Scott Stricklin made the ultimate gamble with hire of Todd Golden

Scott Stricklin
Photo Credit: Kim Klement, USA Today Sports

To say that Florida AD Scott Stricklin has come under fire from Florida Gators fans would be an understatement.

In all fairness, Scott Stricklin actually did a decent job with his handling of Dan Mullen and the football program. Mullen seemed like an excellent hire for 2.75 years before Marco Wilson threw a shoe, and over the next .75 seasons (the final three games of 2020 and the first half of 2021) Mullen’s stock took a hit and was reduced to “good, not great.” Then things completely came off the rails late in 2021, and Stricklin pulled the plug. And personally speaking, I wanted Billy Napier to replace Mullen- and I got my wish.

But Stricklin still drew heat for all of that, from not firing Mullen sooner and for not replacing him with a bigger name. There was a non zero percentage of the Gator fan base that gave him heat for that.

Then come the tasks that Stricklin verifiably fouled up, with various degrees of horror coming with them.

Savvy fans noticed the terminal disease with the Mike White era two games into his fifth season, on a Sunday afternoon in Gainesville that proved White spent the entire offseason coaching his handpicked roster to run an offense that they could not possibly have been more ill-equipped to run. By the time Florida had blown an eleven point lead with 9:45 remaining against an Oral Roberts team that did not recruit the same caliber of athlete as Florida, the final morsels of any rational argument to defend White were gone. And not only did Stricklin allow White to come back for a seventh year, he extended him for more years down the road.

Stricklin drew a pretty strong wave of heat for that, as fans (correctly) pointed out the fact that Florida aims higher than Round of 32 appearances and fifth place finishes in the SEC. When White then turned around and produced a seventh season that finished far beneath both those metrics, the noise became deafening- and while we don’t know the precise nature of what transpired next, we do know that Georgia paid Florida $1.25 million to take White off of Florida’s hands, and therefore sparing Florida $8.75 million more in White’s potential buyout. (Put a pin in that last sentence, we’ll come back to it shortly.)

And then there was the calamity of all calamities, undoubtedly the most inexcusable display of willful neglect an AD can ever be responsible for. Stricklin actively ignored all sorts of information that came across his desk about his women’s basketball coach, Cam Newbauer, repeatedly and consistently abusing his players- and for an added bonus, it wasn’t even as though Newbauer was winning games. In fact, Newbauer sported the worst SEC record of any Gator women’s basketball coach in four seasons, ever. Stricklin, for reasons that defy logic, somehow came to the conclusion of, “Hmm, you know what this program needs? More of this guy!” …and promptly handed him an extension, too, in June of 2021.

The fact that Scott Stricklin did eventually wind up appointing a new women’s basketball coach that the players seem to love has done little, if anything, to quell the noise surrounding him for his incompetence there. Newbauer was allowed to walk away on his own terms, and interim coach Kelly Rae Finley was strung along with that interim tag still attached until the final days of February, 2022 despite having done more than enough to merit this move being made well before that. And though legalities and logistics will likely be pointed to as the reason for the holdup, the bottom line remains that Finley was nonetheless robbed of a golden opportunity to recruit players for the future during the height of her run with the team in January and February.

So suffice to say that a large percentage of Gator fans, for lack of a better way to put this, are pissed at Stricklin. For one reason or another, if you round up a thousand Gator fans at random and asked them if they like Scott Stricklin or not, the number of “yes” answers is bound to be very, very low.

And Stricklin hears it. Social media provides a direct channel for fans to put their opinions directly on the screen of Scott Stricklin’s phone (and yes, I’ve utilized this too).

And this may explain why Stricklin went out and got Todd Golden as the Gators’ new head basketball coach. Names like Tony Bennett, Anthony Grant, Matt McMahon, and yes, even Scott Drew were floated as real possibilities. Yet less than one week after Mike White was announced as the Georgia Bulldogs’ head coach, Todd Golden was announced as White’s successor in Gainesville. Maybe this was done because Stricklin wanted to demonstrate to fans just how savvy he is. Maybe he felt like he had to prove his worth.

Regardless of if there was a bit of personal attitude and “I’ll show you!” behind the move, the hire leaves a few possibilities open.

One possibility is that Scott Stricklin did more research than any of us could possibly imagine. This theory, of course, would have to go hand in hand with the theory that Stricklin knew for some time that Mike White would not be back for the 2022-23 season, but this potential combo of theories is nonetheless possible. Of course, this is the theory that would grant Stricklin the most credit: he’d known a change would have to be made for weeks, coordinated with White that he should look for a new job at season’s end (so that Florida could be spared from having to pay that $8.75 million buyout) and conducted deep-dive research into scores of different potential candidates, vetted them each carefully, and at the end of this exhaustive research process, landed on Golden with the idea that Golden truly would be the next Billy Donovan in terms of results. That’s possible.

The complete opposite is also possible, too: that Stricklin was completely blindsided by White’s departure, truly wanted him to be the Florida coach for as long as he was in control of the UF athletic department, panicked, rushed the search process and made a knee-jerk hire that came as a result of little, if any, effort to land a bigger name coach. It’s not a theory that would make Stricklin look very good at his job. But given that Stricklin has made plenty of errors that have already planted that image of him in the minds of many objective Gator fans, it’s certainly a possibility.

The reality most likely falls somewhere in the middle. Where exactly in the vast open plane between those two diametrically opposed theories the reality sits, I won’t venture to guess. But I will confidently guess that Stricklin’s decision to hire Todd Golden was the result of something in between the best coaching search that has ever been conducted and the worst.

But that isn’t the point. The point is that, for better or worse, Scott Stricklin just took the biggest gamble of his career as an AD in hiring Todd Golden. And he didn’t have to.

Florida will have a new University President coming in soon, one who did not hire him and presumably will have no apparent reason to favor him. (And let’s assume at least for now that the new President doesn’t fire him on his first day for the women’s basketball fiasco, which could happen but I tend to believe will not.) That means Stricklin is starting fresh with a new boss.

Billy Napier was widely regarded as one of the hottest names in coaching, so if he doesn’t pan out at Florida, Stricklin will have failed in hiring him, but there won’t be a ton of shame there given that he’d turned down multiple SEC offers before eventually coming to Florida.

Todd Golden is very, very different. Yes, Missouri was also courting him, but not with the same ferocity that SEC schools were courting Napier. And though there’s certainly a mammoth upside with Golden, there are also massive upsides with some of those aforementioned big names- most notably Tony Bennett and Scott Drew, who have actually won national championships before.

If Stricklin had hired one of those guys, or even Anthony Grant, and the hire didn’t pan out, there would be disappointment (see Mullen, Dan). But there wouldn’t be the widespread finger pointing at Stricklin lambasting him for a needlessly risky hire and calling for his head because the coach ultimately didn’t work out.

If Golden doesn’t pan out, there’s a tsunami of criticism that’s going to come Stricklin’s way, and if Florida’s new President has any intention of keeping the people who fund the athletic program, and thus the school, happy, Scott Stricklin is going to finally be held directly responsible for keeping the school’s second largest revenue-generating sport in purgatory for as long as he did.

I really hope it doesn’t come to that. The more research I do on Todd Golden, the more I like him (different story for a different day). It ultimately doesn’t even matter if Golden was hired as a result of Stricklin’s exhaustive research or if Stricklin blindly reached for him, because either way, Golden is Florida’s coach now. As a Gator fan, I truly hope he succeeds- and unlike with White, I have real, non-blind-hope reason to believe that he will.

But whether he does or he doesn’t, Stricklin’s legacy at Florida will be defined by it. And for any hire with that prior statement fairly attached to it, it simply didn’t need to come with the degree of risk that this one comes with.

Here’s hoping that Golden shatters expectations, and this piece and others like it questioning the hire never have to be revisited again.