Fair or not, Georgia football program has perception problem

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ATHENS, Ga. — Within minutes of the Athens Banner-Herald breaking the story that four Georgia football players were arrested Monday night on misdemeanor charges for a “theft by deception” scheme, the snark started its viral pattern up the social media chain.

Georgia coach Mark Richt is taking heat after four of his players were arrested Monday night, the team's latest off-the-field mess.  TODD BENNETT/FILE
Georgia coach Mark Richt is taking heat after four of his players were arrested Monday night, the team's latest off-the-field mess.

Admittedly, I might have sarcastically cast the first stone.

“Tis the season,” I tweeted with the link the instant the story posted on OnlineAthens.com.

“As regular as daffodils in the spring … UGA players getting arrested,” chimed in Charlotte-based columnist Tommy Tomlinson a minute later.

“Death, taxes and Georgia football players getting in trouble in the off-season,” offered Boise-via-Macon columnist Brian Murphy.

This was in the first five minutes after the news first broke. You can imagine the chuckle and remark that came when the news eventually reached the ears of head ball coach Steve Spurrier. Probably something like, “You know what UGAAD stands for? U Got Arrested Again, Didn’cha?”

Whether it’s fair or not, Georgia football has a perception problem. Spring football practice started Tuesday once again with a gloomy off-season cloud already hanging over the program. It’s amazing head coach Mark Richt has any hair left from all the “Are you kidding me?!” phone calls he’s had to field in 14 years since coming to Athens.

“I’m aware of the situation and it will be handled in an appropriate way,” Richt said in a statement issued Tuesday morning.

The criticism for player misdeeds tends to fall on the coach. Richt has been hearing it for years despite all of the laudable changes he’s made to deal with kids gone astray.

ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit lobbed a Twitter grenade at Richt for being too soft: “Clearly some of the UGA players take advantage of Coach Richts forgiving heart. No fear of the consequences leads to ongoing shananagins.”

Herbstreit’s spelling aside, the criticism is unfounded. While Richt might indeed have a forgiving nature, he also is the most strict disciplinarian among his coaching brethren. His hickory switch of choice is suspended playing time. If that doesn’t get through to recidivists, he’s willing to dismiss.

Richt will certainly deal appropriately with starting safety Tray Matthews, former Jenkins County defensive linemen Jonathan Taylor and James DeLoach and wide receiver Uriah LeMay for their alleged foolish crime. How they thought they could possibly get away with double-cashing student tuition checks from the UGA Athletic Association account is hard to believe. The 11 checks – all in the amount of $71.50 – were mobile deposited into bank accounts and then quickly cashed at convenience stores.

Presumably some if not all of these checks and/or accounts had the players’ own names on them, which makes for a pretty convenient paper trail for the warrants to be issued. It’s like a Dumb and Dumber movie caper.

The scornful public reaction will once again be about Georgia recruiting bad kids. That all of these players were recruited and offered scholarships by just about every other big-time school seems to get lost on everybody. In case you hadn’t noticed, those “bad kids” that Georgia kicks off the team have quite the track record of ending up at other schools.

Louisiana State and Auburn can thank Richt’s strict code for their successful starting quarterbacks last season – Zach Mettenberger and Nick Marshall. Alabama doesn’t seem to worry that tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith gave a false crime report and was smoking pot in the dorm room with another dismissed Georgia football star, Josh Harvey-Clemons (who undoubtedly will end up at another school soon). Isaiah Crowell quickly wore out his welcome in Athens with a weapons arrest in 2012, but he woke up from his admittedly “childish” experience to do well enough at Alabama State that he should get drafted into the NFL in May.

Take a random sampling of 100 college kids at any university and you’ll be hard-pressed to have them make it through a year without some kind of blemish on their collective record – underage drinking, drug use, DUI, suspended license or various misdemeanors. You won’t find any athletics department hanging a banner that reads “365 days without any infractions.”

And this isn’t just restricted to big-time Southeastern Conference programs.

The presumably smartest athletes can do the dumbest things. At Harvard last year, 60 students had to withdraw from school for involvement in a cheating scandal. Among the violators were two basketball co-captains as well as football, baseball and hockey players. Back in 2006, Harvard’s football captain was suspended after being arrested and charged with domestic assault.

Alabama had four players arrested in February 2013 for crimes ranging from violent robbery to credit card fraud. One of those players, D.J. Pettway, will return to play for Alabama for this season.

Enough former and current Tennessee football players to field an entire defense were arrested or cited by police at an off-campus party in February. Florida’s checkered arrest history yielded some very bad NFL role models in the past year.

When LSU was getting negative headlines for letting players vote Jeremy Hill back onto the roster despite a violent assault charge, the New Orleans newspaper touted the fact the Tigers “fall in lower half of SEC in player arrests during past three years.” Their unofficial research yielded these arrest numbers in that small 2010-13 window – Missouri (18), Florida (17), Georgia (15), Arkansas (12), Ole Miss (11), Auburn and Kentucky (nine), Alabama (seven), LSU (six) and Mississippi State, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Tennessee (five each).

Vanderbilt brought up the rear with only one at the time. A month later five Commodore football players were arrested for alleged roles in a campus rape last summer.

For what it’s worth, eight of those 15 Georgia players in that time frame eventually were dismissed or transferred.

This stuff happens and will continue to happen no matter how much lecturing and suspending coaches do.

But that doesn’t change the perception problem. Until Georgia figures out a way to cure juvenile human nature, the Bulldogs will continue to be a punch line on social media.

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uga1988 03/18/14 - 09:52 pm
Scott, your evidence suggests...

...that the title of your article should be "Fair or not, college football has a perception problem". It happens everywhere, but at UGA, Richt takes care of the discretion.

bright idea
bright idea 03/19/14 - 11:00 am
Atlanta media

sells hits on stuff from UGA and the national media jumps on too. Many schools would have never called the police into a situation like this. They would have called the players in and demanded the money back with the threat of having them arrested. Excellent column here Scott Michaux.

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