In a small conference room in a corner of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, 13 people waited for Jeremy Foley to speak.
Nearly four months after the UF athletics director announced his retirement, a search committee asked for his opinion Tuesday morning on the man who would take his place.
Once the list of potential candidates had been filtered down to 22 names, Foley stepped in with other committee members to help UF President Kent Fuchs narrow the list down to six. Then two.
Then one: Scott Stricklin.
Members of the search committee visited Stricklin to asses his personality. They called his co-workers at Mississippi State University, and they called friends, family and acquaintances. They spoke to people who had once worked with Stricklin in order to judge the 46-year-old Mississippi State director of athletics as accurately as possible.
Each time the committee called, they received the same response: Scott Stricklin gets it.
But before they held one last interview with Stricklin, the committee wanted to hear from Foley.
He didn’t hesitate.
“From my heart,” Foley told them, “I feel like this is the absolute perfect person.”
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When Fuchs spoke to the Southseastern Conference commissioner in June seeking advice for hiring a new athletics director, he received three names in return.
Stricklin was one of them.
Later that month, Fuchs and other members of the search committee called several candidates, including Stricklin, and gauged their interest in leaving their positions for a job at UF.
Some were hesitant. Some were comfortable with where they were and were quick to shy away from the offer. But with Stricklin, Fuchs noticed a difference.
“It’s a two-way relationship,” Fuchs said. “We have to want him, he has to want us. We looked for an AD who truly wanted to be a Florida Gator … and that’s what attracted me.”
From the first phone call, Fuchs said, Stricklin’s interest was obvious.
And on Tuesday, when he was officially announced as UF’s new athletics director, Stricklin beamed, shaking hands with UF coaches, players and university boosters.
“I think it’s the best job in college athletics,” Stricklin said.
He told the crowd that’s why his wife, Anne, and two daughters, Abby and Sophie, uprooted their lives at Mississippi State to come to Gainesville, and why his mother wore an orange and blue corsage on Tuesday, her birthday.
But it wasn’t an easy decision, he said, to leave the program he spent the last six years catapulting into SEC relevance.
Under Stricklin, Mississippi State’s football team has appeared in five consecutive bowl games. Six different MSU sports teams — baseball, basketball, softball, tennis, golf and track and field— reached NCAA postseason play.
And during his tenure, Mississippi State invested in and built a new basketball facility and a football complex and expanded its football stadium, all totaling about $111.7 million. The accomplishments on and off the field culminated in March, when he was named the Under Armor Athletics Director of the Year.
Initially, he thought he would only leave his job for three schools in the nation, and he assumed those jobs would never call.
Then Florida did.
“It became obvious to me that there’s really only one job I’d leave Mississippi State for, and that is to be a Florida Gator,” Stricklin said.
Stricklin said he believes there are better opportunities at Florida than almost anywhere in the country. With an annual athletic budget that exceeds $100 million and is almost double the budget of Mississippi State, UF gives him more freedom to pursue plans and dreams he couldn’t imagine before.
“Going through this process, the thing that kinda just kept pushing me forward was, ‘this is the University of Florida,’” Stricklin said. “There’s just not very many opportunities in our profession that have the platform we have here, that have the voice on the national level we can have here.”
And with Florida’s platform, one of the foremost qualities it sought in a new athletic director was savviness with technology. On Tuesday, Foley told UF’s search committee he needed to find a replacement who was in touch with the changing landscape of college and professional athletics — one in which social and political issues are becoming more popular among athletes, one in which program budgets are increasing every year and one in which the rise of social media in sports and with the youth grows each month.
“I have trouble turning the computer on,” Foley told the committee. “He’s a 21st century AD.”
At Mississippi State, Stricklin used his social media presence to promote athletic events and connect with fans. He said one of the biggest tools in increasing attendance and awareness of a college’s athletic teams, especially the less popular ones, is through interacting with fans on social media.
“He understands the future of athletics. He understands the value of social media and he has more Twitter followers than I do,” Fuchs said. “He’ll relate to the next era. That, to me, is really important.”
But Manny Fernandez, the chair of the UF search committee, recognized a different quality in Stricklin that he said isn’t apparent in many other professionals in the business.
“I think he’s totally honest,” Fernandez said. “I’ve only known him a month-and-a-half or whatever, right? But he gets it.”
When Stricklin officially starts Nov. 1 and takes over for Foley, who Stricklin called the best athletics director in the history of the SEC, there will be no shortage of challenges.
Stricklin said that’s nothing new.
“Every day you wake up in this profession and there’s a challenge,” Stricklin said. “I don’t know what those challenges are going to look like, but I know we’re gonna have them. And we’re in a good spot to attack them.”
Scott Stricklin addressed the future of spring sports at UF Friday afternoon.