Save for the ultra-patient fans or those who are content with a lifetime of mediocrity from their favorite teams, the results that the Gator basketball program has produced under Mike White have been widely panned by fans and boosters in recent years.
During Mike White’s six year stewardship, Florida basketball has reached zero Final Fours, won zero SEC Championships, beaten in-state rival FSU zero times, and had zero players drafted (though to be fair, scouts do think Tre Mann has a chance to break that dubious streak this summer). Sure, there was one stray Elite 8 appearance in 2017, but now with four straight teams that have failed to advance beyond the Round of 32 (unless you care to argue that the 2019-20 team- pegged as a 9 seed- was going to beat Kansas or Baylor), that Elite 8 its looking more like the anomaly than a real standard for this program.
Even as the 2020-21 season progressed, there was some hope from a greater-than-microscopic portion of the fan base that White could engineer a future turnaround. But then the Gators lost to Oral Roberts, a hefty amount of the team disbanded, and after my admittedly unscientific method of culling through social media and message boards, it seems like the majority of his remaining supporters did, too.
One supporter he does still have on his side is Scott Stricklin, who of course possesses the opinion that matters most as the Florida athletic director. Stricklin went on Steve Russell’s radio show yesterday and discussed the state of the basketball program in depth, and provided a lot of what I thought was solid insight, but it was this quote he had about Mike White that really had fans buzzing.
“I think the world of Mike. I’m really excited about his future here. I think he’s going to be the head coach of the Florida Gators for a long, long time.”
And though that was certainly a headliner of a statement, he created quite the undercard, too. Russell asked him what it would take for him to fire a coach, and Stricklin said:
“When you’ve lost confidence in the individual leading that program.”
Obviously, these statements need to be taken with some context. Stricklin, as the AD, is really not likely to go on a radio show, which he knows scores of fans will be listening to, and say, “Yeah, our head basketball coach is on the hot seat and he has to do XYZ next year to keep his job,” or anything that even remotely implies it. There are literally thousands of reasons why that would be a bad idea, not the least of which is that the current personnel erosion the program is dealing with would be nothing compared to the Hiroshima-level fallout that would ensue if he publicly fried his own employee on the radio. The optics would be thoroughly and irreparably terrible.
And really, it couldn’t have come as that big of a surprise that Stricklin really likes White, not after he went out of his way to toss White a hefty sum of money with a very ill-timed contract extension just before the start of the 2019-20 season- which featured easily one of the most underperforming Gator basketball teams in the last several decades. Hell, as a human being, I like White. He seems like a genuinely good guy, and if we’re talking big picture stuff- by which I mean, the world around us has more important things in it than sports- that really does matter.
But at the end of the day, Stricklin has a job to do. It’s a job that he did very well at Mississippi State University, and it’s a job that he’s undeniably done well at the far more prestigious University of Florida… until now. He wanted to come to the Swamp, and well, here come the murky waters.
If Scott Stricklin wants to bank his epitaph at this job on White, that’s his prerogative. And certainly, Florida could do worse than Mike White in terms of its head basketball coach, so it’s not like Stricklin is asking a Little Leaguer to strike out Miguel Cabrera here. White is still young, so while I’d argue that four straight years of the same mediocre product featuring a consistent pattern of bad end-of-game management and now a third complete personnel overhaul is evidence enough that he’s never going to learn, I can at least understand why he thinks it’s possible that White will grow into the job. Even though Florida is absolutely not the job to grow into.
What I will say is this: if White returns to Florida for a seventh year in 2021-22, which I think at this point is all but guaranteed to happen, the Gators don’t look appreciably better in that seventh year of White’s tenure and he’s still singing that tune, he’s going to be in big trouble. Not directly, mind you. Kent Fuchs isn’t going to warn him that he’s on thin ice. The trouble will come in a more indirect, yet even less subtle form.
No, fans don’t have the power to fire Stricklin from his post as the athletic director, but they do have the power to stop spending their valuable time and money on a product that the last four years have repeatedly proven will never be anything more than mediocre. When enough fans collectively decide to do that that the O’Dome resembles an echo chamber on game nights for this basketball program in the world post-COVID (or worse, a de facto home court for big name opponents like Kentucky or FSU), it’s going to get pretty difficult for Scott Stricklin to keep defending him with that fervor.
And though that point might very well come next year, if the results aren’t markedly better next year and Mike White returns for an eighth year… oh boy. Buchholz High School might get more fans for basketball games than the O’Dome in this scenario.
Because part of Stricklin’s job is to ensure that his three money-making sports (football, men’s basketball and baseball) do, in fact, make money. In the just-over-24-hour period between Stricklin making these comments and the publication of this piece, Gator fans from around the country flocked in to voice their opinions on exactly what they thought of Stricklin’s idea that White would be the coach “for a long, long time.” The short version of the answer is that they don’t like it, and they don’t like it to such a ferocious extent that they’re almost all planning to stop financially supporting the program until White is gone.
Now, I generally don’t love the idea of speaking up on behalf of the fan base. In running this blog, whenever I present any viewpoint whatsoever, I always do what I can to back it up with facts. Saying things like, “the fan base thinks this or that” is typically dangerous because it implies that one has done extensive research through focus groups or surveys that in reality almost never precede such statements. That’s what, nowadays, is called “capping”.
But while I may not have the ability to determine the opinion on Mike White, and by proxy, Scott Stricklin, of every single Florida fan, I can guarantee one thing: those who are speaking out about the subject most definitely do not appreciate the idea that White might be at Florida for a long time.
Don’t believe me (even though there’s no objective reason not to)? See for yourself.
How much digging did I have to do to compile all those different people’s thoughts? Scrolling through the replies and quote tweets of a grand total of three tweets, two from Scott Carter and one from Thomas Goldkamp.
Think those thoughts are presented in a vacuum and that there aren’t hundreds of other people on twitter who vociferously despise this statement (and the attitude Stricklin appears to carry based on it) and that the only criticism of this statement appeared in direct responses to the tweets from Goldkamp and Carter? Hop on twitter, use the search bar to type in various combinations of words such as “Stricklin,” “Florida,” “AD,” “Mike White,” “hate,” fan base,” and so on, and see what happens.
Feel like twitter is the only place where disapproval of Mike White, and this statement by Scott Stricklin, exists? Try the same thing on Florida Gator Facebook pages and groups, Instagram pages, and message boards.
Scott Stricklin, I honestly really, really like you. I like you personally (I met you just before the 2017 Florida-Tennessee game in Gainesville and we had a great conversation) and I like you as an athletic director (specifically for firing Jim McElwain and replacing him with Dan Mullen, and for overseeing the athletic facility upgrades). But you have to know that you’re playing a dangerous game here.
Again, I completely understand that you can’t publicly roast your own employee. But there’s a hell of a lot of middle ground between doing that and making a declaration as bold as “I think he’s going to be the head coach of the Florida Gators for a long, long time.” The English language is complex enough that there are plenty of ways to craft a statement that supports your coach without essentially pledging to stand by him for years, possibly even decades into the future. Something along the lines of, “Mike White is our basketball coach. At the end of every season, we evaluate every athletics program to see what we need to do better. After undergoing that process with Mike following the conclusion of this season, we believe that he is fully capable of lifting this program to the next level- of competing for championships the way the Florida Gators should.”
But that’s not the message he conveyed. Now he’s more or less trapped in a world where he’s implied to money-paying fans that the results over the last four years are good enough for him to defiantly state that he’s expecting them to keep paying to support more of the same for years to come. Whether or not that’s what he actually believes or even said doesn’t matter: Scott Stricklin, as someone considered to be a savvy businessman, has to know that perception tops reality, and that is the perception that he’s created.
And he didn’t have to do it.