It’s hard to talk about the past with a man so continually focused on the future. Ask Scott Stricklin, Mississippi State’s Director of Athletics, about something one of his teams did this year and he quickly muses on their possibilities for next season. Compliment him on a year full of athletic successes, academic achievement and fan engagement, and he’ll tell you exactly how things can improve going forward.
Such is the curse of the job, it seems, but when he’s able to look back, Stricklin recognizes he’s at the end of a historic year for MSU, even if he does have an eye on the potentially greater one on the horizon.
The 2014-15 athletic-academic year, ending with the close of the month of June, saw record crowds, win totals, rankings and even GPAs. In the Learfield Director’s Cup, an annual ranking of the most successful athletic departments based on performance, MSU placed 52nd despite only fielding 16 teams, one of its top three finishes in school history. That ranking came on the backs of 10 different MSU teams making the postseason, as well as the earning of several wins in those appearances.
After years of being much closer to triple digits than single in the rankings, MSU has consistently been around the 50th spot the last several years as teams across the board have improved significantly. The good news, Stricklin says, always looking ahead, is that MSU is on the precipice of even more. Say, for instance, that the baseball team had reached a regional final like it did in 2014, and MSU would have moved up to 45th. Additionally, had State’s softball and women’s basketball teams won simply one more game in their respective postseasons, MSU would have been in the 30s, a huge leap forward for a department once hovering around 100.
“You can see we’re really close to taking that next step,” Stricklin said.
It could happen as soon as next year, when Stricklin says there is “no doubt” baseball will be back in the postseason, men’s basketball under Ben Howland looks poised to make a big jump, and all 10 of last year’s postseason teams have reason to believe they’ll repeat, at least, and perhaps do even better.
However, back to the year MSU just finished. The future may be bright, but 2014-15 wasn’t exactly hidden in the dark. It started with success by the football team in the fall, the quickest rise in the history of the polls as Dan Mullen’s team ascended from unranked to No. 1 in the country, a position it held for five weeks after beating three-straight Top 10 teams.
“I don’t know what’s more than historic,” Stricklin joked. “Uber-historic? But it was kind of a dreamlike situation.”
The ranking, the success, the attention – all unprecedented. The state of Mississippi was at one time the center of the college football universe and MSU was the best team in the land. It was a months-long event that reverberated throughout the department, as Vic Schaefer pointed to quarterback Dak Prescott and told his women’s basketball team to take inspiration from him, Ginger Brown-Lemm had the QB come speak to her team before they left for the NCAA Tournament and softball coach Vann Stuedeman looked back at a football team no one had believed in as she took her team that was supposed to be re-building to a fourth-straight NCAA Tournament.
MSU’s success across the board had quietly been mounting the last half decade, but it was Mullen’s football team that seemed to break the dam of recognition around the country. ESPN, CBS, the New York Times, even the Wall Street Journal hopped on the bandwagon, singing the praises of Prescott, Mullen and “StarkVegas.” For seemingly the first time, the perception of Starkville and MSU is overwhelmingly positive outside the borders of the state, and those few months in the fall have a great deal to do with it.
“Football does so much to drive that,” Stricklin said. “We have 16 sports and we value all of them equally, but football gets a lot of attention and drives a lot of the awareness of your institution and athletic department. When you’re No. 1 in the country for five weeks and your logo is sitting there on ESPN and on SportsCenter and all the other media outlets with a No. 1 next to it, it has an unbelievable impact on how people view your school.”
Of course, one of the most impressive parts of that run in the fall hardly drew any attention, and certainly didn’t garner any national headlines. In the midst of so much on-field success, MSU’s student-athletes set a record GPA that semester. With the spring semester now over, Stricklin was proud to share that the cumulative year-long GPA for all sports was over 3.0 for the first time in the history of the school.
Stricklin and his coaches have preached the importance of academics, which sounds nice, but in the atmosphere of college athletics it can sometimes ring hollow when administrators around the country talk about tests and studying as coaches and schools are making more and more millions of dollars.
But, sort of like the wins on the field, the numbers in the classroom ultimately tell the story. It’s one thing to say it, but MSU has legitimately made a commitment to academics across the board, something Stricklin said took time and dedication.
The biggest key, he feels, is a having a unilateral belief that academics are actually important. It only takes one group involved – students, coaches or administrators – to not take school seriously for the whole thing to crumble.
“You’ve got to recruit quality young people and attract them,” Stricklin said. “Your coaches have to understand that it’s important. Once the students are here, the coaches and the students and the academic staff all have to work together to make sure they understand it’s a priority. Our coaches make it a priority. They hold our students as accountable as our faculty does.”
The result of academic achievement, athletic success, investment in facilities, exponential increases in visibility and an influx of resources with increased SEC money and rising donations has been a sort of new Mississippi State, a collective rising star in the SEC made up of budding and current stars in over a dozen different sports.
Games, matches and meets against MSU in any sport have gone from “easy W” for conference opponents to primetime showcases on ESPN, CBS and the like. Stadiums once only half-full have been packed to capacity, driving the need for expansion, renovation and new construction. Bulldog Club membership is at an all-time high, MSU license plates are now available across the southeast and Hail State has turned into a nationally-recognized rally cry in just a handful of years.
“You do sense that there’s a renewed sense of pride among Mississippi State people,” Stricklin said. “There’s a can-do attitude here that I don’t think has always existed. There’s a sense of ‘Why not?’ Why can’t we go play for the SEC Championship in football? Why can’t we go play for the National Championship in baseball? Why can’t we go to the Final Four? We’ve done that before.”
The last 12 months of Mississippi State sports were important and decidedly successful, but Stricklin, ever-focused on the future, isn’t content to maintain. Last year, and really the last several years, just served as the launching point.
“It’s not a matter of if MSU is going to win a National Championship. It’s when. It’s going to happen. Then once it happens, you may see more than one,” he said. “To put yourself in a position to do it, you’ve got to win consistently, and that’s what’s changing.”