Thrill of Victory

On College Coaches, Player Discipline and Outcomes

As is usually the case during the summers, most college football news that breaks right now is not good news. Whether it was the sex crime incident at Vanderbilt, or the string of recent bad behavior by Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel or the three arrests of Ohio State football players, the last couple of months have brought us more of what we usually see this time of year.

Much has been written about the Vanderbilt incident, which, now that the players have been identified, harsh discipline has been handed out, and Southeastern Conference Media Days have passed, is now mostly in the rear-view mirror. The Manziel and OSU messes have now taken their place on the front pages of newspapers since.

In case you’ve missed them, Manziel stayed out late partying, didn’t show up for his responsibilities at the Manning Passing Academy, was dismissed from the event, and lied to a lot of people in the aftermath. OSU, meanwhile, had three players arrested for a variety of offenses.

Let’s make one thing clear: no matter how tight a ship a coach runs, and no matter what school he coaches at, there’s going to be trouble. The Vanderbilt incident reminded everyone of that earlier this summer. The fact that there were incidents at Texas A&M and Ohio State should not bring about knee-jerk indictments of either program at face value.

Let’s start with the Manziel incident. Outside of underage drinking, Manziel broke no laws with what he did — or at least not as far as we know. Of course, that’s not always been the case: he was arrested for possession of a fake ID and for his role in a bar fight last year. Those two infractions nearly got him kicked out of A&M until coach Kevin Sumlin intervened.

But there have always been whispers that Manziel has been hard to manage. From the outside looking in, that doesn’t appear to have changed much. Really, how hard is it to show up sober when you’re supposed to show up for something — especially when you’re being honored with selection as a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy?

The OSU mess is more serious. Meyer did kick Tim Gardner off the team for obstruction of justice, and Marcus Baugh has been suspended for the opener. But Gardner’s loss means little to the Buckeyes, and Baugh’s suspension will be for the Buffalo game, which OSU will win in a landslide with or without him.

The most serious charges are against All-American cornerback Bradley Roby, who allegedly attempted to start a fight, then refused to leave a bar and then punched a security guard in the chest. Roby’s only “punishment” so far was that he was not allowed to attend the Big Ten’s Media Day.

Now, I don’t know all the details of the situation, and it should be pointed out that Roby’s evidently been a good citizen to this point in his career. Maybe that earns him some benefit of the doubt. Each player and situation are different.

But doesn’t it seem odd that the guy facing the most serious charges hasn’t been disciplined — and that the same player happens to be, far and away, the best of the three?

As for his coach, Urban Meyer, earning the benefit of the doubt… well, that ship sailed long ago. You probably can’t find a coach more lax on discipline than Meyer has been, as 41 players on his 2008 Florida roster were arrested at one point or another. Former Meyer players like Janoris Jenkins recognized that all too well.

Again, you have to be careful in painting with a broad brush, because there will always be some college athletes who do stupid things wherever they are, whomever their coach happens to be. But I wonder if somewhere in the very back of each OSU kid’s head was a knowledge that his coach happened to be Urban Meyer, rather than a stricter disciplinarian, like, say, Alabama’s Nick Saban?

That’s where Sumlin finds himself squarely in the cross-hairs with Manziel. His player’s broken laws before and didn’t miss any games. I found Manziel’s response to the Manning mess (“I’m only 20 years old”) to be quite unsatisfying, and that was before we found out he lied.

It should be pretty obvious to Sumlin that the message isn’t getting through. At some point, coaches have an obligation to develop players as people. Here are two examples of players who committed serious offenses at various points of their college careers, and how each was handled.

While a college sophomore, Player A and a teammate found a credit card, and rang up several charges on it until they were busted. The player was immediately suspended for the rest of the football season, which had just recently begun. He thought he might not ever get another chance, but the school reinstated him for the next season.

Player B had several run-ins with police while in college. One was an incident in which he, a 17-year-old, punched a restaurant worker in the head, rupturing his eardrum. The same year, he was questioned in a double-shooting. Character questions dogged this player enough that he fell a few rounds in the NFL Draft. He failed drug tests, and there were concerns that he had gang ties. Yet for all this, he missed a total of one collegiate game (this for failing a drug test).

Today, Player A (Vanderbilt’s Jamie Duncan) says the suspension and subsequent reinstatement (under strict conditions) was the best thing that ever happened to him. He went on to a successful seven-year NFL career, and now helps low-income families get access to dental care.

Player B was one of Meyer’s players at Florida, Aaron Hernandez. You know the rest of the story.

Are these examples cherry-picked? Sure.

Are they over-simplified? Probably so.

Are they completely irrelevant? Volumes have been written in human history about correlation between discipline (or its absence) and later outcomes. So keep that in mind before you dismiss this out of hand.

Look, there are some people who are going to do what they were going to to, anyway, and perhaps Hernandez — admittedly, the most extreme of extreme examples — was one of them. But if I’m Kevin Sumlin today, I’m not only looking at Urban Meyer’s track record, but I’m also thinking about the Ryan Leafs who had talent, but nobody to stand up to them. I’m thinking a lot about getting my own quarterback’s attention before it’s too late, and thinking long and hard about not being a guy who looks back one day with regret, wondering if he, too, perhaps enabled his own star along a road to failure at the cost of winning games now. At this stage with Manziel, it’s probably best to be a little too harsh rather than a bit too lenient.