Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Colleges

Fennelly: New Florida AD Scott Stricklin has learned to address issues, good or bad, head on

TAMPA — Scott Stricklin, three months into his job as Florida athletic director, made a swing through Tampa on Tuesday, ending with a Gator Boosters gathering at the Tampa Yacht & Country Club, part of a meet-and-greet tour of the state.

Stricklin is young, 46, and full of ideas. It took a lot to pull him away from Mississippi State, his alma mater, where he met his wife, where had been athletic director since 2010. But along came Florida.

"Like so many people in the SEC, I've looked and admired what Florida has done from afar. There are times when I'm driving through Gainesville that I go, 'Wow, this is pretty cool to be part of this.'"

Like Tuesday, when Stricklin spoke to boosters. The guy who introduced him: Steve Spurrier.

"That will never get old," Stricklin. "I mean, he's Coach Spurrier."

Stricklin replaced another legend: Jeremy Foley, who for a quarter century ran a Florida winning machine that produced 27 national championships and 130 SEC titles.

Stricklin has a strong background in fundraising; good thing, since Florida, having just finished a $106-million building spree, including an overhaul of its now sparkling basketball arena, is setting out on another $100 million worth of projects, including a stand-alone football facility.

And there's Stricklin's deep background in media relations, which he thinks has served him well.

"You don't live in a bubble," Stricklin said. "You're intersecting with the inside world and the outside world. And there's the importance of developing relationships, with coaches, athletes and media. It's an important skill. It's a relationship business. You understand the importance of communicating messages."

Stricklin certainly learned about living outside the bubble in his media relations career.

In 1992, he was a young assistant at Mississippi State, just 23, when he had to check on a report that Bulldogs football coach Jackie Sherrill had allowed a cow to be mutilated in front of his players at practice. It was not true, Sherrill said. They had merely castrated a bull.

Stricklin was assistant athletic director for marketing and communications at Baylor in 2003 when basketball coach Dave Bliss resigned in one of the truly hellish scandals, when he was caught trying to frame one of his players, who had been murdered, as a drug dealer to cover up illegal tuition payments.

Stricklin was sent out to face the TV cameras on that one, including national TV cameras.

He said all that taught him something.

"You've got to address any issue head on, good or bad," Stricklin said.

Near the end of his stay at Mississippi State, the university suspended incoming football recruit Jeffery Simmons for only one game after video surfaced of him hitting a woman at a party. There was outcry. Stricklin stood by the decision, but didn't duck media.

"I don't think you can hide," he said. "In college athletics, we live in a glass house. If you actually lived in a glass house and you didn't want people to see trash in your living room, you wouldn't have trash laying out. You would do something about it. We have to be prepared to communicate what's going on as much as we can."

Foley remains Athletic Director Emeritus at Florida. Stricklin said he has immense respect for Foley, consults with him when necessary and considers him a friend. But Stricklin has some of his own ideas.

Here's one: change isn't always bad.

"I've used this line before: Success is the enemy of innovation," Stricklin said. "The more successful you are, the less motivated you are to go and try to do new things. I came from a place where we realized that to survive we always had to be doing new things, different things.

"I think there's a challenge of not being complacent at a place like Florida, not just thinking because we have a state of 18 million people, and we have a university of 50,000 students and we have a brand that's nationwide, that we're just going to throw open the doors and fans are going to flock in, and recruits are going to flock in, because we're Florida."

Stricklin said he looks forward to working with Gators football coach Jim McEelwain.

"I came in in the middle of a season, then we went straight into a bowl game, then straight into recruiting," Stricklin said. "He and I talked, but we haven't had a chance to have the long sit-down. But I really like the guy. You can see why he's had the success he has had."

During Tuesday's talk, Stricklin told the gathering that a Ben Hill Griffin Stadium renovation is a long-range plan and that fan experience is up there with the student-athlete experience.

"You can sit on a couch and watch the game. You've got to give people reasons, take away their excuses to watch on TV. New sound system, scoreboards, better Wi-Fi, better seating, chair backs. We need to enhance those things.

"One reason I was willing to leave Mississippi State is I felt mentally I'd hit the wall. I needed a challenge. Sometimes you have to have a different approach. I love being in a place with a mindset that we're going to do some things that have never been done. … I think we have that opportunity at Florida."

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