GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Sitting in his office last Friday afternoon, less than two weeks after hiring Dan Mullen as Florida’s new football coach, Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin reflected a bit on the process and its aftereffects.
Stricklin said he doesn’t usually feel stress in his job, but that monthlong coaching search was different.
“It was pretty stressful. You’re like in a cave. Even when you’re out in public you don’t feel normal,” he said.
From fans and reporters waiting at regional airports for Stricklin to de-board planes hoping to glean an update, to the frenzy of reports about one candidate or another, it was a high-spotlight task for an AD who arrived at Florida just a year earlier.
A large part of Stricklin’s stress, though, stemmed from his roots back home in Mississippi as he eventually decided the best move for Florida was to hire the coach who had transformed the football program at his alma mater Mississippi State.
Speaking with reporters after the news conference to introduce Mullen at Florida, Stricklin showed a tinge of emotion while mentioning the “personal price” for him that came with the hire.
Sitting in his office last Friday, he offered further perspective to the personal difficulty of that decision.
“That was a dominant part of my thoughts when I would think about Dan,” he says. “I didn’t worry could Dan do the job, I didn’t worry would he fit in here or would he understand the culture, any of that piece. Certainly didn’t [question] could he fix our offense and develop quarterbacks. A lot of my time when I thought about Dan was the Mississippi State piece and seeming disloyal to my alma mater. That still bothers me.
“I’ve had a lot of people from Mississippi that I know will never forgive me for that, and I’ve had several friends from Mississippi reach out with some really nice notes and they get it and understand.”
Stricklin adds that he thinks there was a good chance Mullen was going to leave Mississippi State after nine years one way or the other, be it to Florida or another program offering a new challenge.
That didn’t make it any easier, though. It didn’t lessen the optics of the former Mississippi State AD, who was part of the process under former Bulldogs AD Greg Byrne to hire Mullen there in the first place, being the one to now pull him away after a program-transforming nine seasons.
“All of my family, my parents and my siblings live in Mississippi. My wife’s parents and one of her siblings live in Mississippi. We’ve got a lot of connections back there,” Stricklin said, adding that there is a street on MSU’s campus named for his father-in-law. “It’s unfortunate that the paths had to converge this way, but when I would get uncomfortable with it I also would remind myself that I’m the athletic director at the University of Florida and I have to do what’s best for Florida.
“Like I said, I’ve probably lost some friendships that I’ll never get back over it. But that’s OK. Your true friends will understand.”
As much as it pains him, Stricklin says he understands the response, “that some people would see it as a betrayal piece.” Mississippi is a small state with the attention of its sports fans fixated on its two SEC schools.
And Mullen led Mississippi State to a consistent run of success unprecedented in the modern era of the program, finishing with the best winning percentage (.600, 69-46) of any Bulldogs coach since the 1950s. As Stricklin put it, Mullen changed the trajectory of the program.
It’s for that reason that he was optimistic he would find another obvious fit for Florida’s coaching position that wouldn’t require his involvement in Mullen’s departure. In the end, he didn’t, and for those same aforementioned reasons, Stricklin made the call knowing other schools would be in similar pursuit.
“There’s a lot of layers. I’m sure somebody’s gone through it before, [but] I can’t think of a situation similar to that. And for it to be so soon after I left there. But I do think it was the best call for Florida,” he said.
He also believes that the foundation and structure Mullen put in place at Mississippi State will be sustainable into the future.
The Bulldogs hired Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead to fill their vacancy, and Stricklin doesn’t see any reason why his alma mater can’t continue its run of success.
“I think John Cohen’s one of the best athletic directors in the country. I know he, by all accounts, hired an outstanding coach so they have a chance to continue to be really good. I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game where somebody wins and somebody loses,” Stricklin said.
That said, he doesn’t look forward to Florida’s road trip to Mississippi State next Sept. 29.
He’s been on the other side while working at Auburn and Kentucky and has never enjoyed being a visitor in Starkville, Miss.
“But this one particularly is not going to be fun,” he said.
In the end, Stricklin has no regrets and believes he made the best hire for Florida.
While it came at a personal tax, he hopes the reward is that he doesn’t have to go through the process of finding a football coach again anytime soon.
“I hope Dan’s here for a long, long time and we don’t have to go through that again,” he said. “Because it takes a toll on you mentally, physically and emotionally. But we ended up in a good spot.”
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