No program holds the patent on decency. Didn’t Penn State tout itself as an example of Success With Honor? The fan who chortles over the moral missteps of a rival is sure to be weeping tears of shame tomorrow, for that’s the way it works in big-time football. Every coach at every school is only waiting for the other shoe to drop — on him.
So no, Georgia players aren’t alone in messing up. Pick another campus — Florida, Auburn, LSU — and you’ll find similar examples of excess. In sum, it’s not only Georgia. That said …
Why is it always Georgia?
We’ve heard the excuses made by loyalists: That Athens is too heavily policed, that UGA’s drug policies are stricter than other SEC schools’, that the local media is too vigilant, that nobody in power ever cuts a Bulldog any slack. But when guys from the same program at the same school keep getting arrested year upon year, there has to be more to it that some nefarious conspiracy or plain old rotten luck.
A basketball coach I know likes to say: “You can’t get framed if you don’t put yourself in the picture.” So why, oh why, do Georgia Bulldogs insist on putting themselves in the wrong picture?
In July 2008, Georgia was ranked No. 1 in the preseason coaches’ poll for the first time in school history, and yet 16 of the first 20 questions asked of Mark Richt on Media Day involved discipline, or the lack of same. (Eight Bulldogs had been arrested that offseason.) The 2012 Bulldogs are, or at least were, expected to be ranked in the preseason top five, but four starting defenders have been suspended for early-season games, and Friday the SEC’s reigning freshman of the year was booted from the squad.
Don’t blame Richt for recruiting Isaiah Crowell. Alabama wanted him, too. (And let’s note that Zach Mettenberger, also dismissed by Richt, is slated to start at quarterback for LSU.) Indeed, it was fashionable to cast Crowell as the signee who would save Richt’s job, and with him at tailback the Bulldogs won the SEC East for the first time since 2005.
But now Crowell, who was arrested in Athens at 3:37 a.m. Friday on felony gun charges and was an ex-Bulldog not 14 hours later, has gone the way of Mettenberger and Washaun Ealey and Caleb King, and at some point our working hypothesis — when it happens this much, it can’t be coincidence — has to attach itself to Richt.
I haven’t always defended the man’s won-lost record, but I’ve been a consistent defender on behavioral matters. No one coach can, I’ve stipulated, watch over 85 scholarship players 24 hours a day, and locking the players in the dorm after practice is both impractical and not discipline at all. (Discipline is doing what’s right when nobody else is looking.)
We can’t say Richt has ignored the issue. He has gotten tougher over time. How many second chances was Odell Thurman granted a decade ago? How often did a younger Richt appear to shrug off misbehavior as a boys-will-be-boys thing?
Crowell was suspended twice as a freshman, once after a failed drug test and earlier for an unspecified violation. The week before the Bulldogs played Tech, Richt issued a clear challenge to Crowell, using the media to tell recruits: “There’s a tremendous opportunity for running backs in [the 2012] class to come to Georgia and make an impact.”
Credit Richt for sensing that Crowell mightn’t be long for UGA, and for landing touted prospects Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley as cover. But Richt had been lauding Crowell as a changed young man this spring, which goes to show … what? That the coach was fooling himself? That Crowell fooled his coach? That Crowell really had dedicated himself to football but was undone by one traffic stop in the wee hours?
There’s free will involved in every wrong choice, and part of the college experience is learning to choose wisely. Richt’s greatest failing may be that he spreads his trust too broadly, that he takes a few too many recruiting risks. (Not that other schools don’t take risks themselves.) The more players of questionable character you sign, the greater the chance that they’ll influence those around him.
In some ways, the worrisome part about Crowell’s arrest wasn’t the gun under the seat. It was that he had four other players in the car with him, three of them incoming freshmen. If Georgia is to break this cycle of embarrassment, better examples must be cultivated. Richt can preach until he’s blue in the face, but he needs more disciples.
By Mark Bradley