Mark Richt is a nice guy. Mark Richt believes in forgiveness. Mark Richt looks for the best in people. Mark Richt coddled Odell Thurman.
All of this is true. None of it explains, at least not fully, why Georgia players keep getting arrested.
Let’s stipulate that Richt was too lenient for too long. But he has toughened since the egregious offseason of 2008, when eight Bulldogs got arrested and stole a goodly part of the luster that should have descended on a team ranked No. 1 in preseason for the first time in school history. He has kicked more guys off the team. He has instituted an automatic one-game suspension for anyone arrested (for the first time) on an alcohol-related charge. Yet here Georgia sits, two summers later, having cut its offseason arrest total by …
Seven Bulldogs have been arrested this calendar year. Three have been dismissed from the squad, including Montez Robinson, who figured to play at linebacker, and Zach Mettenberger, who might have challenged Aaron Murray as Georgia’s starting quarterback. Backup tailback Dontavius Jackson, arrested Saturday on DUI and five other charges, has been suspended for half the 2010 season.
This is no longer the Richt of repeated second chances, but it hasn’t much mattered. Bulldogs are still messing up — even as we note that an arrest isn’t a conviction, we must also face the reality that getting arrested generally isn’t a signal of meritorious behavior — even though they should know their actions can and will have consequences.
No, Georgia isn’t alone in having football players make the wrong kind of headlines. But it has happened so often with these Bulldogs that each incident bears a subtext: It isn’t that a Georgia player has been arrested but that another Georgia player has been arrested. And Richt, as head coach, must bear some responsibility. But responsibility isn’t the same thing as blame.
This man is a football coach, not a prison warden. In the name of discipline, he cannot put his men under dormitory lockdown. If he did, it wouldn’t be discipline. Discipline is about having the freedom to make choices and then choosing wisely. Too many Georgia players continue to be, for want of a better word, unwise. And that’s not on the head coach. That’s on them.
Maybe Richt needs to be more careful about the players he pursues — recruiting risks tend to bite the hand that signs them — but that can be said of every program everywhere. Richt is in business to win games, not to oversee the glee club. He’s going to be in a lot more trouble if Georgia goes 8-5 again than if another 19-year-old gets caught with a beer. But the 19-year-olds have to smarten up.
If they can’t grasp that there’s increased scrutiny on this program — especially after the arrest and resignation of Damon Evans — they’re not bright enough to attend an institution of higher learning. If they can’t understand that being a Bulldog is both an honor and a responsibility, they shouldn’t be allowed to wear the red jersey.
Too many college athletes (and not just Georgia athletes) have been so pampered they believe they’re untouchable. Reality check: They’re not. Just because a bunch of folks followed their recruiting and got excited when these blue-chippers put on a certain school’s cap doesn’t mean a player can’t be arrested, can’t be disciplined, can’t be forgotten in the time it takes to say, “You’re off the team.”
Say what you will about Mark Richt, but for more than a decade he has carried himself in a way that has conferred honor on UGA. He is, alas, only one man. He cannot make choices for 85 others. He can try to lead them, teach them, punish them when necessary, but in the end everything comes down to free will.
Too many Bulldogs act as if they’ve been handed a free pass through life. (Reality check: Nobody gets one of those.) Too many Bulldogs need to grow up or go home.