published Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

Wiedmer: Do off-field woes mirror SEC's on-field success?

When the Southeastern Conference's football media days get under way this afternoon in Hoover, Ala., it would appear the nation's most powerful football conference is saving its best for last.

How else to explain both Vanderbilt -- which owns the league's longest winning streak at seven games -- and Alabama, the two-time defending national champ, not appearing until Thursday?

Or is the league merely delaying its two biggest off-season incidents until the third morning of its three-day football fest, understandably not wishing to put the dark side of its outrageous success under the spotlight until the last possible moment?

Not that Commodores coach James Franklin is likely to say much about a possible sex crime allegedly committed by four of his now former players inside a VU dormitory on June 23.

The school officially dismissed the quartet on June 29, kicking them off campus at that time. Yet Franklin had remained mum on the issue until Monday, when the school identified the four players he recruited.

In the release, the third-year coach said, "We insist on high standards of personal responsibility and integrity, and there are consequences when those standards are not met."

If that statement sounds somewhat familiar, it's quite possibly because Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban issued the following words after dismissing four players from his team in February following an incident in which they beat up a fellow student, stole his credit card, then used the purloined plastic in a campus vending machine. No, this wasn't a scene directly out of "Dumb and Dumber," but it could have been.

Said Saban: "Their actions do not reflect the spirit and character that we want our organization to reflect. I also think that I've been really proud over the last five years that our team has done a very good job and shown personal responsibility. Some people learn by words; some people learn by consequences; some people can't learn."

Within a league that has produced the last seven BCS national champion football teams, there is a perception that all of the SEC's 14 fan bases -- including Vanderbilt, apparently -- have come to accept that off-field woes are a cost of on-field success.

Yes, you can and should kick them off when incidents occur -- particularly those violent in nature -- but one or two bad apples are somewhat necessary to succeed in a sport where violence isn't just accepted but seen as necessary. At least on the field.

Or as former Notre Dame running back great Allen Pinkett observed last year, his words eventually earning him a three-game suspension from the Fighting Irish's radio team:

"I've always felt to have a successful team, you've got to have a few bad citizens. I mean, that's how Ohio State used to win: They would have two or three guys that were criminals. That just adds to the chemistry of your team. You can't have a football team full of choirboys. You get your butt kicked if you have a team full of choirboys."

Maybe that's true and maybe it isn't. But among the SEC's power teams of late, this certainly has been more the rule than the exception. Last year's SEC East winner Georgia has had multiple players disciplined by coach Mark Richt almost every season. Florida has had its share of punks. So, too, LSU, which has a current dandy on its hands in running back Jeremy Hill, who pleaded guilty to battery on Friday, a crime he committed while on probation for pressuring a 14-year-old girl to perform a sex act at Redemptorist High School in 2012.

On Aug. 16, Hill could be sentenced to jail for up to six months for violating probation, which would take the matter out of LSU coach Les Miles's hands.

Or Miles could follow the leadership shown by Franklin and Saban and boot his troubled star.

Either way -- especially with murder charges currently hanging over former Florida tight end Aaron Hernandez -- the character of the players on SEC football rosters is almost certain to become more of an issue this season.

"Some people are saying, 'Now that [Vandy] is winning, this is the kind of player we're getting,'" said Dr. K.C. Dyer, a McCallie alumnus who played baseball for the Commodores, making the SEC all-academic squad in 2002.

"But even when we weren't winning, our players still had some run-ins. All programs do. I've been around Coach Franklin and I know how much he preaches about off-field behavior. We shouldn't downplay that this happened. It's a terrible situation, especially for the victim. But as the Duke lacrosse situation taught us, let's wait for all the facts to come in."

Greg McGuire, the president of the Chattanooga chapter of the Vanderbilt Alumni Club, similarly encourages caution.

"It's disappointing," he said. "Unlike some other SEC schools, we hope to stay off the crime pages. Hopefully, we'll learn our lesson and this won't happen again."

Maybe it won't happen again at Vanderbilt. But it's going to keep happening at most football factories as long as the perception persists that you've got to have a few criminals among your choirboys to win championships.

After all, for all his vast shortcomings, the accused murderer Hernandez did play a major role in Florida winning the 2008 national championship.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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