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On Florida’s pursuit of Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin

If the Gators can’t continue on with Jeremy Foley, hiring a young star in his mold is the best substitute.

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NCAA Regional - Oregon v Florida Photo by Travis Lindquist/Getty Images

Three things have become increasingly clear over the course of Florida’s several-month search for retiring athletic director Jeremy Foley’s successor:

  1. Florida has not had as smooth a time finding that successor as it seemingly expected to have as the process began.
  2. Foley staying on would probably have been the best move for the Gators.
  3. Foley’s shadow is enormous.

The first part of this would seem like the most obvious one, given that a process that should probably have made at most one or two headlines has made several, especially lately.

Back in June, we got the first such headline: Florida’s trio of tenured assistant ADs all declined to take over for their longtime boss. Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne and North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham have since provided more, with Byrne — widely speculated to be Florida’s first choice, and esteemed throughout college athletics as one of the profession’s rising stars — reportedly choosing to remain at Arizona, though only — reportedly — doing so after Florida offered the job to Cunningham, whom USA TODAY columnist Dan Wolken reported in early September had accepted the job in August, only to renege on that decision.

And then came this week’s flurry of headlines. On Tuesday, Gridiron Now reported (and SEC Country confirmed) that Kansas State athletic director John Currie was in Gainesville, only to have tweets from Dallas — where Currie was attending a convention of Division I athletic directors — undercut that reporting.

Shortly afterward, Football Scoop reported that Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin was Florida’s leading candidate. Then The Clarion-Ledger, a Jackson, Mississippi-based newspaper, reported that Florida had offered Stricklin the same job — and that Stricklin had previously turned down the offer, leading to Florida returning with another that provides compensation that “could be upwards of $1.4 million.”

Those reports prompted some prominent people to chime in and add details of nebulous value about the suddenly high-profile search on Twitter.

Perhaps the most interesting development was powerful Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long retweeting Byrne’s above tweet with Stricklin pictured, then sending a tweet that was widely interpreted as a message to Stricklin.

On Wednesday, SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey picked up the line of thinking proffered by Feldman, about Florida hiring a career athletic director instead of a business executive, and wrote about the demise of the “CEO-style athletic director,” getting three athletic directors, including one in the SEC, to speak approvingly of the shift back toward college athletics lifers.

"Florida pursuing Scott is a great sign that despite the size of their budget they’re focused on the total picture, not just revenue," said the SEC AD. "Because you could bring in any number of corporate heads who might find new ways to make Florida more profitable, but they’re going to be at a loss dealing with any one of the problems or controversies that can happen in college sports."

In contrast to the national reporting on Florida’s search process — most notably and audibly done by Wolken, who has not been notably close to the program as run by Foley, and has been reporting a narrative about Foley’s continued presence at Florida in an emeritus position that seems quite likely to have come from either rival athletic directors or their agents — the local scribes who have followed Florida for decades have noted only a quiet search.

The Gainesville Sun’s Pat Dooley buried a note on Cunningham and Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir having “pulled out of the process” in one of his Back Nine notes columns in August, and only noted that Florida’s interest in Stricklin may predate it being rebuffed by Cunningham in a tweet.

Few other reporters on the Gators beat have said anything at all about the process, though reports about Florida’s interest in Byrne rendered his status as a front-runner an open secret early on, with Scout’s Florida site reporting he was the Gators’ first choice. And though Foley has never quite been effusive in telling media outlets things outside of his press availabilities, and is ostensibly not the decision-maker on hiring his successor, he has had his favorite reporters over the years, Dooley among them, and could plausibly have said anything he wanted to clear up the issue.

But with Foley’s effective retirement date on October 1 looming as a deadline of sorts, the lack of his successor or any official comment from Florida on the search has created a vacuum abhorred by both nature and pundits, and turned orts into reports. A source told Alligator Army late last week to prepare for an announcement last Friday, with the strong implication being that it would be to announce a new athletic director; instead, Florida announced a $100 million plan to build a new football complex and make substantial improvements to its baseball and softball fields — projects that Foley had pointed to during the summer as reasons he needed to stay on at least until that retirement date.

If the end result of all this is Florida pursuing Stricklin — and, one assumes, expecting to hire him, as Wolken continues to hint — it’s probably a good thing for the Gators.

Byrne, whose record in major sport hirings is nearly spotless — he hired Dan Mullen at Mississippi State, then Rich Rodriguez and baseball coach Jay Johnson at Arizona, and has repeatedly extended men’s basketball coach Sean Miller — is as well-regarded as any athletic director in America, and would have been my first choice for an external hire. (I would also have looked hard at Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, Stanford’s Muir, and possibly Kansas State’s Currie.)

Yet Stricklin quite literally followed in Byrne’s footsteps at Mississippi State, and has arguably done as good a job, or better, than his former boss. Stricklin has supported Mullen’s football program extensively, scored a coup of an hire by bringing Ben Howland to Starkville, and made headlines with a $40 million plan to enhance Dudy Noble Field, already one of college baseball’s biggest and best ballparks, that has since turned into a $55 million project.

Mississippi State has never really been an SEC or national all-sports power, thanks largely to being the Magnolia State’s second-tier university. But Mullen’s Bulldogs were No. 1 in the first-ever College Football Playoff rankings. And while Mississippi State’s No. 44 finish in the 2015-16 Directors’ Cup is a far cry from even Florida’s worst ranking in the annual competition, it was the best placement in Bulldogs history.

The bête noire of Stricklin’s tenure at Mississippi State, by contrast, has to be his role in the handling of freshman football player Jeffery Simmons beating a woman on video. In June, Simmons was suspended for just one game for actions revealed by the March publication of video of him throwing several punches at a woman laying on the ground during a scuffle in his hometown, and the school was pilloried for its light punishment and callous justification of it, which included passing mention of the possibility that Simmons, the Bulldogs’ highest-rated recruit from their 2016 class (and fifth-best recruit ever, per 247Sports), would consider departing for another school based on the severity of his punishment.

Stricklin appears to have played an integral part in deciding what punishment Simmons should serve, not least because he — and not Mullen, who declined comment on the issue at the time, then dubbed it “a university decision” at SEC Media Days — had to face reporters at SEC meetings on the same day that Mississippi State announced the punishment, and was more or less interrogated about it.

To be clear: I didn’t like that punishment. No one did, not even Mississippi State fans. I think it should have been far more severe, especially considering that Florida State’s dismissal of De’Andre Johnson for punching a woman in a bar and Oklahoma’s year-long suspension of Joe Mixon for a notorious incident in which he punched a woman had set the bar for the severity of punishments in incidents of football players assaulting women. With a year of suspension as punishment for Simmons, Stricklin could have avoided the blowback he got; even a half-season’s suspension, or a month’s, would probably have significantly diminished the criticism he received.

But I do think that some of the raking Stricklin over the coals for his handling of a player who was not technically enrolled at his school has missed a couple of points.

First, unlike Johnson and Mixon, Simmons barely delayed in accepting responsbility for his actions or explaining them. Two days after the incident and the video’s release, he took to Facebook to apologize, implying that he had to “defend his family,” and that the woman in the video had made disparaging remarks about deceased relatives, while also admitting that was not an excuse for his actions. In July, he pleaded no contest to simple assault, and was ordered to pay a fine and restitution.

A week after Johnson was dismissed in July 2015, he was on Good Morning America with his mother — not his lawyer, Jose Baez, who infamously defended Casey Anthony against charges of murdering her daughter, Caylee, and who initially claimed Johnson was reacting to racial epithets — to apologize for his actions, but he did not take a plea deal until December of last year after a disagreement on where he should serve part of his punishment, and his victim told reporters then that she wished the case had gone to trial.

Mixon, by contrast, has still not formally or publicly apologized for his actions, giving only an infuriating interview prior to Oklahoma’s Orange Bowl appearance.

Second, it sure sounds like Stricklin evaluated Simmons extensively, and was both very much prepared for any criticism and comfortable with his decision. Certainly, Stricklin put his stamp on suspending Simmons far more than Mullen did, and while Mullen eventually noted that he, Stricklin, and Mississippi State president Mark Keenum would be responsible if Simmons does anything else untoward while in Starkville, Stricklin was there to take responsibility for his decision immediately.

After sitting out for its opener against South Alabama — a game the Bulldogs lost — Simmons has played in Mississippi State’s last two games, against South Carolina and LSU, recording two tackles for loss and forcing a fumble against the Gamecocks. He has “created havoc” and drawn praise for his work on fields.

And, more importantly, he has done nothing to suggest that the second chance extended by Stricklin, Mullen, and Mississippi State was a bad decision.

It was and is easy to blame Stricklin for his role in being lenient on a player who was taped punching a woman in the summer. The light punishment won’t seem any more sufficient, ever, even if Simmons is eventually beatified, or becomes an NFL Hall of Famer; Stricklin was wrong then and wrong now in his discipline, and I find that judgment as troubling as I find all of his other accomplishments appealing.

But it’s possible that Stricklin did his due diligence well, and was right to take a chance on Simmons, even if that chance should arguably have come with more stringent punishment. Maybe Simmons won’t be defined by one mistake made as a high school senior and captured on video, but by how he learned from it.

That outcome, of course, can only become true in time. Having hope and faith in its possibility, though, speaks to having core values about the importance of college sports as a tool for teaching and developing young people held dear by many people in college athletics.

Those values are, well, valuable to most college programs, big and small, and while Florida is not alone in trying to hold them in balance with its profit motive, its pride in its integrity has been a hallmark of its program under Foley.

That doesn’t mean Florida shouldn’t strive to compete in every sport and win every title. It doesn’t mean that Florida’s athletic director needs to operate as a disciplinarian, or exclusively as a check on players — I’d love it if the next Gators AD can hug a player out of pure joy and pride after a national title, as Foley is pictured doing with Joakim Noah above. It does mean that striking that balance is important — and it reinforces how good Foley has been at his job.

Dozens of national titles earned without more than passing glances toward Gainesville by the NCAA should probably be all that anyone needs to consider Foley’s time a massive success, but, well, it’s easy to take him for granted.

Florida, and most Gators fans — excluding, of course, the #FireFoley brigade that has carped on message boards about Foley misfiring on football head coaching hires (despite supporting Florida’s first title-winning coach and hiring a coach who added two more titles) or being slow to upgrade Florida’s football facilities (despite boosters taking years to pony up for much more necessary upgrades to the O’Connell Center) or not adding shade to the baseball stadium (which Florida fans flock to approximately five times each year, maximum) — would probably have been happy to keep Foley on for as long as he could physically do the job of athletic director. Many fans assumed Foley would be around for at least a few more years. And I think many fans would have been perfectly happy with an internal promotion, given how Foley’s tenure has been built on continuity and communal commitment to a single purpose.

Without Foley, though — and even if there’s concern about Foley remaining in town as a fundraiser and advisor, the roles he’s certain to play in retirement, I do think he is quite likely to let the next Florida athletic director, y’know, direct Florida athletics — and without the possibility of an internal promotion, the Gators had an important binary choice for his successor: Hiring someone from within college athletics, or someone from outside it.

A “CEO-style” athletic director like former Michigan AD Dave Brandon or former Texas AD Steve Patterson would be far less likely to maintain that commitment to integrity that Florida holds so dear, I think, while a person who has made that commitment a longtime pursuit, like Stricklin, should be expected to do so. Florida is pursuing Stricklin, and has only really pursued sitting athletic directors, by all reports, and thus has made that choice correctly.

Florida’s ideal move would be not replacing Jeremy Foley, of course. But its second-best move has always been hiring a replacement who can maintain and build on his legacy, and keep the Florida Gators chasing championships with integrity.

Scott Stricklin would have a chance to do that.