HOOVER, Ala. ‚Äî
The legal problems of current and former SEC players ‚Äî from ex-Florida and NFL tight end Aaron Hernandez to LSU running back Jeremy Hill ‚Äî cast a negative light on the league that has won seven consecutive national championships.
It also highlights the challenges ‚Äî and responsibilities ‚Äî facing coaches who must weigh a player‚Äôs talent vs. the potential for trouble in or out of the locker room.
The biggest spotlight by far has been on Hernandez, who‚Äôs pleaded not guilty to murder in the killing of Boston semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd.
More pertinent to the upcoming season is Hill‚Äôs uncertain status while facing a misdemeanor simple battery charge from an April 27 scuffle in a bar parking lot.
Coaches at Southeastern Conference media days this week insisted they do their best to keep players behaving, which benefits the team, the players and the men paid millions to win in a powerhouse conference with high stakes and brutal competition.
Florida‚Äôs Will Muschamp understands he can‚Äôt know what every player is doing every night away from the football building. ‚ÄúYou also can‚Äôt stick your head in the sand and pretend everything is OK, either,‚Äù Muschamp said.
He said coaches and staff need to know who players are hanging out with off the field.
‚ÄúYou‚Äôre 100 percent responsible,‚Äù Muschamp said. ‚ÄúWhen you sign a student-athlete to come to the University of Florida, I look at his parents, guardians, whoever is important to him in his life, tell them it‚Äôs my job to be an extension of what‚Äôs already happened at home. But you‚Äôre 100 percent responsible for the young man. Everything that happens.‚Äù
As Alabama‚Äôs Nick Saban put it: ‚ÄúWe can be the moral compass for our young people but we cannot always drive the ship. We cannot always be there to drive the ship.‚Äù
In the heated arms race of recruiting, coaches also bear the responsibility for signing a player who might have had off-the-field troubles.
Mississippi‚Äôs Hugh Freeze brought in one of the nation‚Äôs most surprising and highly rated talent hauls in February. Weighing risk vs. reward is a factor in recruiting decisions, he said, not just whether a kid is deemed a four- or five-star talent.
‚ÄúI do think you have to be very calculated in the risk you take because you‚Äôre under such scrutiny and you‚Äôre bringing them into your team,‚Äù Freeze said. ‚ÄúWe try to minimize the number of at-risk issues you might have, but you‚Äôre going to have some. I have a gut feeling. I look at his support system, who he has and listen to him talk about what he wants to be known for. Then I have to make a decision on whether I think we can trust one another with our core values.‚Äù
Alabama dismissed four players from school following their arrests stemming from two violent robberies on campus barely a month after the Crimson Tide claimed its second straight national title.
Saban said every player he has kicked off has been someone the team‚Äôs leadership group felt needed to go.
‚ÄúWith events of today and the attention on some of the people who have been arrested in sports in the last couple of weeks, it‚Äôs even going to be more critical to players‚Äô future that they make good choices and decisions,‚Äù Saban said. ‚ÄúAnd they have to realize that.‚Äù
Saban said Alabama has a 12-course program in behavior for success and has psychiatrists or sports psychologists talk to troubled players.
‚ÄúI always talk to our players about being a blinking light,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúIf you look at a Christmas tree, when all lights shine bright, it‚Äôs beautiful. But if one light‚Äôs going like this (flickering), your attention is just to that light. Nobody should be a blinking light. The players always bring that up to me: ‚ÄòThis guy is a strobe light, man.‚Äô‚Äù
Even the week of media days started with legal matters.
Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M pleaded guilty on Monday to a misdemeanor of not identifying himself to a police officer following a 2012 altercation at a bar near campus. That day, Vanderbilt‚Äôs James Franklin identified four players dismissed from school in June for an incident being investigated by police as a possible sex crime.
Franklin said he and Vandy won‚Äôt sign players they believe have character issues for the sake of winning.
‚ÄúI can‚Äôt speak for other places or other institutions but not at Vanderbilt,‚Äù Franklin said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs never been that way in the past. It‚Äôs not that way presently. It will never be in the future. That‚Äôs not what we‚Äôre all about.‚Äù
Sometimes seemingly chancy decisions pay huge dividends, sometimes not. First-year Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has been on both sides. He helped recruit quarterback Cam Newton, who had run into legal trouble at Florida, from junior college while the Tigers‚Äô offensive coordinator. Newton won a Heisman Trophy and led Auburn to a national title.
Malzahn also signed tailback Mike Dyer at Arkansas State after the BCS championship game MVP was dismissed from Auburn. Dyer was booted from the team without playing after being caught with a gun during a traffic stop.
‚ÄúYou have to weigh everything,‚Äù Malzahn said. ‚ÄúTalent. You‚Äôve got to weigh character. You‚Äôve got to go with your gut instincts on what type of environment you want to have for your team.‚Äù
Commissioner Mike Slive called it ‚Äúa crushing disappointment‚Äù when a current or former SEC athlete runs afoul of the law. He said any perception outside the league that coaches or schools don‚Äôt police or discipline athletes is inaccurate.
‚ÄúIn some ways, it‚Äôs an inverse form of flattery,‚Äù Slive said. ‚ÄúI mean, we have about 1,800 football players. We can count on one hand the behavioral issues, but they get the headlines and the disappointments.‚Äù
One of college football‚Äôs biggest stars, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, said he avoids trouble caused by reckless Tweets or off-the-field misdeeds.
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt go to bars,‚Äù Clowney said. ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt drink or anything. I just stay out of trouble, stay at home. I hang out with the same group of guys I grew up with, the same three guys every day. We play games and stay out of trouble. We eat, come back and play games. Just stay in the house. You can‚Äôt get in trouble in your own home, I hope.‚Äù