July 2, 2014 10:11:30 AM
STARKVILLE -- Scott Stricklin has to be a believer.
As Mississippi State Director of Athletics, Stricklin has a core set of principles he wants every coach at the school to possess. When it's time to hire a new coach, Stricklin analyzes the numbers and talks to peers, coaches, and players to make sure he has the best information about a candidate. After that, he has to trust his instincts and make a final choice.
Stricklin believes he made the right call in naming Matt Roberts the new men's tennis coach at MSU.
"The hardest thing any time you are evaluating a situation is to project," said Stricklin, who introduced Roberts on Tuesday. "Our coaches have to do it all of the time when they are recruiting young people. A lot of times they have to believe something that may not be there but they think could be there. It is easy to look at something that exists and, in this case, someone who has head coaching experience and has a record. It is easy to look at that and say, 'That makes sense.' You have to project a little bit more, and we have done that a lot. A lot of our head coaches currently were assistants and this is their first job (as a head coach) here. You look for certain traits -- hard work, competitiveness, intelligence -- all of those things usually are pretty telling factors.
"Matt was at a program (Michigan State) where he had a lot of hands-on running of the program. When he came here, he had to adapt and he had to change. I value people who can adapt to various environments and change what they have done."
Roberts replaces Per Nilsson, who earlier this month accepted the head women's tennis coaching position at Pepperdine. Roberts spent the past two years as an assistant coach on Nilsson's staff. He helped guide the Bulldogs to back-to-back NCAA Championship appearances, including the NCAA Round of 16 in 2013.
Roberts was a four-year letterwinner on the Arkansas men's tennis team from 2003-06. He served as a volunteer assistant coach at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 2008. He worked as an assistant coach at Michigan State from 2009-12 before coming to MSU. Stricklin cited Roberts' familiarity with the program, understanding of how to sell the program to international players, and ability to build on what Nilsson established as primary factors for his decision to promote him.
Roberts said he knew he wanted to take on the challenge of taking over the program after Nilsson left. When he was an assistant coach at Michigan State, Roberts recalls telling people his goal was to become a head coach in the Southeastern Conference. Roberts will turn 30 Wednesday, so he accomplished his goal a little early. His new goal is to keep MSU among the nation's top programs. He said he has spoken to MSU men's tennis recruits about his plan for the program and his thoughts about who he will hire as an assistant coach. He added that he is excited to begin working to push the Bulldogs to a higher level.
"Per and I have been through a lot in only two years," Roberts said. "It has been a packed two years. ... What I have learned in two years, a lot of people don't learn in five or six. I just want to thank Scott for believing in me and giving me this opportunity. I am fully into it, and it is great I am here and I can continue what I have been doing all summer with our new guys coming in and keeping everything going in the right direction.
Nilsson took over a 55th-ranked Bulldog squad for the 2007-08 season and turned MSU into a consistent top-25 squad, keeping MSU in the ITA top 25 for 53 straight weeks. Roberts said recruiting elite players will be essential in keeping MSU among the nation's top teams. He said the team will build off the fact it had five new players on an eight-player roster and stayed in the top 20 and won 19 matches, which tied for the seventh most in the program's history.
"I'm very honored and appreciative of the opportunity to lead the storied MSU men's tennis program," Roberts said. "I look forward to continuing the success we have had, particularly what we have worked hard to build during the past two seasons.
"The future of our program looks very bright, and my goal is to continue to recruit character individuals at Mississippi State that will lead to great team chemistry, while also emphasizing academics and professional development."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.