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Scott Stricklin’s meeting with media shows he must do much more for Florida

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Sunlight is an excellent disinfectant. It would behoove Florida to behave as though it understands that truth.

NCAA Football: Florida-Head Coach Dan Mullen Press Conference Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

You know what should have happened on Tuesday, when Scott Stricklin spoke to media members for the first time since The Independent Florida Alligator reported on Monday that former Florida Gators women’s basketball head coach Cam Newbauer, according to several ex-players and multiple parents of those players, was abusive throughout his tenure in Gainesville?

We should have been able to watch it.

That was not what happened when Stricklin spoke with four selected media members to answer questions about Newbauer’s four years helming Florida’s program.

And that is a shame, because even if what Stricklin told writers in that session was a first step toward the sort of full transparency and accountability that is now necessary in part because of decisions made by him and Florida’s University Athletic Association, it also shows that the UAA’s current priority remains providing protection for itself — something it failed to adequately do for the athletes in its women’s basketball program.

To his credit, Stricklin acknowledged Florida’s failures and assigned himself responsibility for them in this meeting, which you can read reporting on from Matt Baker of the Tampa Bay Times, Mark Long of the Associated Press, and Edgar Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel. All of those reports are headlined in part with “We failed” — the quote from Stricklin that was destined for any headline from the meeting from the second he uttered it — and delve into what Stricklin said about Newbauer and UAA decision-making during the meeting.

Baker’s report came first, at just before 6 p.m. on Tuesday, and thus the first reporting to outline what Stricklin said about how the UAA learned of allegations of improper behavior by Newbauer and what it did about it.

Stricklin said UF heard reports about behavior that “was a little concerning from a cultural standpoint” during Newbauer’s first season, 2017-18. Though complaints are common during coaching transitions, Stricklin grew more concerned when the reports continued into Year Two.

“We kept having it, and we realized we need to address this,” Stricklin said.

Stricklin said he had “really direct conversations” with Newbauer about the program’s culture. The Gators put more support structure around him and started having a senior administrator attend more practices and games (home and away). Not long after that, Stricklin said, the reports of misconduct stopped, and UF administrators didn’t notice anything improper.

Thompson’s report specifies that the senior administrator initially assigned to this minding of the program was Jay Jacobs, the former Auburn athletic director who works as an executive associate athletics director for external affairs, per Florida’s directory, and that the duty was later assumed by Jeff Guin, currently listed as a senior associate athletics director. Jacobs and Guin are both relatively new to Florida, with Jacobs having arrived in 2018 and Guin’s page in Florida’s directory saying he has been UAA staff since 2017.

Importantly, Thompson’s report also specifies when Jacobs was assigned to the team — “during the second half of the 2018-19 campaign,” he writes — and that Guin “assumed Jacobs’ role the past two seasons.”

The other key details revealed by Stricklin on Tuesday relate to the seemingly baffling decision to extend Newbauer’s contract this spring after receiving reports about his bad behavior — whether it was merely, in Stricklin’s disappointingly euphemistic language, “a little concerning from a cultural standpoint” or more accurately described as abusive.

Both Baker and Thompson write that Stricklin told reporters that Florida extended Newbauer’s deal — originally a five-year contract that ran from the 2017-18 season through the 2021-22 season — only after those reports ceased, with Baker noting that Stricklin said he saw on-court progress.

From the Times:

Stricklin saw on-court progress and believed Newbauer’s conduct was improving, which is why UF gave the coach a contract extension in the spring.

From the Sentinel:

Satisfied Newbauer modified his behavior, UF extended his contract.

Long writes that Stricklin tacked on years to the extension “so (Newbauer) could better recruit,” but does not specify whether that was something Stricklin asserted or simply Long including the conjecture — common knowledge to observers of college athletics — that coaches with single years remaining on their contracts are hampered in recruiting by the inferred potential of a firing or a non-renewal of the deal.

He also includes a longer quote of Stricklin’s justification:

“The incidents reported to us ceased,” Stricklin said. “We stopped getting those reports. That combined with just our own personal observation was that things were getting better, right? He had made the adjustments.”

But the three-year extension through the 2024-25 season — signed in March and announced in June, with the lag likely partially explained by Florida announcing the extension in conjunction with announcements of extensions for football head coach Dan Mullen and men’s basketball head coach Mike White — modified Newbauer’s buyout substantially, all three reports note. Instead of owing him $330,000 for each of the remaining years on his deal, Florida would instead owe him just one year’s salary, a sum of $283,250.

Slashing that buyout from more than $1.3 million to under $300,000 represents a reduction of almost 80 percent. Were it reported, an equivalent modification of the contract of virtually any football or men’s basketball head coach in major college athletics would raise eyebrows, if not outright alarm, about that coach’s future.

And it would seem as though that modification ended up being relevant. Stricklin said Tuesday that troubling conduct that occurred after the contract extension — which he termed “a situation occurred that was obvious that Cam was still having an issue on the treatment part of people,” an impressively tortured phrasing — was what ultimately led to Newbauer’s resignation.

From the Times:

“Subsequent to the contract extension, a situation occurred that was obvious that Cam was still having an issue on the treatment part of people,” Stricklin said. “And so we sat down, told him what his options were, and he chose to resign.”

Thompson writes it slightly differently:

Stricklin said he soon was forced to execute the buyout because of “a situation occurred that was obvious that Cam was still having an issue on the treatment part of people.”

Newbauer’s departure was announced by Florida on July 16. Florida’s release does not contain the word “resign,” instead including a statement from Newbauer in which he says “After much reflection, my family and I have come to the difficult decision to step away” and using “steps/stepped down” as its own terminology.

If Stricklin was, indeed, “forced to execute” Newbauer’s buyout, then Newbauer’s “options” were likely binary: Agreeing to resign or refusing to do so and thus triggering a firing. But Stricklin apparently did not elaborate on those options — though language in both the Times and Sentinel reports suggests that he was asked to elaborate on the circumstances leading to the resignation.

Curiously, though, a column published Wednesday morning from columnist David Whitley of The Gainesville Sun — the only one of the four media members who took part in Tuesday’s call whose role at his outlet is columnist, rather than reporter — does have slightly more detail on what led to Newbauer’s resignation, as it refers to “another bullying incident involving another staff member.”

A month later, there was another bullying incident involving another staff member. That’s when UF realized it messed up and essentially forced Newbauer to resign.

And Whitley, unlike Baker or Thompson, presents another key detail apparently gleaned from his attendance at Tuesday’s meeting between Stricklin and media members.

Stricklin said the administration heard complaints in 2018 and investigated. It didn’t find any physical abuse, but the verbal abuse was obvious enough to warrant warnings to straighten up.

The complaints stopped in 2019, which is when assistant AD Jay Jacobs was assigned to oversee the women’s basketball program and even go on road trips to monitor things.

Florida’s findings in its investigation of Newbauer will be crucial to explaining how Newbauer was allowed to keep his job, albeit under supervision.

While the morality of Florida keeping a coach that it knew to be verbally abusive can obviously be argued, a lack of evidence of physical abuse beyond accounts from players could have put Florida in the predicament of choosing whether to fire a coach whose conduct had raised significant concerns but plausibly did not rise to the level of easily permitting a firing for cause. Lacking something like that, Florida would seemingly have had to abruptly terminate a coach it had only hired about a year or two prior, explain that termination, and absorb the financial costs it would entail.

I can concede that such a situation is a difficult one without clearly optimal choices. I can also concede the possibilities that Whitley — a columnist and not a reporter — may be using the phrase “verbal abuse” even though Stricklin did not, and that is a large spectrum of what might be considered tolerable verbal abuse by people within and beyond an athletics department, with what might appear to a fan like me as abuse instead coming across only as aggressive coaching to people with more familiarity with a wide range of coaching styles.

But it is difficult to reconcile Stricklin saying Florida did not find evidence of physical abuse with what Zachary Huber reported about Newbauer throwing basketballs at players.

Huber’s report includes accounts of Newbauer doing so on multiple occasions from Mikayla Hayes, Haley Lorenzen and Sydney Morang. Those are players who finished their Florida careers at the conclusion of the 2017-18 season (Hayes transferred after it; Lorenzen exhausted her collegiate eligibility at the end of it) and during the 2018-19 season (Morang last played for Florida in November 2018, and later medically retired from basketball after a string of concussions), respectively.

Unless all three of them are lying about those incidents, it would seem rather likely that video footage of the incidents was captured in the course of the industry-standard practice of recording practices for later review; similarly, it would seem rather likely that any thorough investigation of allegations of abuse that took place in 2018 or 2019 would include a review of video evidence of those practices, as it could provide dispositive proof to confirm or refute allegations.

It is also difficult to imagine Huber himself not pressing on that point in a meeting with Stricklin — but, disappointingly, he was not among the reporters apparently invited to take part in it, per Alligator editor-in-chief Steven Walker. Huber himself called the exclusion “super disappointing” on Wednesday.

It would likely have been uncomfortable and difficult for Stricklin to potentially face questions from the reporter who broke this story, sure — and it might have been tricky for him to field questions from a journalist who sent Florida a Freedom of Information Act request on Monday, or, given the allegations at the core of all of this are about the abuse of women, one of the few women currently on the Florida beat.

He should still have done so — and to echo the lede of this post, this meeting should have been a press conference, and it should have been streamed live. The topic at hand is one of enormous public interest right now, and the stakeholders of the University of Florida who have been outraged since Monday were not going to be more outraged by a press conference in which Stricklin gave essentially the same accounting of events to 20 reporters and a few hundred viewers.

And Stricklin has done something similarly difficult before.

When Stricklin, then Mississippi State’s athletic director, was criticized for permitting celebrated recruit Jeffery Simmons — who assaulted a woman in March 2016, with the act being captured on video — to enroll at Mississippi State, he sat down for an extended interview with reporters at SEC Media Days, which was recorded and later posted to YouTube by AL.com (and other outlets), and explained his decision at length.

That was viewed then as a remarkable bit of transparency — even though it did not spare him from further criticism regarding the decision itself, Stricklin earned some respect, including mine, for publicly taking responsibility for a controversial decision and permitting media members to ask questions of him. While that should be standard practice in college athletics, it is often not.

It is arguably fair for Stricklin and/or Florida to prefer that such a conversation happen in a setting that is not precisely a press conference. An interview behind closed doors with reporters, like the one Stricklin conducted at that SEC Media Days and the one he conducted on Tuesday, generally carries with it an expectation that media members are taking notes and asking questions, but not streaming it live or sending tweets about it, and theoretically allows for those involved to answer — and ask — questions at length and without the pressures to avoid or produce sound bites that live video can introduce.

But we are, in the United States, 18 months into a pandemic that has forced nearly everyone in the media and in college sports to become familiar with a variety of video-conferencing tools. Closed-door meetings have frequently become invite-only Zoom calls. And so it begs credulity to think that Florida could not have accommodated any reporter on the beat who would have been interested in participating, and so it must be concluded that Florida chose to accommodate only those reporters it wanted to accommodate.

That Florida thinks merely providing a statement with partial quotes from that meeting after the fact is an acceptable substitute for access to the meeting itself verges on insulting.

Moreover, it is still most difficult to accept the idea at the core of all of this, one Stricklin confirmed again on Tuesday: That Florida received reports about abuse by Newbauer in 2018, deemed him fit to continue his work in a position of power, and yet ultimately had to accept his resignation because of his behavior.

Doing things differently back then, whether by deeming verbal abuse unacceptable or turning up physical evidence during an investigation, would have possibly saved athletes from the abuse they allege — and, perhaps more importantly to Florida, the headache of dealing with this situation as allegations are reported. By not doing those things back then, Florida failed its athletes, something Stricklin acknowledged on Tuesday.

No one can change the past, and no one is asking Stricklin to do so. While part of his job duties right now include publicly taking accountability for his and Florida’s actions — to include, arguably, making a show of being regretful and penitent — the most important things he will do from here relate to how he and Florida prevent things like this from happening in the future.

Long concludes his report with a quote from Stricklin that blends that retrospective regret with an awareness of the task before him.

“Had I been aware of everything ... when we made the contract extension, I never would have done the contract extension,” Stricklin said. “I thought things were moving in a certain direction. Obviously, we weren’t. We didn’t pick up signs and clues, and we’ve got to figure out going forward how to get better at that and make sure we know what’s going on.”

If Florida wants to get better at picking up signs and clues, it should commit — now and in the future — to regularly taking questions from as broad a swath of legitimate reporters as it can, as those reporters’ questions and insights serve as free supplementary oversight of its programs. It should commit to being forthcoming about why a coach leaves Florida when that coach leaves, and perhaps to being more diligent about investigating reports of bad behavior even if its institutional reflex — which has some merit — is to consider those reports common to coaching transitions, as those commitments will force it to be honest, open, and diligent about knowing and communicating what is going on within its facilities.

It should commit to doing difficult and uncomfortable things regularly, both because its failure to do so in this case resulted in not just having to do difficult and uncomfortable things publicly but in a slew of athletes alleging abuse that flatly cannot be acceptable and because doing difficult and uncomfortable things regularly is often a key to personal and professional development.

And it should do all of these things because it can and because it must — not merely because its failure to do so led to reporting that now casts it in an unflattering light.

Florida did not do the right things or do right by its athletes when it came to its employment of Cam Newbauer. It has a chance to do the right things and do right by its athletes going forward.

And I hope it does.

But it has already stumbled out of the gates in regards to transparency and accountability, and I cannot see how any full and honest evaluation of the details of this saga to date as we know them should instill the faith that it will.