Yesterday, on Wednesday, April 27, news broke that Florida was parting ways with Tony Amato, the women’s soccer coach that Scott Stricklin had selected to replace long-time Florida legend Becky Burleigh, for a rather alarming reason.
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According to WUFT’s Payton Titus, who first broke the story, Amato had developed a habit of pressuring players about their eating habits and their body images. Numerous players complained about his aggressive comments— such as ordering them to reveal their weight prior to charter flights for away games, refusing to play athletes who ate ice cream the night before games, and deriding players’ decisions to add ketchup to their food— and by the time Amato’s first year had concluded, nearly a third of his scholarship players had decided to transfer.
Some fans have responded to the allegations with sentiments along the lines of, “Players always transfer when there’s a new coach,” or “Amato was just making sure his team was physically fit.” In other words, some may think that’s all normal. But according to Titus, a former manager said that four or five Gator soccer players developed eating disorders during Amato’s lone season. One player was even seriously considering intentionally crashing her car to commit suicide by Thanksgiving.
That is not normal. That did not happen throughout Burleigh’s long, celebrated tenure.
That’s all bad enough on its own. The cherry on top was the fact that, as Titus noted in her reporting, Stricklin hired Amato for $226K per year— almost $37K a year more than Burleigh ever made in a single season- and Amato promptly led Florida’s women’s soccer program to its single worst season in school history, with a 4-12-4 record. Burleigh, for efforts that never saw her get paid more than $190K a year, guided Florida to its only national championship, two College Cups (the soccer Final Four) and a whopping fourteen SEC Titles.
Then there’s the added element of the weirdness of the timing. Stricklin had promised back in March that he would conduct a formal investigation and that Amato would work to patch up his relationships with the players. And, as Titus reports, the real kicker of the whole story:
Florida’s athletic director, Scott Stricklin, notified players of the decision regarding coach Tony Amato in a private meeting. That came just before Stricklin and Amato were scheduled to discuss the players’ complaints in separate one-on-one media interviews for an investigative news article about the program’s problems that was to be published later this week.
What, you might ask, does Scott Stricklin have to say for himself?
“Tony has a lot of good qualities, and I think another time, another location, he might be a really good fit for somebody,” Stricklin said. “It just didn’t work out here from a fit standpoint.”
Speaking of people who didn’t work out at Florida from a “fit standpoint,” Amato isn’t even the first coach that Stricklin has had to fire because of widespread allegations of abuse. Just a few months ago, women’s basketball coach Cam Newbauer was fired for making racist remarks, hurling basketballs at the injured legs of athletes recovering from ACL surgery, and driving his players near the brink of mental breakdowns, too. And that firing came just weeks after Stricklin had extended Newbauer’s contract.
Oh, and for what it’s worth: Newbauer, like Amato, guided his program into a metaphoric abyss that reached depths the program had never seen before. In Newbauer’s four seasons, Florida went 46-71. That comfortably qualified as the single worst winning percentage of any Gator women’s basketball coach in his or her first four years on the job.
Forget the fact that Stricklin extended the contract of men’s basketball coach Mike White multiple times despite there being no apparent reason for him to do so; at least White wasn’t abusing his players (to the best of our knowledge, at least). Forget the fourth-year downfall of Dan Mullen— who, for what it’s worth, looked like a fantastic hire for 3.25 seasons. And forget the fact that he took far longer to promote new women’s basketball coach Kelly Rae Finley than he objectively should have, as he did ultimately make that move.
Scott Stricklin has made two major hires for women’s athletics programs at the University of Florida, in Newbauer and Amato. Both hires came out of left field, and confused those close to the respective programs. Both turned in the most paltry win/loss records in UF history. And both emotionally abused their athletes to the point where at least one on each team was legitimately considering taking her own life.
No, you cannot directly draw the conclusion that Scott Stricklin condones abuse of his program’s athletes. But there’s also not exactly a mountain of evidence to the contrary. And that ambiguity is very, very problematic.
For full transparency, the journalistically responsible thing to do at this juncture is point out that I am a big fan of Stricklin’s two most recent hires, men’s basketball coach Todd Golden and football coach Billy Napier. It’s also journalistically responsible— and the responsible thing for me as someone with a platform, period— to point out that the importance of hiring coaches in Florida’s two highest-revenue generating sports pales in comparison to the fact that he hired two other coaches who tormented their players and inflicted heavy damage upon their mental health- and then ignored the respective warning signs.
Because the allegations against Amato- while perhaps not quite as far over the top as those against Newbauer- and Stricklin’s initial response to them prove that he learned nothing from the Newbauer fiasco.
Stricklin attended a meeting with the team back in March where Amato was forced to apologize for his past remarks and aggressions— after which Stricklin promised to launch an investigation and Amato would work to fix the relationships with the players. That meeting was engineered by UF’s Office For Accessibility and Gender Equity. And back in October of 2021, several players and support staff signed and sent a letter to UF’s compliance office that laid out their concerns with Amato— and expressed fear that his behavior could become worse. Yet once again, Stricklin actively chose to do nothing until the final days of April 2022, after almost a third of Amato’s eligible players had transferred out.
I’m not an athletic director. I don’t have the business or sports management experience that Scott Stricklin does. I certainly acknowledge that there’s a lot that goes into being an athletic director, that it’s not an easy job, and that only a very select few people on this planet can do it. And of course, it’s not fair to outright state that Stricklin condones his program’s student-athletes being abused. (The reality is probably that he doles out far too many chances for coaches to correct their actions than he should before pulling the plug.)
But what I do know is that both times Scott Stricklin hired a coach for a women’s athletic program at Florida, the athletes wound up getting abused by that coach in some form or another. He is 0-for-2 in terms of hiring coaches of women’s teams that do not end up fired in disgrace amid a sea of disturbing allegations. That is not the track record of someone who can be trusted to oversee an athletic department. The student-athletes deserve better.
As simple as simple can be, it is currently extremely difficult, if not downright impossible, for one to carry any belief in Scott Stricklin to oversee the University of Florida’s athletics department in a way that allows for student-athletes to grow and develop as people. He’s made not one, but two coaching hires who did the opposite. That’s not exactly a track record that instills belief in me that he can learn to stop doing that, and that makes the prospect of him continuing to lead Florida’s athletics program a perturbing one to say the least.
And so if the University of Florida— which recently made a big show of celebrating 50 years of women’s athletics— would like to demonstrate a serious, non-token interest in its female student-athletes in a world where the issue of college kids’ mental health is more prominent than ever, it would probably be in its best interest to find another athletic director who will.
In other words, I believe Scott has a lot of good qualities, and I think another time, another location, he might be a really good fit for somebody.
It just isn’t working out here from a fit standpoint.