Yesterday, my wife and I drove over to Alabama to visit my great aunt on her 91st birthday (she's doing great, incidentally; more active and alert than a lot of people I know a third of her age). We tuned in to Paul Finebaum's radio show on the way home, where the main topic of coversation was Mike Shula's oddball handling of the seemingly-endless Juwan Simpson arrest story.
Now, my wife is not from the South. She knows next to nothing about football, and cares about it even less (as an example, at one point yesterday she asked, "Did Joe Namath go to Alabama?"). She asked me what the deal was with this Simpson guy all the callers were talking about. Pace Inigo Montoya, I attempted to sum up:
"One of Alabama's best players got arrested last summer for having pot and a stolen gun in his car. The gun charges got dropped, but he pled no contest on the drug stuff. Alabama's coach never said whether the guy would get any punishment, and the player himself told a reporter he thought he ought to 'get an ice cream cone.' Shula let him play in the first two games, which Alabama barely won, then suspended him for the third game, which was against a team they knew they'd beat easily."
She thought about that for a second, and said, "Don't they know that's going to really mess up the whole team?"
The wife may not know much about football, but she definitely knows people. The problem UAT has with the Simpson affair is that there's a de facto discipline standard in Tuscaloosa running something like this: the more irreplacable you are for the football team, the less likely you're going to be punished in any meaningful way for an infraction. The power balance between the coaches and players is now upside-down, and the players know it. The team and the ice under the staff's support are rather thin, so the bigger a player's star, the wider the double standard for his conduct (and you can ask around about the treatment Brodie Croyle received over the last few years if you have any doubts on that score).
That policy might have saved Mike Shula from the humiliation of losing to Hawaii or Vanderbilt, but it's going to rip his team apart over the long haul. When college kids don't have to live up to the rules on the big stuff, like not getting arrested, they're going to start skipping on the less publicized things as well. Things like showing up in the weight room and classroom, or curfews, or training rules. Ask Jackie Sherrill or Mike DuBose or Terry Bowden sometime about what happens to a football team when the staff loses disciplinary control over the team.
On second thought, don't--Terry probably won't even admit to himself how badly he bungled things in his last couple of years at Auburn, and DuBose is too dumb to understand the effects of his own actions… but I digress.
At the risk of shining my own team's apple, Auburn's summer discipline issues offer an instructive comparison. Starting linebacker Kevin Sears will return to AU's lineup this weekend after serving a five-game suspension for a mid-November 2005 DUI. Redshirt freshman LB Trey Blackmon, a hugely-heralded recruit, is still suspended due to a May alcohol-related arrest. Neither played in last Saturday's apocalyptic LSU game, leading a fair number of Auburn fans to wonder whether Tommy Tuberville wasn't taking this discipline thing a little too far.
He wasn't, and here's why: the suspensions aren't just about Sears or Blackmon, although teaching both of them a lesson certainly plays a part. It's also about the rest of the team, now and in the future. We hear the refrain all the time, "College kids do dumb things," but every guy on Auburn's football team knows what will happen if he does that dumb thing, and he's going to think at least twice or maybe three times before doing it. That's going to make a big and positive difference for a lot of kids, and for the program, going down the line. It's the polar opposite of Shula's clumsily-calculated effort to shore up his thin ranks while putting up a façade of discipline to appease critics.
We'll likely see the difference illustrated, again, come November 18, aka Thumb Day.