Florida A.D. Scott Stricklin once took a big chance on a recruit caught in an ugly video. Here’s why

OUTBACK BOWL: Before he came to Gainesville, Scott Stricklin made a decision that put him in the national cross hairs: He stuck with a five-star high football recruit caught on video beating a woman. On Tuesday, Jeffery Simmons will play his final collegiate game for Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl.
Mississippi State defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons will play against Iowa in the Outback Bowl on Tuesday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons will play against Iowa in the Outback Bowl on Tuesday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Published December 28 2018

TAMPA — Mississippi State junior defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons is with his team this week, preparing to play Iowa on Tuesday in the Outback Bowl.

Once upon a time, because of a startling act of violence against a woman when he was a teenager — caught on video — it seemed as if Simmons would never play college football.

But here Simmons is, 6 feet 4, 310 pounds, the best player on one of the best defenses in the country. He's set to leave school early to enter the NFL draft and is projected as a first-round pick. He might become a millionaire this summer.

If that seems wrong, if it seems as if there is no justice in that, if it seems as if Simmons is just another example of a college program looking the other way in the name of winning, it's worth listening to someone who was once in the middle of the Simmons firestorm: Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin.

Stricklin was in his sixth year as Mississippi State athletic director in 2016 when Simmons' case arose. Stricklin took the heat when he decided to give Simmons a second chance and keep the incoming freshman, handing down only a one-game suspension to go with evaluation and counseling. People went berserk. Stricklin held his ground.

"The week after that might have been the hardest time I've ever had as an athletic director," Stricklin said by phone from Atlanta, where Florida plays Michigan on Saturday in the Peach Bowl. "I remember people, some national media types and social media, some legit media people, saying this is on Scott Stricklin now. If Jeffery Simmons screws up, it should cost me my job. It was almost as if they were rooting for Jeffery to screw up."

Jeffery Simmons didn't screw up. Instead, he became a third-team All-American and a seemingly model student-athlete. He has a 3.0 GPA in human development and family studies, and has been a volunteer on campus and in the community. He hasn't had a single incident since 2016.

Not that you should get extra credit for that, but it's better than what people once thought of Simmons, though some of that will still not go away. Maybe it shouldn't.

"I totally get that if all anyone knew about Jeffery Simmons is the 15 seconds they saw on that video," Stricklin said. "I completely understand those people not agreeing with the decision. I completely understand."

The 15 seconds happened three years ago, between high school and college. Simmons was a prized MSU recruit from Macon, Miss., a five-star talent. Then the video surfaced. It was ugly: Simmons stepping into an altercation between his sister and another woman, the defensive tackle repeatedly throwing punches at the woman as she lay on the ground. Simmons eventually pleaded no contest to simple assault.

Let's not be naive. It's hard to believe Stricklin and Mississippi State would have put this much time in on just anyone. Simmons was bound for stardom. But let's let Stricklin take it from there:

"You know what? We'd have five-star kids before who we'd cut loose because they weren't good kids. But Jeffery was a good kid. His sister was in a fight, and he overreacted. He made no excuse. At no point did he try to blame someone else for what he did. He owned up to it. … So at that point we made the decision that this kid doesn't deserve to have the opportunity of going to the school that he wants taken away from him.

"About a month and a half, two months after we signed him, there's this video of him. At that point there was a legal process that had to take its course. I just had to start doing research on the kid. The easy thing to do would have been (to decide) the video looks bad, we're cutting the kid loose.

"Typically, when a kid makes a mistake, you want to look at the past. Is there a pattern? Typically, you're looking for something to confirm your initial response. You want to find something that tells you this is a kid we probably don't need in our program. But I started getting my research on Jeffery and everything is coming up that he's a model citizen, from the people at his high school, the people at his church, to the community.

"He ends up getting charged with a misdemeanor. It was benign from a legal standpoint. But there was that video. Then I spent some time with the kid. He came to my office. It was a nice spring day. We sat outside on lawn chairs in back of the administrative building. We talked for an hour. And my gut told me that this was a good person whose family was in a bad situation and he'd responded emotionally in a bad way."

The one-game suspension was announced at the SEC spring meetings in Destin. It was an earthquake.

Suspended for one game? What was Mississippi State thinking? What was Stricklin thinking?

"This was not great planning on our part, but our first summer session was beginning on the Friday that we were in Destin," Stricklin said. "Jeffery was going to be in class that day. We probably should have held it until the next week, but I figured that someone was going to get wind of it and start asking questions. Let's go ahead and get it out there, let's say he's enrolled, he's going to have to sit out the first game for this misdemeanor. It blew up. All the media was there. I didn't handle the press conferences as well as I could have. I was going to be a straight-up guy and answer questions. It turned into a bit of a circus."

Remember, shortly thereafter, Florida was looking for an athletic director to replace the legendary Jeremy Foley. There's still speculation that UF waited to see how the Simmons situation evolved, putting Stricklin at the back of the line before finally hiring him. He started in Gainesville in November 2016.

"Even to this day I see merits of different punishment routes," Stricklin said. "But I thought, well, I can play it safe and do what I don't think is right, or if I'm going to get fired for doing what I think is right, then at least I can sleep well at night. If that was going to cost me my job, so be it. I did the right thing for Jeffery and the school. We made the decision we did because we trusted the information. He understood from the beginning that this was a zero-tolerance kind of deal. If he tripped up at all, we probably weren't going to keep him around."

Simmons did not trip up. The 21-year-old stays in contact with Stricklin.

"We keep up," Stricklin said. "We text each other. When he has a good game, I text him. When he makes Academic All-SEC or community service team, I'll tell him, 'I'm proud of you.' "

Simmons was recently named the winner of the C Spire Conerly Trophy for best college football player in the state of Mississippi. Guess that's on Scott Stricklin, too.

"Just knowing Jeffery, I'd be shocked if you read anything negative about him ever again," Stricklin said.

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029.

Outback Bowl

No. 18 Mississippi State vs. Iowa, noon Tuesday, Raymond James Stadium
TV/radio: ESPN2; 620-AM