HOOVER, Ala. — The legal problems of current and former Southeastern Conference players – from ex-Florida and NFL tight end Aaron Hernandez to Louisiana State University running back Jeremy Hill – cast a negative light on the league that has won seven consecutive national championships.
It also highlights the challenges – and responsibilities – facing coaches who must weigh a player’s talent vs. the potential for trouble in or out of the locker room.
The biggest spotlight has been on Hernandez, who’s 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 while facing a misdemeanor simple battery charge.
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.
Florida coach Will Muschamp understands he can’t know what every player is doing every night.
“You also can’t stick your head in the sand and pretend everything is OK, either,” he said.
Muschamp 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.”
Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said he won’t sign players he believes have character issues for the sake of winning.
“It’s never been that way in the past,” Franklin said. “It’s not that way presently. It will never be in the future. That’s not what we’re all about.”
Sometimes seemingly chancy decisions pay huge dividends, 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 a Heisman Trophy and led Auburn to a national 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,” Clowney 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.”