to understand this. Asked about the biggest challenge he faces, he thought back to a speech he once heard from AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. "He said success is the enemy of innovation," Stricklin said. Then Stricklin elaborated. "When you're really successful, you don't want anybody to move," he said. "You want everybody to stay right where they are because things are going really well for you. Actually, it needs to be the opposite. You need to keep looking for ways to adapt and change and stay ahead. What's the old saying? The only thing constant is change."
This is the attitude Foley's replacement must bring to Gainesville. (Stricklin will begin work Nov. 1 at the earliest.) Florida teams won 27 national titles and 130 SEC titles during Foley's tenure. He created a high standard no matter the sport, and coaches knew that if they came to Florida they'd be paid well and fired if they didn't win championships. But because Florida was so successful, it didn't change as fast as the programs it competes against for all those titles. For example, Florida, situated near the lightning strike capital of the world, finally opened an indoor practice facility for the football team last year. Every SEC program except Georgia had already built one. Why did it take so long? Probably because Spurrier, who occupied the office next to Foley's until January 2002, made fun of all the "big schools" that had indoor facilities after he hung half a hundred on their football teams.
Meanwhile, every other football program in the SEC has a dedicated operations building either attached to the stadium or elsewhere on campus. Florida's football facilities are in the south end zone of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium—exactly where they've been since the '70s. Former Gators coach Urban Meyer was so embarrassed by the facilities that he begged Foley to build a "front door" so that recruits could at least see a little glass and a few trophies instead of simply taking the old back staircase back to the coaches' offices on the second floor.
Earlier this month, Florida unveiled a $100 million master plan that includes the football building for which current coach Jim McElwain has pushed, a new dining hall for athletes and renovations to the baseball and softball stadiums. The O'Connell Center, where Florida's basketball, volleyball and gymnastics teams compete, is scheduled to reopen in December following a $65 million facelift.
The Gators are carrying $91 million in debt, which sounds like a lot but isn't given their revenue. (Consider that someone who makes $130,000 a year can easily afford payments on a $90,000 mortgage.) But Stricklin will have to convince the donor base to dig a little deeper to pay for the improvements in the master plan. This should feel familiar to Stricklin, who pushed through a similar project at Mississippi State. In 2011, he secured the largest single donation in the history of Mississippi State's athletic department ($12 million). In 2013, the Bulldogs opened the Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex, an 80,000-square foot building that cost about $25 million.
Stricklin understands why the average fan would question the need for fancy facilities, but the arms race is part of the deal now. "Whether you like it or not, in the world of college athletics, facilities send a pretty powerful message about what's important to you," he said. "Those investments end up being pretty powerful indicators of how committed a school is to providing resources that you need to provide a championship experience." Still, McElwain may have to fight hard if he wants waterfalls in the locker room. "I don't know that you have to have gold-plated toilets," Stricklin said. "I just think you have to show that there's an ongoing commitment to being able to compete on a consistent basis."
Stricklin also may have to shake up a department that hasn't experienced much change in the past few decades. Because he has worked in the SEC (at Mississippi State and Kentucky) for the past 13 years, Stricklin already knows much of the senior staff. He'll challenge that group to think differently, just as he followed Mississippi State predecessor Greg Byrne's lead in challenging the staff in Starkville to believe Mississippi State could do better. Under Stricklin, the Bulldogs improved dramatically. That includes rising to No. 1 in the polls in football during the 2014 season. "That's something people thought they'd never see in their lifetimes," Stricklin said.
Florida fans have seen that. The most spoiled fanbase in America got that way because the football team won three national titles and the men's basketball team won two national titles in a 12-year span under Foley. For years, whenever I met an athletic director for the first time, there was about a 50–50 chance the AD would ask this question: So when do you think Jeremy will retire? The subtext was that each AD who asked wanted the job because it was viewed as the best in the country.
But when Foley announced his retirement, every AD in the country didn't jump at the job. The Gators had several good candidates (including Stricklin), and they went far down the path with North Carolina's Bubba Cunningham before the deal fell apart in early August. There is significant work to be done in Gainesville, and the job didn't seem as easy as it did when Foley had the Gators rolling.
One trait Stricklin shares with Foley is a willingness to explain himself—even during unpleasant times. I ripped Stricklin for the decision to suspend freshman defensive end Jeffrey Simmons for only one game after Simmons—before he enrolled at Mississippi State—punched a woman multiple times while she lay on the ground following a fight with Simmons's sister. What I respected was the fact that Stricklin took every question about Simmons and made his case. Where most ADs would have hidden behind a press release and never explained themselves, Stricklin explained the information he had collected since the incident that factored into his decision. (What he didn't say is that his higher paid football coach also pushed hard for a light decision. That dynamic probably won't change at Florida.)
Stricklin learned how to deal with tough questions earlier his career during one of the most difficult situations an athletic department can deal with, and it's clear he learned to operate as openly as possible. He was the associate athletic director for communications at Baylor when Bears basketball player Carlton Dotson murdered teammate Patrick Dennehy and then Baylor coach Dave Bliss told players to lie and call Dennehy a drug dealer because Bliss had been paying him. Stricklin said that during that time, Baylor leadership exploited the fact that as a private school, it didn't have to produce information a public school would. So Baylor stonewalled and only made things worse. (Sound familiar?) "You've got to act like you live in a glass house when you work in college athletics," Stricklin said. "If you don't want people to see the trash laying around in your living room, don't have trash in your living room."
Stricklin understands that everyone won't always agree with every decision. We continue to disagree on the Simmons decision. But Stricklin will explain as much as he can whenever possible because he believes the program's stakeholders deserve explanations. "If you're going to make a hard decision—or really any decision—the people who really care about your program need to hear you talk about it," Stricklin said. "They may not agree with it. But you've got to be willing to stand up and answer questions."
Stricklin probably will have to answer plenty of questions as he tries to convince donors to give more and as he evaluates a department that needs to evolve. But he isn't afraid of that. And he isn't afraid of the work ahead of him. "It was going to take something really unique and special to cause me to move along," Stricklin said. "It's a credit to Florida that it's that place."