May 7, 2010.
I double-checked the date he gave me, but I needn’t have done so. Scott Stricklin won’t ever forget the day it was announced that he got his dream job – Director of Athletics at his alma mater Mississippi State University.
That was five years ago today, and it was a week ago today I met him in the office he’s occupied the whole time to talk about what he’s been doing this whole time.
“Can’t believe it’s already been five years,” I told him.
“I don’t know,” he responded. “That does seem like a pretty long time ago.”
“Well, the good news is you don’t appear to have grown nearly as much gray hair as Presidents seem to.”
“Oh, I’ve got more than I did. There’s some there, trust me.”
Stricklin, left, with Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum
Gray hairs aside – and he doesn’t have many to be just shy of 45 years old – appearances for Stricklin are overwhelmingly positive as he begins another year in the highest seat of Mississippi State athletics.
More and more teams are winning, new facilities are opening or being built on a seemingly monthly basis, donations are through the roof and visibility is, without question, at an all-time high. Not that Stricklin took over a department in need of heavy repair, of course. MSU was moving in the right direction already, and Stricklin himself was back in town and part of the administration helping it do so. But the five years since his hiring have been one of the most successful athletic runs the school has ever seen.
Under Dan Mullen’s leadership, the football team has been to five-straight bowl games, including the climax period of the run this past fall when the Bulldogs ascended to No. 1 in the country and held the top spot for five-straight weeks.
Just over three years into Stricklin’s tenure, the baseball team hosted its first Regional in a decade and played for a National Championship in the College World Series, the deepest run any Bulldog team of any kind has ever made it into a postseason.
Men’s tennis is about to play in its fifth-straight NCAA Tournament and women’s tennis just broke through and made the postseason for the first time in a decade. Men’s golf just witnessed a tremendous four-year run while women’s golf, coming off a sixth-place finish at last year’s National Championships, begins the postseason this weekend with hopes of being the first MSU team to win a National Title.
Since Stricklin hired Vann Stuedeman as head softball coach, they’ve been to the NCAA Tournament every year. Undergoing a big rebuilding project, Vic Schaefer got the women’s basketball team to the NCAA Tournament (and a top-20 ranking) in only his third year this winter.
MSU track and field, be it men’s or women’s, indoor or outdoor, has become one of nation’s most dominant programs, winning two individual National Titles in the last two years and breaking a full book of records along the way.
Soccer and volleyball are in years one and three, respectively, of rebuilding with nationally-respected coaches, while men’s basketball made the splash of the offseason this March when it hired Ben Howland as the newest coach of the Bulldogs.
Stricklin with Ben Howland, center, and John Cohen, right
Off the field, MSU’s APR (academic progress rate) has grown annually, including two semesters the last two years with a cumulative department-wide GPA of at least 3.0, last fall being one of them.
The Bulldog Club has seen record donations and surpassed 10,000 members last year (up to almost 12,000 now), a significant milestone for the fundraising arm of the athletic department, while record crowds have shown up to watch football, baseball, softball, soccer, volleyball and women’s basketball all over the last 15 months.
Efforts such as those have led to a boom in facilities, where Stricklin has been part of the expansion and renovation of Davis Wade Stadium, a $25 million football team facility, a $12 million basketball practice facility, renovations to the track complex and upgrades to weight rooms and training facilities across the board. This spring, MSU unveiled plans for a brand new baseball stadium, broke ground on a multi-million dollar golf facility at Old Waverly Golf Course, and just last week the school began construction on a new $6 million softball stadium and tennis facility.
All the while, MSU has been at the front of pack in social media presence, marketing and branding, thanks in part to the twitter-savvy and perception-aware Stricklin.
So, if he’s sprouted a few gray hairs the last five years, it’s hard to blame him. But to see him relaxed in his office for a look back at those 60 months, you wouldn’t think he’d been so busy.
While it could easily seem like he just sits behind his wooden desk tweeting all day, Stricklin makes a point to get out among the people in the department and spend time with the coaches and players keeping the programs running.
“He’s very personable,” senior baseball pitcher Trevor Fitts said. “He knows everybody by name.”
Fitts has gotten to know Stricklin particularly well, it turns out. Not only does he see the athletic director at practices and games, Fitts goes to the same church as Stricklin and is actually teaching Stricklin’s daughter this spring while he’s been student teaching at a local elementary school to finish his degree.
The first time the two were ever around each other, however, was Fitts’ freshman year when Stricklin spoke with the baseball team before practice one day.
“He came in and told us how he thought our baseball program could compete for a National Championship,” Fitts recalled. “He thought we had the talent and ability to do it. The next year, we played for the National Championship. I just thought that was really cool that he believed in us and saw it coming.”
Kayla Winkfield, a junior on the softball team, said Stricklin makes sure to come and talk to her no matter where they run into each other, on the field or at a restaurant around town.
What both Winkfield and Fitts say they like so much about Stricklin is not just that he’s around, but that he makes them feel important. He goes out of his way to make sure he not only knows their names, but asks what they want to do, where they want to go, who they want to be.
As sophomore softball player Caroline Seitz put it, “we’re not football players, maybe, but our athletic director knows who we are, takes notice and cares about us.”
That dedication to sports beyond football has been a big reason for MSU’s overall success under Stricklin in recent years. Football was the star this past fall, to be sure, but Stricklin has made a noticeable effort to put championship-caliber teams on every field, court and track on campus.
“If they’re keeping score, I don’t care what the sport is, we want to be good at it,” Stricklin said. “We want the Maroon and White to win.”
It didn’t happen from year one, and Stricklin says the entire department still isn’t completely where he wants it to be from a competitive standpoint, but the results of that renewed commitment to all sports have been evident.
Each year, Learfield Sports and the National Association of Collegiate Athletic Directors present what is called the Director’s Cup, a ranking of all 300-plus NCAA programs based upon on-field success in a given athletic year.
Only fielding 16 sports, MSU doesn’t have the numbers available to ever garner a top-10 finish, but the Bulldogs have made a jump in those rankings the last few years.
Two years ago, MSU cracked the Top 50 for the first time in history, its highest-ever rank. Last year, State checked in at No. 52, the third-highest finish ever. To give perspective, MSU had been outside the Top 100 for seven-straight years before cracking into double-digits in 2011. This year, with a minimum of half of MSU’s athletic teams making the postseason (and more possible), the Bulldogs could have the chance to break their own record yet again.
The very first head coaching hire Stricklin made was Vann Stuedeman, MSU’s softball coach, back in April of 2011, less than one year into the job.
Stuedeman, a longtime SEC assistant, asked around the conference about Stricklin before her interview in Starkville that spring. The answers she received gave her an idea of what was about to happen at MSU, a revitalization of all 16 sports, big-profit or not.
“The common answer was, he knows no gender difference,” Stuedeman remembered. “Over the last 19 years there had not been a whole lot of change to softball [at MSU] as an outsider looking in. I wanted to know there was going to be dedication to our sport.”
She got her answer then, but it was re-affirmed last week when she and her players took sledgehammers to the old stadium, ceremoniously clearing the way for the $6 million facility to come.
The same stories about Stricklin come in from across the athletic department, where Stricklin has demanded competitiveness from each sport and committed his time and resources to making that happen.
Stuedeman remembers a book Stricklin gave the staff during her first year on campus. It was called In A Pit With A Lion On A Snowy Day. The synopsis: don’t run from challenges – chase them, and don’t be afraid of finding yourself in a tough place. Stricklin will regularly give out books he finds inspirational or practical, but that one in particular, to one of his coaches, exemplified what he does for Mississippi State.
“I felt like he was in the pit for this athletic department,” she said, “just like each individual coach was in the pit with their own team and everybody was working so hard to rise up and get one step closer to national prominence.
“To me,” Stuedeman concluded, “he’s quite the genius. This is the time to be at Mississippi State. That starts with the leader and that’s him in the athletic department.”
Stricklin with quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, left, and Dak Prescott, center, after Prescott won the Conerly Trophy
Stricklin and I sat down last week for a lengthy Q&A on a variety of subjects relating to Mississippi State Athletics and his time as athletic director. The following are highlights from that chat.
Question: Am I right to assume you always wanted to be an athletic director?
Answer: You reach an age of maturity, I think, where you’re more realistic and more comfortable with whatever happens. I remember when I became AD I was thinking what a great opportunity it was and how fortunate I am. Then I’d meet people who knew me here when I was a student. They’d say, ‘I remember you saying you wanted to be athletic director here one day.’ Man, how brash and precocious must that have been. For the last 10-15 years before being named, I don’t remember thinking that in a serious or realistic way.
But it’s fair to say I always wanted to be as high up in the administration as I could be. I also remember having the thought when I was working with Greg Byrne here and Mitch Barnhart at Kentucky that I was close enough to the fire to stay warm, but I never got burned. I remember thinking that’s a pretty good job, being a senior level person but not the guy at the head of everything. You do get burned sometimes when you’re name is at the top of the org chart. But it’s been great. I feel very fortunate and blessed. I don’t know how long I’ll get to do it, but I feel blessed every day I get to.
Q: Were you prepared for the time commitment and trying to balance family life?
A: I didn’t feel unprepared for that part. I had been around enough friends and others that I kind of knew what that was and how to manage the family part.
What’s different is becoming athletic director at a place you went to school and worked previously. There’s still people around here who knew me as a student. There’s some surrealness to that. It’s great because there are relationships there. But your role changes and you’re viewed differently. You have to manage things differently. Some of those relationships, while they’re still very strong, they’ve moved to a different stage. That was probably the thing that was hardest for me – not adapting to the workload, but how others saw and acted and treated me differently. It’s a little bit lonelier sometimes. People don’t pop in your office as much as they used to when I was down the hall.
Q: Looking at things you’ve done, a lot pops out, but facilities upgrades really stand out. Nearly every sport has made or is making improvements. Where did that come from?
A: I had a unique perspective because I’m a Mississippi State guy and always have been, but then I spent 15 years away. I got to see this place through a different set of lenses. 10 of those years I was in the SEC, so I would come back here often with another school. Some of the things I thought were great when I was here as a student, I realized maybe weren’t as great compared to other schools. Some of the things I didn’t fully appreciate before, I started to appreciate more.
One of the areas that I think you get a very objective view of a school is facilities. Plus, this day and age in college athletics, I think every school is constantly in the facility upgrade and expansion mode just because it’s so important how you’re perceived in attracting and retaining quality staff, attracting quality student-athletes and making sure your fans understand they’re important, too. Facilities touch everybody. Every one of your constituents are touched by facilities in some way, so it has to be a priority.
We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve had so much support. The Bulldog Club, at large, has supported those projects. Whether it’s been fans buying tickets or individual donors stepping up. We’re not done. We’ve got a lot of projects ahead of us still. But it’s really pretty cool to see the Seal Complex start with just being an idea and then become reality. Then not only becoming reality, but you see the impact it has on the day-to-day operations of our football program. You see the football program grow from where it was kind of on a parallel path, they’re tied together. The women’s basketball program has grown under Vic’s leadership, and I think facilities are a big part of that. What we’re doing in golf, what we’re about to do in softball, it’s fun to see the impact those things make.
Q: Speaking of those programs, there’s been a lot of growth in the Olympic sports under your guidance. Not that people didn’t care before, but it seems like there’s been a renewed commitment there.
A: Absolutely. If they’re keeping score, I don’t care what the sport is, we want to be good at it. We want the Maroon and White to win. You’ve got to be strategic. You can’t just hope that happens. You’ve got to have the right people leading those programs and you’ve got to make sure they have the resources and tools around them to do the job and make sure they have a plan that can be executed. I get as fired up about women’s golf finishing sixth in the country or women’s basketball knocking off a top-ranked team as I do about our football team winning a big SEC game. It’s competitive nature.
The other part of it is, you can’t have a department where you care about some of your sports, and you really don’t care about some others. One of the most important parts about leadership is consistency. If we talk about wanting to compete for championships in some sports, I don’t know how you don’t do it in every sport. I don’t know how you don’t make that a focus and priority on winning consistently across the board.
Fans see the football players at the stadium or they see the basketball team on the court, but the fact of the matter is that during their time here at Mississippi State, those athletes interact with one another across their various sports. We have 350 student-athletes and they’re in the same classes, they share some of the same majors, they’re in study hall together, they eat together, they run into each other in the training room. Most of them don’t really have time to be in social groups. Their social network a lot of times is the other student-athletes. That’s why when you go to softball, you see football, basketball and track athletes supporting them. That’s their friends.
I want them to be around other winners. If we have winners in our football program and they’re going to go hang out with track athletes, I want them to be around other winners. That’s another reason why it’s really important. You don’t want any group pulling down everyone else. We’ve got to be good in everything. We’re not there yet, but we’re further along.
Q: In five years, you’ve hired a half dozen new coaches, as well as helping to retain assistant coaches and even sought-after head coaches across the board. You’ve also had to make decisions to let some coaches go, you’ve helped some ease into retirement and you’ve replaced some who left for other reasons. What have you learned from those experiences?
A: Those conversations when you’re making a change are no fun. It’s one of the worst parts of the job. At the end of the day, every action and every decision we make as a department has to be about what’s best for Mississippi State. Sometimes, there are decisions made that we need a change in personnel for the betterment of Mississippi State. It’s hard to sit down and have that conversation. Since we are doing it for Mississippi State and that is the focus, you’re able to move forward.
I love our group of head coaches. I think we’ve got as strong a stable as maybe in the history of our school and maybe as strong as anybody in the SEC, top-to-bottom. They all have a similar energy, have a similar focus. They all get along, which is very important to me. I’ve worked in departments where the football coach didn’t talk to the basketball coach and there was a lot of jealousy and territorial behavior.
It’s really important to me that people get this isn’t just about one sport. It’s about a whole university and how that sport can help benefit the entire university and department. I’m proud of that when I look out at one of the practice gyms and there’s coaches from all different sports out there playing a pick-up game together.
Our coaches communicate with each other a lot on things that have nothing to do with their sport. I think that’s really healthy because they’re able to share ideas to make each other better, but they’re also able to support one another.
Q: You’ve made a point through social media, marketing and branding that people are going to know who Mississippi State is. Was that a conscious decision or just a natural reaction as social media became a bigger deal?
A: I think a lot of it is more natural. My background is in communication and I dealt with the media a lot early in my career. Relative to most A.D.s, I’m probably more comfortable in that space. The other part of it is, I really feel like at Mississippi State we have to be aggressive and we don’t ever need to be afraid of trying stuff. If there’s one thing that we kind of use as a barometer, it’s that I don’t ever want to not do something because we’re afraid to fail.
We’ve tried some things that you’d put in that category, that this may not work, this may fail, but if it works it’s going to be really good and we think there’s a chance it could work. We’ve tried some of those things and they’ve worked, and we’ve tried some of those things and they didn’t work as well as we had hoped, and that’s part of it. We’re not afraid to try and I think that’s the most important thing.
I tell our coaches, we’ve got to be innovative. We can’t just sit back. When you’re innovative, you’re going to stub your toe sometimes. But, if you quit and don’t try anything again, you’re in trouble. From a marketing standpoint, we’ve not been afraid. Whether it’s uniforms, using social media or whatever, I think more things than not have worked and have helped. I think it’s given us, as a university and certainly as an athletic department, a little bit different identity.
There’s some flashiness there that’s attention-grabbing, but at the end of the day, this is a department that’s based on blue-collar values, hard work, toughness, competitiveness and intensity. We have fun with it. We take what we do seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and I think that’s a key delineation there. I think we have an identity. What’s neat is I think people outside our department are starting to understand what that identity is. I think it’s something that Mississippi State people can be proud of.
Q: Do you have any favorite memories, moments or experiences so far? If you’re thinking back over the last five years, what sticks out?
A: There’s a lot. The Georgia football win in 2010, which was Dan’s second year and my first year as athletic director. I don’t think we all focus on that game very much, but that was a pretty key game. We had started the season 1-2. Lost to Auburn in a pretty close game on a Thursday night. Went down to LSU and got beat. Georgia was coming down to our place, and they don’t come here very often. We hadn’t beaten them in a long time. It was really one of the first times that the fans and everybody were willing us to a victory. It was a big victory. We ended up winning nine games that year. That was a special moment that resonates. I just remember the joy from that game. I remember thinking, this is pretty cool. This is something we can build off of.
The Gator Bowl win was pretty special. Watching growth in fan interest in sports like women’s basketball and softball, that’s been pretty cool. We’re expanding our softball stadium because we don’t have enough room for all the people that want to watch them come play. Vic has got such a great following now with women’s basketball, setting statewide attendance records. That’s been pretty neat.
Winning the last two football games in 2013, especially the Egg Bowl, was such a needed thing. I feel like that was a big part of setting up the 2014 season.
That three or four week period getting to No. 1 and then being No. 1 last year, I don’t think I’ll ever top that professionally. I hope we’re No. 1 again, but there will never be anything like the first time. Unless we finish the year No. 1, which is our goal.
To go down to Baton Rouge and dominate them, have an off week to enjoy it, and then get ready for A&M, then have our stadium packed. It was the first time since our expansion we had an SEC game at home. That was a magical day. We beat A&M handily. Come back and it’s two-versus-three in Starkville, Mississippi and it’s the biggest game of the week with GameDay. Then we win that game by a couple scores. That was as fun a run as I’ve ever had in athletics. I remember sitting there just looking up at our fans and being so happy for them and seeing the pride and joy on their faces because they knew we were going to wake up the next day and be No. 1 in the country.
Getting to spend 12 days in Omaha watching our team compete for a National Championship. It’s good when you sit there and rattle off great moments for three or four minutes and, oh by the way, that time our baseball team played for the National Championship. That meant so much to our people. We had 20,000 people show up in Omaha to watch our team. I love those moments when you can see pride on the faces of Mississippi State people and you think, our student athletes and our coaches helped make that possible.