Column: Word From The Top
If you can’t beat Kentucky, copy Kentucky.
Scott Stricklin meant football – yes, Kentucky football – when the University of Florida athletic director spoke to the Putnam County Gator Club on Tuesday, filling the clubhouse at Palatka Municipal Golf Course.
He made this observation three days after the Wildcats’ 27-16 victory in the Swamp, their first over the Gators in 32 years: “You have to give Kentucky credit. They were the better team. They have two things we don’t have. One is consistency in coaching. We’ve had four head coaches in eight years. The second is investment in infrastructure.”
Stricklin likes to think he has addressed the first issue with the hiring of Dan Mullen – offensive coordinator for Florida’s 2006 and ’08 national championship teams – from Stricklin’s alma mater, Mississippi State, where Mullen had been head coach from 2009-17.
To address the second, Stricklin is following the Kentucky model, among others – noting that the Wildcats, with their lordly reputation in basketball, came to Gainesville to check out the basketball practice facility UF built during the Billy Donovan years.
Construction of what Stricklin called a “football operations center” is one of three major projects in the works. The softball stadium is getting a $4 million facelift that is expected to be completed in time for the 2019 season. Across from it, but not in time for ’19, will be a new baseball stadium to replace shade-free McKethan Stadium. Bulldozing the Mack would make room for the football complex.
The softball upgrade and new baseball park befit programs that won national championships in 2016 and ’17, respectively. OK, the football team hasn’t done so hot for most of the last decade, but besides the consistency in coaching, there’s the issue of facilities and the Gators are lagging behind.
“A lot of the time, people are wondering, ‘Are we in an arms race?’ If something’s important, whether it’s a city park, a public library or something else, you tend to invest in the infrastructure,” Stricklin said.
Not that Gator Nation has to wait until sometime after 2019.
“We’re not going to wait for a facility to win football games. We know coach Mullen and the toughness he instills. It’s not going to happen overnight and it’s not going to be four years,” Stricklin said.
He’s convinced he has the right man in Mullen, sold on his ability to lead, to hold others accountable and to develop quarterbacks. (Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott and Alex Smith, among others.)
Stricklin gets involved in recruiting and notes with pride that he has a lot more to sell than coaches and buildings.
There are some 1,000 schools in the NCAA, about a third considered Division I and 128 that play at the highest division of football. “Only 14 of those are in the best conference – the SEC – and Florida has won the SEC all-sports trophy 28 out of 29 times,” Stricklin said.
There’s more. UF moved up to eighth among all public universities in the nation in a U.S. News and World Report study released last week. Seventeen of 21 Gator teams qualified for NCAA postseason competition last year and 12 finished among the top eight in the nation – matching Stanford, which offers 36 programs.
“It’s so much fun to go to work every day with people working with our 500 athletes to help them win championships,” Stricklin said.
He would like all of them to complete their years at UF with three things – a degree from a top-eight college, a championship ring (“preferably national”) and a sense of camaraderie and loyalty that ties them to Gator Nation.
“If they have that degree, that ring and that lifelong connection, you’re doing your job,” he said.
The second critical part of Stricklin’s mission is to enhance the fan experience. Thus the baseball and softball projects, the recent renovation of the O’Connell Center (which began on the watch of the previous longtime AD, Jeremy Foley) and the coming introduction of Wi-Fi at the Swamp.
“For this generation, connectivity is almost like running water. You’ve got to have it,” said Stricklin, anticipating a time tickets will be available on one’s phone.
It’s all about satisfying the athletes and those who cheer for them.
“If one of those decisions isn’t helping one of those two groups, we probably shouldn’t make it,” Stricklin said.
Andy Hall is sports editor of the Palatka Daily News.