HOOVER, Ala. -- The 2004 season proved that a Southeastern Conference team can win its division,…
Spotlight On SEC Schools' Off-The-Field Problems
His former teammate, linebacker Derrick White, probably wouldn't mind that kind of punishment after being dismissed by Georgia coach Mark Richt in June following two arrests in a two-month span. South Carolina defensive end Moe Thompson probably feels the same after being dismissed following five counts of burglary-related charges in February, costing him the chance to play for coach Steve Spurrier.
Southeastern Conference football is regarded as the best in country because of its unique mixture of coaches, athletes and football-crazed fans.
Unfortunately, it also has become a front runner in off-the-field troubles, with sports pages around the SEC resembling police blotters this off-season.
So there's no surprise the numerous incidents at several schools served as a hot topic during the first two days of the 2005 SEC Media Days in the Wynfrey Hotel.
"It's awful. Friday nights, as a coach, you go to sleep with one eye open," Florida coach Urban Meyer admitted Wednesday.
But Meyer has been one of the lucky ones that has rested easy this summer. None of his players at Florida have had run-ins with the law since his arrival.
Others, like Richt, Spurrier and Tennessee's Phil Fulmer have experienced some sleepless nights.
Twelve Gamecocks have been arrested since the end of the season and leading rusher Demetris Summers was kicked off the team after failing a drug test. The Volunteers have had 20 players involved in incidents over the past 16 months. And Georgia's difficult off-season included five arrests and the dismissal of projected starting linebacker Derrick White, who was arrested twice in the span of two months.
"I know how coach Fulmer's feeling. Mark Richt. Steve Spurrier," said Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, who has experienced his share of player arrests in his eight years with the Razorbacks. "I know exactly how they're feeling. It's just embarrassing.
"It's humiliating because you know how hard you talk to them about it. You can't believe they continue to make mistakes."
Tennessee has tried to curb off-the-field troubles in a variety of ways. Fulmer's staff keeps close tabs on players in the off-season. They also receive wallet-sized cards with the word "THINK" on it, warning players to consider their actions before embarrassing themselves or their teammates.
But Fulmer knows firsthand that creative methods don't always work.
Consider, for instance, safety Brandon Johnson's unusual method of celebrating a win last season. Johnson fired a gun into the air of an apartment complex parking lot.
"We are all embarrassed about (the arrests)," Fulmer said. "We hate it. We're going to continue to work on it.
"But we would be really naive to stand here and think with 18- to 22-year-old kids there's never going to be any problems or issues. I have three wonderful daughters that have been raised right, but I don't always know what they are doing either."
Booting every player that makes a mistake is an impossible answer. In fact, coaches practice the belief that punishments must be levied on a case-by-case basis.
In some cases, coaches are left with no other option than to take football away.
"Sometimes you need some guys to maybe go by the wayside to tell the other guys, 'If you are going to play football at South Carolina and be a student-athlete, you've got to do things the right way,'" said Spurrier, who has dismissed Thompson and Summers. "It's as simple as that."
Nutt believes that kind of message hit home for his players after senior linebacker Jimarr Gallon was dismissed from the team following a driving under the influence arrest before Senior Day in 2003. Gallon's career came to an abrupt end and the Razorbacks began to take notice.
A handful of Arkansas players have been arrested since -- including seniors Clarke Moore and Jared Hicks this off-season -- but the number of arrests has decreased.
Nutt gives most of the credit to his support staff and older players.
"I put it on the seniors a little bit to help me monitor and help me police," Nutt said. "I had it best the last couple of years because we've had good, young people and we've had good seniors. The leadership of it has been really good.
"Your coach has to be good, hard and firm. But it has to go beyond your coach."
That's evident in January and February, when college coaches are rarely on campus because of recruiting. Most staff members are on and off the road during the peak recruiting period and the relaxed schedules can wreak havoc.
That's when solid leadership becomes crucial. So does rationale thinking.
"If you're in the limelight, you've got to know how to walk away," said Auburn linebacker Travis Williams. "What do you have to prove? If you beat this guy up, you were supposed to. But if this guy whips you, then it's, 'You let this guy whip you.'
"Everything is against you. So just walk away. It's not worth it."
In the end, Richt said it's important to remember that college football players are human beings bound to make mistakes. If anyone thinks student-athletes won't ever "misbehave" they are "really thinking wrong."
"I think what's important is, 'How are you going to handle those situations?'" Richt said. "My goal as a coach and as an educator is to help these guys understand what they did was wrong, educate them, discipline them, love them.
"Then, hopefully, get them in a position where they learn from these situations and become a very good person for it."
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