Stricklin was speaking following his official Friday presentation by University president Dr. Mark Keenum as the new Bulldog athletic director. Dr. Keenum selected the 1992 Mississippi State alumnus to take the post vacated by Greg Byrne, who just assumed the same position at Arizona this month. This is a promotion for Stricklin who was brought back to Mississippi State in 2008 as senior associate athletic director for external affairs and Bulldog Club director.
Two years later the Jackson, Miss., native—who turns 40 Saturday—finds himself in charge of the entire athletic operation. Then again, to those who have known Stricklin since his days as a volunteer student assistant in the media relations office; then followed his career through stops at Auburn, Tulane, Baylor, and Kentucky, this eventual ascension seemed almost ordained. Especially here in 2010, in the context of Byrne's abrupt departure and Stricklin's immediate availability.
It wasn't entirely automatic though. Dr. Keenum was well-aware that a popular home-grown candidate was already on the second floor of the Bryan Building. Still he chose to have a true search process, hiring a recognized search firm for input and efficiency alike. That the outcome was something most MSU folk expected all along only affirmed the president's approach.
"And I'm very confident we found the right person," Dr. Keenum said. That notion was seconded by football Coach Dan Mullen, who returned to Starkville just in time to speak briefly with the new boss. Stricklin was integral in Byrne's own search process that procured Mullen in December 2008, after all, and the two have worked closely since on all sorts of football projects.
"We're happy," Mullen said. "He's going to keep us going in the right direction."
If Stricklin's ultimate direction was always pointing back to Mississippi State, that lengthy course did give him a much better appreciation of how top-tier college athletics operate, where the Bulldog program compares or doesn't, and what it takes to play the game at this level. Not just play, either, but win. To that end Stricklin talks in terms that sound very much like the head coaches who he will oversee.
"We've got to attack our challenges instead of sit back and wait for them to come after us," Stricklin told the assembled crowd and on-line audience. "If we do that we can continue to have the successes we've had in the past." Successes he either saw first-hand with State, such as when he was the student publicist for the 1990 Diamond Dog team that played in the College World Series; or watched from afar in his other positions. For that matter he has come back to campus often enough with opposing teams and seen Mississippi State from that priceless perspective.
So his opinion should be the best-informed of all the candidates Dr. Keenum evaluated before setting on Stricklin in a late Thursday decision. "We live in a world of giants," Stricklin said from the stage. "The SEC is a great thing for us but it is also an amazing challenge. We go toe-to-toe with some really big, powerful schools. The great thing about that is the Davids beat Goliath all the time in this world.
"The underdog, the guy that doesn't have quite as much resources, steps up and wins all the time. The way they do it is they're smarter, they work harder, they're innovative, they figure out ways to do it. Everybody thinks of the slingshot and the stone that hits the big guy. There's a line in there in the Bible I didn't realize until recently: while they're facing off before he threw the stone David ran at Goliath. David became the aggressor in that situation. Mississippi State has got to be the aggressor. We've got to attack our challenges instead of sitting back and waiting for them to come after us."
After all, Stricklin said, there is a track record here. "You know, Mississippi State has done some things not every SEC school has done. We don't have to sit back and wonder what it's like to go to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game, we've done that. And we're going to do it again. We don't have to sit back and wonder what it's like to go to the men's basketball Final Four, this institution has done that, we just want to go back and do it again. And we don't have to wonder what it is like to go to Omaha for the College World Series. We've done that a bunch of times and we're going to do it again."
The key though is to do more than simply take an aggressive mindset. There has to be a plan and the people to perform it. And, Stricklin constantly noted, the support from inside and outside this University; not merely moral but financial, which was stressed by frequent mentions of Bulldog Club memberships and season ticket sales.
"We've accomplished many things, we want to do it more consistently, we want to win more often when we get there," Stricklin said. "We have got to be aggressive and we all have to understand the only thing that can limit us is our own imagination. If we gear-up, do what the fight song says "fight for Mississippi State" we can win that game today."
After the public presentation, Stricklin took questions from media as follows.
Q: Dr. Keenum said he called you around 9:00 last night? "He asked if I wanted to be the athletic director. I said if he wanted me to, I'd love to. I don't think he was surprised by my answer. I was hopeful of his call, I don't want to say I wasn't surprised; but I was hopeful I'd get the call."
Q: Were you expecting that call? "I was hopeful would probably be the best way to put it. From reading all the wonderful reporting we had in the media I figured we were getting close to the end! And I was hopeful I would get a call. I didn't know what the call would be but I like to prepare for positive stuff to happen; I don't like preparing for bad things."
Q: How long had you been preparing for the call? "As I mentioned there's been a lot of information flowing out there. And I've tried to be patient. I've tried to go about my job, I've got a job to do. And I was hoping to work for Mississippi State regardless how it turned out."
Q: Who steps into your role now? "I don't know, we've got to figure that part out. We've got some ideas rolling around in my head, I've got to figure out which one we end up going with."
Q: You have a birthday Saturday, will the celebration spill over? "Well, I don't know! I'm not a big party guy, I might get to go sleep-in. But I've been reminded that I've got a birthday with a zero at the end of it (40). This is obviously a nice birthday present."
Q: Did this being a true national search with a recognized firm make your selection more meaningful? "Absolutely. And I said from the beginning I respected the way they went about the process. This is too important a job just to hand somebody. If I wasn't the right person for the job I want Mississippi State to hire whoever that would be. This place means too much to me, I'm going to be fine regardless. So I do appreciate that they went through a process. I feel blessed and fortunate that I was selected at the end of it, but my feelings toward this place wouldn't have changed had I not been."
Q: What kind of priorities do you set the first few months? "We're part of the campus ‘master plan' with the University. In fact we had meetings all this week with master plan folks and going through that process. We get that report back in November, that's going to give us a great roadmap on what we need to do. Not just with the primary revenue-generating facilities but all our facilities.
"But I think we've got to start dreaming. Twenty-five years ago we had 30,000 seats in our football stadium and this year we averaged almost 55,000 people. I think we need to start coming up with a vision right now of what 75,000 football seats might look like at Davis Wade Stadium. We're not going to get there overnight but once you have a long-term plan and can start phasing it in. I think in the short term we're going to need to add some seats there based on where the demand is right now. I know you've heard this before from the athletic department, we need to take a serious look at Dudy Noble Field and where we go in that direction. We'd love to add some premium seating to Humphrey Coliseum. And we just need to make sure we're competitive from a facilities standpoint.
"And then beyond that I think a strategic vision statement from the athletic department is going to be important. I think the most important thing that could change the future of Mississippi State is for our people to take and optimistic view of where we are and where we can go. We cannot be defined by what our budget number is; we've got to be defined by something else. Whether that's our energy, our innovativeness—if that's a word!—our ability find what strengths we have, what is special about us, and use that to recruit the very best student-athletes; attract the very best coaches. You know, we're not going to be able to imitate some of the big boys in this league, we can't take their playbook and copy it and expect the same results. They've got different circumstances than we do; we have some things that are unique to us. I think it's going to be important that we understand what our strengths are, play to our strengths without worrying about somebody else is. We may do some things real unconventional from time to time because we think that's what gives us an advantage. And we can't be afraid of doing things unconventionally."
Q: Have you spoken to head coaches yet? "I've talked to some of them. I have not gotten to all of them, I've gotten text messages from a lot of the ones I haven't talked to. I talked to Dan (Mullen), he's travelling back today form a trip; I talked to Coach (Rick) Stansbury and Coach (John) Cohen last night and they've been great through this process, very supportive and I look forward to working with them."
Q: When did you actually interview? "Last week. I'd almost rather that come from Dr. Keenum because I'm not sure how much of that process he wants to divulge. But it was last week and I had a chance to sit down with him and we had a great conversation. I'll tell you, we spent about an hour-and-15 minutes together. It was very comfortable, he's an easy guy to talk to. And we share a great passion for Mississippi State so the conversation was very easy because of that as well."
Q: When did you realize you might want to be an athletic director? "Oh, I think if you start in this business early on you kind of have that thought. When did I think I could actually become one, was probably five-six years ago. I stepped into a situation at the University of Kentucky with some really talented people working alongside me. One of those guys named Greg Byrne—you might have heard of him! Mitch Barnhart himself is a sharp guy; a guy named Rob Mullens is deputy AD there, and Rick Thompson was another. Mitch had put together just a really impressive, talented group of guys and I learned a lot from being around them, just kind of solving issues with them.
"And I think a lot of that, what's happened the last two years and what Greg has allowed us to do, has been outgrowth of those experiences."
Q: Is if fair to say you came back to Mississippi State with the ambition of having this job? "You know, like I said I think every day in athletics you think one day I want to improve my situation. The confluence of events that have led to this are really kind of bewildering in some ways and I don't think you could ever plan those. I thought I would have an opportunity to be an athletic director someday; the fact that it is at my alma mater and a place I consider home is almost beyond belief."
Q: There was probably a sense that at some point Greg was going to move on, did that factor into you're decision to return here? "I learned in dealing with you guys a lot of years that speculating is never a good thing! You know, this is home. My wife grew up in Starkville, I grew up in Jackson, we've got all our family here. Whatever role family plays going forward it's going to stay Mississippi State.
"And the other part of it is I think we have a chance to do something special. I know one of the things Greg really struggled with in his decision was he felt this place was on the verge of doing something great. I think he kind of regrets that he's not going to be here to see it happen. I'm excited I get to be here and see it when it happens. It's going to be fun to see the faces on all the Bulldog fans and all the people of Mississippi, because I do think we represent the people of Mississippi, just to see the source of pride this place can become."
Q: If they had hired an outsider he would have to meet all the coaches; how comfortable are you the staff knows where you are coming from? "I've been fortunate to develop pretty good relationships with our coaches. I'm going to have meetings with every staff member here over the course of the summer; I hope not just coaches every staff member throughout the department. I think it's real important that they feel the ability to approach somebody in that chair; just because there's a title at the end of the name I don't want them to feel I'm a different guy than I was twenty years ago when I was a freshman roaming the halls of the Coliseum.
"You know, relationships are key in this business. It doesn't matter if you're dealing with a donor, a coach, a staff member, a fan, media; I think relationships are critical and it's one of the things I enjoy about what we do. I feel confident I'll work well with our coaches."
Q: Have you discussed the contract terms with Dr. Keenum? "He told me what they were going to pay and I said OK, thank you! So that's about the extent of it!"
Q: Dr. Keenum talked about having a high-energy guy, you have run marathons? "I've run a couple. I've finished a couple might be a better way because I don't think I ran the entire time. I was a hyper-active kid, and I've got a couple of hyper-active kids so I don't know if it's genetic or whatever!
"But I enjoy what we do. I try not to take myself too seriously. But I really enjoy college athletics. I'd like to think the effort I give Mississippi State won't be any different than the effort I gave Auburn or Baylor or Tulane or Kentucky. But I know it means something a little different, it's a little more special the fact I'm getting to pour that effort and energy into a place that I call home."
Q: What time will you be on the job Monday? "Well, I usually drop the kids off and get in at 7:45. I don't think that will change. I still have school drop-off duty. And if that's the case I'm going to enjoy the weekend!"