Scott Stricklin has an amazing story to tell. One day after he has retired, I hope he gets a chance to tell it. The surface perception is that Ben Howland “fell into his lap” and Stricklin made the no-brainer decision to hire the highly accomplished coach. But this is high major college athletics. Things are never that simple. And while the opportunity to hire Ben Howland might have fallen into Stricklin’s lap, it’s more akin to a poisonous spider crawling on the ceiling above you that falls in your lap. Once that happens, you can freak out and get the spider off of you, but you increase the chances that you are going to get bitten. The other option is to remain calm, and you increase your chances to come out of it without a scratch.
The reason I say all this is the details of the hire. Most of us haven’t given the whole process of what it took to get Ben Howland to Starkville much thought. Rick Ray was relieved of his duties on Saturday, March 21. A statement was released by both the school and Howland two days later that the school had hired Howland to take over. Stricklin is doing what he is supposed to do by saying once he made the decision to fire Ray, the first person he considered was Howland. Most people understand it wasn’t that simple.
The reason the firing of Rick Ray was such a shock is no one believed Stricklin wanted to fire Ray. I still think that is the case. The only way Scott Stricklin was going to fire Rick Ray was if he was certain a major upgrade at the position was going to take his place. There’s no question that Howland is a major upgrade, but when was Stricklin first approached with this? On Monday, the guys who cover college basketball at CBS Sports recorded this podcast. In it, Gary Parrish says that he is certain the hiring of Howland had been in the works for days before the decision to fire Ray was announced, and it is very likely that it was more like weeks.
If you have ever paid close attention to a coaching search and the subsequent hiring of a coach, it can take a while. It’s extremely rare for all of this to take place in just a few days. We don’t know exactly when it started, but the latest it started is likely right after Mississippi State’s departure from the SEC Tournament. It isn’t far fetched to assume Stricklin was first approached sometime before the regular season came to an end.
Almost all of the college basketball insiders across the major publications have reported the reason this came together is because Adidas greased the wheels. Howland is thought of very favorably by the executives at Adidas, and since we are an Adidas school, that makes sense. But based on the likely timing of when Stricklin was approached by this, Scott Stricklin had some very tough decisions to make.
High Risk, High Reward
Whenever he was approached with the prospects of bringing Howland in, Stricklin knew there was a lot at stake. There was a lot at stake personally, and there was a lot at stake for the basketball program. He had to be careful in how he proceeded.
Hiring an extremely successful coach is rarely a decision that won’t be popular, but when the program has a current coach in place while you are still trying to hire another one, that’s a different story. Auburn attempted to replace Tommy Tuberville in 2003 while he was still the coach, and it didn’t end well for the President or Athletic Director for Auburn at the time. It’s not exactly an apples to apples comparison, but there are still similarities.
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In the case of Auburn and Tuberville, the AD and President had promised to meet with Tuberville about his future before they were supposed to talk with any potential replacements. That never happened. Also, Tuberville was a successful coach at Auburn before this happened with lots of support from fans and some boosters. Rick Ray didn’t have any of this going for him at the time. The outcry from national media would have been far and wide had news of Stricklin’s attempt to replace Ray while he was still the coach had broken, but I don’t imagine there would have been many fans or boosters, the people who have the most impact on Stricklin’s job status, would not have been as severe. Stricklin could have survived, but it would have been a severe black eye on his reputation.
One of the problems Stricklin faced was his situation also had risk if he decided to pass on hiring Howland. The basketball program was mired in a funk. Losses were piling up. Attendance was abysmal. Passing on Howland would have been a safe play, but the moment it was released to the public that Stricklin passed this opportunity up, the backlash from fans would have been drastic. The few who did attend would have dropped off even more. The fans who weren’t disgruntled would now join those who were since they lost an opportunity to hire a top of the line coach. There was risk in both pursuing Howland and in passing on Howland.
If there is risk for both, then why did Stricklin do it? We all know the answer. Stricklin had a chance to hire a highly accomplished coach to resurrect the mess that was men’s basketball. The number of people that attended Ben Howland’s introductory press conference rivaled, and likely surpassed, any basketball game this season. Simply hiring Ben Howland has breathed new life into the fans and the program. There was personal risk, but Stricklin’s job is to do what’s in the best interest of the program, not what is in his own personal interest. He had to pursue Howland.
Sealing the Leaks
One of the most fascinating parts of this story is it never leaked. Considering everyone who was involved (Stricklin, Howland, and likely Adidas) knew that it wouldn’t happen if it did leak, it may not be that surprising. But getting a coach hired involves a lot of people, and keeping everyone involved quiet is never a simple task.
Stricklin had the most to lose in this. How many people were aware of what was going on and involved in the process, I don’t know. But he could control who he told and keep the leaks on the Mississippi State side under wraps. He didn’t have that luxury for all the other players involved. A lot of credit goes to all those involved to keeping this quiet so it could happen.
Closing the Deal
However quickly Stricklin decided to pursue this, it was paramount that he closed the deal. If he hadn’t, pride and egos could have gotten in the way. The chances of it leaking after failed negotiations would have risen. People’s incentive to keep it quiet would have fallen and someone might have run to a media member if Stricklin hadn’t made the deal happen.
I would love to know the mindset of Scott Stricklin throughout this process. Stricklin has been given a lot of credit for making this hire, as he should. But he should also get a lot of credit for handling a very delicate situation and bringing the Bulldogs a highly successful coach for their basketball team. It is likely not nearly as easy as many of us might think.