DESTIN, Fla. – Dan Mullen earns 15 times the amount of money as Scott Stricklin. But you wouldn’t have known it Thursday, when Stricklin was the man who did the kind of thing that requires being paid the big bucks, while Mullen was nowhere to be seen.
Around 3:30 p.m. central time on Thursday, Mississippi State announced that it had decided to accept the enrollment of Jeffrey Simmons, the five-star recruit caught on tape hitting a woman who was on the ground. He faces misdemeanor battery charges for it.
It was big news, and somewhat of a stunner considering the post-Ray Rice world that has existed. That Simmons was being handed a one-game suspension, and ordered to undergo counseling, did not tamp down the outcry.
It was also fairly convenient timing for Mullen, the head coach paid $4 million annually by Mississippi State to win football games, but also to be the face of the program. That means explaining decisions like this.
But Mullen had already left Destin, the coaches’ business at SEC meetings having been completed Tuesday and Wednesday. It just so happened, one surmises, that the school elected to make the decision and announce it the next day.
Stricklin, the athletics director paid $268,000 annually – still a healthy number, but dwarfed by Mullen’s – was still in town. He easily could have ducked the furor, referred to the school’s official statement. But instead about an hour after the announcement he showed up inside one of the media rooms, sat down, and tried to explain.
The session between Stricklin and reporters was about as intense as there’s ever been at SEC meetings. And yet it almost seemed like everyone was on the same side.
Stricklin took direct and occasionally very heated questions. But he never raised his voice, was composed throughout, and while he defended the decision – and Simmons as well – he clearly understood this decision deserved to take heat.
This may be too inside baseball, but Stricklin deserves credit for not dodging the media, and for meeting the situation head-on. And it came right away:
Reporter: Why not let Simmons go through counseling before deciding on a suspension – or even admitting him?
Stricklin: “Well I think, mainly to send a message that there is going to be a consequence. Now we may get feedback when he goes through this evaluation that makes us adjust that.”
Reporter: What message are you really sending when repeatedly punching a woman on the ground gets the same penalty as a targeting call? I mean what message are you sending your players? This is all you get? It’s not that big of a deal?
Stricklin: (After thinking about 10 seconds): “That’s an interesting way to put it. That’s not how we compared it.”
Reporter: That’s what it is.
Stricklin: “Well, but this is a situation where – this is not a sexual violence issue as defined by law. We talked to a lot of people on campus, I talked to our dean of students, I talked to our Title IX coordinator who talks to our students –“
Reporter: It’s a man who hit a woman. I mean …
Stricklin: “You can debate that. That’s fair.”
Reporter: So the next player you have who punches a woman, one game?
Stricklin: “You know our dean of students dismissed a guy who was a starter on the No. 1 team in the country two years ago for a domestic violence, it was a sexual assault issue, unlike this one. I think you’ve got to look at the situation for what it is, you can’t throw a blanket over cookie cutter.”
Another reporter later asked: If this was a two-star recruit, would it be the same thing? Stricklin said that was speculative and couldn’t answer that.
But, another reporter jumped in, does not accepting this recruit send the message that maybe prevents future behaviors?
Stricklin: “I go back to what (SEC commissioner) Greg (Sankey) said the other day: Does five seconds of a bad decision that happens to get caught on videotape when you’re 16 or 17, does that change the trajectory of your life?”
Reporter: “It only takes five seconds to murder, so let’s get over five seconds.”
Stricklin: “But that’s how it happened here.”
Then this reporter pointed out that he covered Georgia when Johnathan Taylor was arrested for domestic violence and dismissed, only to be accepted by Alabama and have it all happen again. Men who hit women rarely only do it once. How can you be sure Simmons hasn’t done this before, or won’t again?
Stricklin: “We don’t have evidence of it having happened another time. You meet the young man, you come away with the idea that this is a pretty docile young man. But again, that’s to me where the evaluation of a licensed professional, not me, somebody who knows how to read these behaviors, that’s where this comes into play.”
The session went on for another 11 minutes. It ended when the media had no more questions. Nobody came in and pulled Stricklin out.
Compare that with Mullen, who before he left town on Wednesday was asked Tuesday directly what he thought when he saw the video.
“I’m not going to comment on that right now,” he said, and left it at that.
A day later, the decision came out.
Maybe Mississippi State will be vindicated. Simmons could end up a model citizen. That will take years to figure out.
What we do know is that when the time came to address and defend a controversial decision, Mullen wasn’t there.