By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Mississippi State athletics director Scott Stricklin sat down with the Daily Journal last week to discuss the 2011 football season, head coach Dan Mullen, and the future of the Bulldogs’ program.
Stricklin, 41, has been Mississippi State’s athletics director since May of 2010. The MSU alumnus was promoted to take over for Greg Byrne, who’s now AD at Arizona.
Question: Was this a “great” season, as Mullen called it?
Answer: It’s certainly a successful season when you get back to a bowl game, winning record. We stood toe-to-toe with the very best teams this country have to offer, most of them in our league. You’re a break or two away from having a really special season.
The similarities between 2010 and 2011 are striking in that 2010 we had two games that came down to the very end that we won, in Georgia and Florida. And 2011 we had two games in Auburn and South Carolina that came down to the very end, and we lost them. When you get in situations, it’s a 50/50 deal. I think it’s a successful season.
I think it was a successful season just because of as I talked about the day I was hired, we’ve had good years before, our challenge has been consistent and repeating it. Just to repeat the bowl game and repeat the winning season I think is really important.
Q: At what point does the number of wins become a bigger deal, not just settling for six or seven?
A: We’re always going to value going to bowl games and having winning seasons. In our league, you look at the University of Georgia, last year went 6-6 and lost the bowl game, so they end up 6-7. Tennessee ended up 6-7. And this year Tennessee’s 5-7.
To get to a bowl game and then to be able to win the bowl game and then to be able to do that year after year after year, there’s a lot of value in that. I don’t care if it’s winning six games or if it’s winning 12 games, we’re going to term that a successful season around here.
I always want to win more games; everybody does. But what’s more important is creating a mindset of a team that’s winning each and every year enough to get into postseason play, and just like we want all of our sports to get in postseason play, it’s important that football gets to a bowl game every year.
Q: Given the history of MSU football and how tough the SEC is, how realistic is it that MSU can win titles and most every year be competitive in the SEC?
A: To me you’ve got to build up a base to where you’re competitive in general before you can compete for championships.
There’s certain ups and downs that other schools have. If you can maintain a consistency through all that, you give yourself a better chance of taking advantage of when other teams are having down cycles. If you have a plan and you put good people in place, anything can happen.
I look at where Baylor had a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback this year (Robert Griffin III). Ten years ago, the odds you could’ve gotten on that – history is what it is.
We’re not sitting around here trying to repeat history, we’re trying to change history. And so just by the very nature, we have an advantage over schools that are just simply trying to repeat history, because we’ve got two hands reaching forward. We don’t have anything holding us back; we’ve got two hands going forward.
We have a legitimate chance to win consistently, get to bowl games each and every year. If you do that over a long enough period of time, you have a chance to compete for championships. If you can compete for a championship every single year, instead of doing it every three or four years, in our league there’s very few schools that compete for the league championship each and every year.
Florida won a national championship two or three years ago; they won, what, seven or eight games last year, won six regular season games this year. But they’ll be back. Two or three years ago LSU was playing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl; I think it was the year after they won the national title. There’s a normal ebb and flow. What’s important is that you keep your baseline going to a bowl game.
Q: How much does facility growth signify Dan Mullen’s commitment to the long term?
A: Every decision, every action Dan has made since he’s been here for three years has been with what’s best for Mississippi State. He’s not made a decision yet that I thought was a short-term decision.
Every decision he’s made – the decision to redshirt kids, facility decisions, the kind of program we’re putting together – every decision has been made with what’s best for Mississippi State football, long term. So he’s had a big part of the facilities. He kind of crystallized some thoughts we all kind of knew needed to take place and provided a lot of momentum to go forward with that football complex. He’s been a part of visiting with the architects and talking about what he sees as being the needs for the facility. And then he’s helped raise money for it. He’s worked with our Bulldog Club staff to sell the message to people who may help make it a reality financially.
He’s been fully invested in that football facility, just like he has been with every other piece of not only our football program but our whole athletic department and our whole university.
Q: Why are people surprised at Mullen staying at MSU when other schools come calling?
A: I don’t know. You look around, I guess people were surprised early in Frank Beamer’s career when he stuck around (at Virginia Tech), and you look at other coaches who have stayed one place and built something. There’s probably been surprise initially when they didn’t jump at something.
You look at Rich Rodriguez, who turned down Alabama – supposedly – and people were surprised by that, and then he took Michigan the next year and probably wishes he had stayed at West Virginia.
This is a really good college football job. You’ve got a top-25 salary, you’re playing in the best league in the country. Hopefully Dan feels like he’s been supported from the administration from a staff support standpoint. He has access to talent – Mississippi produces so many good athletes.
It’s a pretty good job, so I think the people on the outside may have an old perception of what Mississippi State is, is not accurate. And we haven’t done a good enough job of telling our story of what’s going on today at Mississippi State.
Those of us who are on the inside and those of us who are close to Mississippi State aren’t surprised that people see this as a pretty good place.
Q: Do you ever go to bed at night worrying about the rumors and reports of Mullen and other jobs?
A: Our job is to build a program that provides opportunity. And you look at a young man like Fletcher Cox, he came here and has put himself in three years now in a position to have a pretty unique opportunity (in the NFL).
I want every staff member, every student-athlete, everybody that comes through here to have more opportunities because of their time at Mississippi State. That means you’re being successful.
Whether that opportunity is to stay here and continue to build something or to move on like Manny Diaz did or Mark Hudspeth did or like Fletcher Cox has done, and some other guys have done on the playing side, I want this to be a place people go to better themselves and provide more opportunities for them going forward. And the opportunity can be to stay here and grow and win championships or it can be to go somewhere else.
At the end of the day, that’s our job, to create that environment. I don’t sit there and worry about who’s going to be a part of the process, I just worry about the process being in place.
Q: Has he been contacted in the past by certain schools about job openings?
A: Yeah, he’s been contacted. I’m not going to go into specifics, but he’s been contacted.
Q: Can you say if he was contacted by Penn State?
A: I’m not going to talk about specifics, but he’s been contacted.
Q: How recently?
A: He’s been contacted.
Q: Do schools need permission to speak with Mullen?
A: Everybody handles it differently. Some people have called me directly, and some people have called Dan directly. When that happens, we share those conversations with each other.
Q: What are your conversations like when someone contacts him?
A: Dan and I have a pretty open relationship. I don’t want to go into the details, but we talk about the pros and cons of every situation.
It’s nice working with somebody who you can be open and honest with, and who’s open and honest with you. I think our minds work a lot the same way. We see things very similarly, so I think that helps with those conversations.
Q: Is there any kind of raise in the works or just the contract extension?
A: I need to talk to him about that, to be honest with you, before I say anything.
Q: When does the extension back to four years kick in?
A: His contract runs from March to March, so it’ll kick in then. You just have to get staff approval now. You don’t have to get board approval now.
Q: Will assistant coaches get raises?
A: Dan hasn’t said anything. I’ll let Dan initiate those conversations.
Q: What kind of bonuses does Mullen get for going to bowl games?
A: It’s part of his foundation contract, but he does get a bonus, and our assistant coaches get bonuses. It usually equates to about a month’s salary. Dan is not a full month’s salary, but the assistants get a full month’s salary.
Q: What other incentives does he have?
A: He’s got academic incentives, and most of them are related to success on the field, number of wins, that kind of thing. But he’s got some academic incentives in there, too.
Q: Did he meet those academic incentives?
A: We’ve been pretty good on that front.
Q: When will you and Mullen had your season-ending meeting?
A: We’ll work it around his recruiting schedule and everything, but we’ll sit down.
Q: What do y’all typically discuss?
A: We talk so much during the course of the week and during the year that it’s usually ground that we’ve already tread when we sit down and talk.
We’re constantly talking about what pieces do we need, whether it’s personnel, whether it’s timetable, whether it’s equipment room. We talk about everything that impacts the program.
Dan’s a pretty opinionated guy, but he’s also a guy who listens. He’s done a great job from the management of the program piece of it.
Q: How’s he grown as a coach? It seems like he’s mellowed a bit.
A: I think he paces himself a little bit better, and he’s probably more measured in how he responds to situations now.
Whereas that first year, his response could be pretty severe. I think he’s much more measured. And the other piece of it is, I think people around him kind of know how to respond to him when he does respond with a lot of emotion. I think people understand what he’s looking for.
I’ve been around guys that are a lot more challenging to be with. Dan’s personality is not challenging. He’s very driven, wants things to be done a certain way.
Part of the reason he’s probably, the term you used, “mellowed,” is things are kind of more like he likes to see them now than they were when he first got here, and I think that’s normal for any coach going into a new situation.
Q: How well will MSU make out financially off the Music City Bowl?
A: I haven’t seen anything. I saw a really preliminary (report), but it was incomplete as far as the budget. I’m anticipating that we probably come out OK this year.
We had one fewer night at the hotel (than last year). The hotel rate was cheaper in Nashville than it was in Jacksonville, and then we didn’t have to charter a plane. There were less expenses for this year than what we had last year. Jacksonville, what we got for our allotment from the league for our bowl expenses is the same.
I haven’t had a chance to sit down with Duncan (McKenzie, executive associate AD) and look at the numbers yet, but I’ve got to believe we managed the finances pretty well this year.
Q: How well did you do last year?
A: If you put the (coaches’) bonuses in there, I think we were just over (budget). If you took the bonuses out, we made a little bit. I think this year will be a little bit better.
The reason we’re able to come out of the bowl games in good shape financially is because our fans buy the tickets. And obviously they bought a lot of tickets outside our allotment, but the most important thing from the financial standpoint is they at least buy up our allotment, which they did.
Q: MSU had an estimated 40,000-plus in Nashville.
A: We had a bunch of folks there, and the occupancy rate of the hotels in Nashville was incredibly high. I feel like our fans represented us well down there.
Q: MSU is getting a pretty solid reputation as a traveling fan base.
A: I hope so. If you can sell all your tickets and take a bunch of folks and make the local economy and city happy, and also win the game, which we’ve done the last five times we’ve gone to a bowl game, that’s a pretty good recipe for putting smiles on people’s faces.