HOOVER, Ala. — The legal problems of current and former Southeastern Conference football players — from ex-Florida tight end Aaron Hernandez to LSU running back Jeremy Hill — cast a negative light on the league that has won seven consecutive BCS championships.
It also highlights the challenges — and responsibilities — facing coaches who must weigh a player’s talent vs. the potential for trouble in and out of the locker room.
The biggest spotlight by far has been on Hernandez, who pleaded not guilty to murder in the killing of Boston semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd.
More pertinent to the upcoming season is Hill’s uncertain status. His probation could be revoked after he pleaded guilty last week to simple battery, a misdemeanor.
Coaches at SEC 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’s Will Muschamp understands he can’t know what every player is doing every night away from the football building.
“You also can’t stick your head in the sand and pretend everything is OK, either,” Muschamp said.
He said coaches and staff need to know who players are hanging out with off the field.
“You’re 100 percent responsible,” Muschamp said. “When 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’s my job to be an extension of what’s already happened at home. But you’re 100 percent responsible for the young man. Everything that happens.”
As Alabama’s Nick Saban put it: “We 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.”
In the arms race of recruiting, coaches also bear the responsibility for signing a player who might have had off-the-field troubles. Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze brought in one of the nation’s 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 a four- or five-star talent.
“I do think you have to be very calculated in the risk you take because you’re under such scrutiny and you’re bringing them into your team,” he said. “We try to minimize the number of at-risk issues you might have, but you’re 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.”
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’s leadership group felt needed to go.
“With events of today and the attention on some of the people who have been arrested in sports in the last couple of weeks, it’s even going to be more critical to players’ future that they make good choices and decisions,” Saban said. “And they have to realize that.”
Saban said Alabama has a 12-course program in behavior for success and has psychiatrists or sports psychologists talk to troubled players.
“I always talk to our players about being a blinking light,” he said. “If you look at a Christmas tree, when all lights shine bright, it’s beautiful. But if one light’s (flickering), your attention is just to that light. Nobody should be a blinking light. The players always bring that up to me: ‘This guy is a strobe light, man.’ ”
Even media days week started with legal matters.
Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M pleaded guilty Monday to a misdemeanor of not identifying himself to a police officer following a 2012 altercation at a bar near campus. That same day, Vanderbilt’s James Franklin identified the four players dismissed from school in June for an incident being investigated as a possible sex crime.
Franklin said Vanderbilt won’t sign players they believe have character issues for the sake of winning.
“I can’t speak for other places or other institutions but not at Vanderbilt,” he said. “It’s never been that way in the past. It’s not that way presently. It will never be in the future. That’s not what we’re all about.”
Sometimes seemingly dicey decisions pay huge dividends, and 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’ offensive coordinator. Newton won the Heisman Trophy and led Auburn to the BCS 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.
“You have to weigh everything,” Malzahn said. “Talent. You’ve got to weigh character. You’ve got to go with your gut instincts on what type of environment you want to have for your team.”
Commissioner Mike Slive called it “a crushing disappointment” when a current or former SEC athlete runs afoul of the law. He said any perception outside the league that coaches or schools don’t police or discipline athletes is inaccurate.
“In some ways, it’s an inverse form of flattery,” Slive said. “I 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.”
One of college football’s biggest stars, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, said he avoids trouble caused by reckless tweets or off-the-field misdeeds.
“I don’t go to bars,” he said. “I don’t 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’t get in trouble in your own home, I hope.”