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Why There is No Cause for Concern That the Georgia Bulldogs Are a "Rogue Program" Under Mark Richt

While it goes without saying, it nevertheless ought to be said that David Hale is one of the best college football beat reporters in the business. I mention that because David catches a lot of flak from folks who mistake his observations for advocacy, and he deserves credit for dividing his news reporting from his sports commentary. The former appears in the newspaper beneath his byline; the latter appears on his weblog, in the form of postings like this one.

Hale asks whether (but does not argue that) Mark Richt is running a rogue program. He raises this question because it is being asked by others; when I posted my brief observations on the dismissal of Zach Mettenberger to my Facebook page, I received comments such as these:

[S]ince when is Richt worried about rule breaking? Has he seen his team's penalty yardage?!

UGA can not become UMiami, this is the second guy to get dismissed in what 8 days?

To those comments, I offered the following responses, respectively:

Funny, but unfair. Mark Richt is a strict disciplinarian who has never waited longer than 48 hours after learning of a player arrest before imposing a punishment. Players who incurred penalties in spring scrimmages this year were required to do "rolls," lying down and rolling from one end of the field to the other and back again. He dismissed Jasper Sanks from the team the week before the 2001 Georgia Tech game, he punished Odell Thurman due to his "zero tolerance" policy following an incident in which the police said they wished they could have arrested the other person involved, and he suspended Justin Houston for the Oklahoma State and South Carolina games last year. Mark Richt's record on dealing with rule-breaking compares favorably with that of any coach of a major program.

There's no risk of that whatsoever. The fact that they were dismissed tells us that. There have been significant offseason incidents with just two players since the end of last season, which represents a considerable reduction, and both players were dismissed. The low number of such incidents and the heavy sanction applied in response to them ought to remove any doubts anyone entertained that we were anywhere near heading down that road.

Go look at Hale’s list, which is presented systematically and factually without passion or prejudice. In the slightly more than eleven months since May 8, 2009, there have been nine incidents. Four dealt with arrests or the issuance of arrest warrants for the following offenses: operating a scooter with a suspended license and emerging from an alley (Vance Cuff), failing to pay parking fines and theft by taking for moving a scooter on which the traffic police had placed a boot (Rennie Curran), driving without a license (Vince Vance), and driving a motorcycle without a license (Jonathan Owens).

The commission of those victimless offenses serves as an indictment of many things, including the overzealousness of the parking and traffic police in downtown Athens and on the University of Georgia campus (I write that as someone who incurred many a parking fine in Athens and sat many an hour of Traffic Court as a justice of the Student Judiciary), the inadequacy of parking in Athens, and the general boneheadedness of college students about keeping their licenses current and their fines paid. The hallmark of a rogue program, though, this is not. I agree with tankertoad that Suzanne Yoculan needs to be appointed house mother of the athletic dorm so she can keep our football players from going out without a proper license, but these fall far short of being signs of rampant lawlessness. Arrests or no, these offenses are much closer to jaywalking than to carjacking.

Of the remaining five incidents, two involved Montez Robinson and two involved Zach Mettenberger. The first incident involving Robinson earned him a two-game suspension; the second got him dismissed from the program. The first incident involving Mettenberger got him suspended for a minimum of one game; the second (which really was a continuation or culmination of the first, as there was no new arrest) got him dismissed from the program.

Those cases were specific to individual athletes, both of whom were hit with suspensions of at least one full game, both of whom were out after a second strike. (Yes, Mettenberger’s one-game suspension, had it been only a one-game suspension, would have been for the Louisiana-Lafayette game, but Coach Richt’s two-game suspension of Justin Houston for the 2009 Oklahoma State and South Carolina games last year demonstrates that Coach Richt levies suspensions in the ensuing outings, without regard to the opponent.)

The final incident in the last eleven months not only wasn’t a black eye for the program, it was a point of pride. While the police report indicated that one of the victims claimed his assailants were four Georgia football players, the investigation revealed that no Bulldogs were among the perpetrators, the one player who was there (Dontavius Jackson) attempted to settle the situation peaceably, and Coach Richt could offer constructive criticisms without lashing out at reporters. When the truth came out, everyone involved with ties to the Georgia football program deserved kudos, not criticism.

That’s it. That’s all. Nine incidents in eleven months sounds bad when you phrase it that way, but, like Florida’s infamous (and exaggerated) 24 arrests of a year ago, it didn’t look as bad when you examined it on a case-by-case basis. One of the nine incidents involved a football player behaving well in a bad situation; half of the remaining eight were the handiwork of two players, both of whom were dismissed from the team as a result of their respective second incidents; the remaining four were technical traffic violations regarding parking tickets and driver’s licenses, which did not involve moral culpability, public safety, or actual victims.

David Hale has provided a worthwhile service to Bulldog Nation by breaking down the data to see what the facts show. One player arrest is one player arrest too many, and "boys will be boys" is no excuse, even for the stupid stuff. I managed to spend more years than I would care to count as a student at the University of Georgia, and I never once had a run-in with the law. It is possible to be a teenage dumbass without getting cuffed, booked, and fingerprinted.

Nevertheless, not all crimes, arrests, or off-the-field incidents are created equal. Honest-to-goodness wrongdoers have been booted from the program, guys guilty of poor judgment have paid the price for their bad choices, and Coach Richt’s Christian propensity for second chances has not prevented him from meting out genuine punishments in response to genuine malfeasance. Coach Richt isn’t perfect, and his players ought to behave better than they sometimes do, but I’m not worried about putting my father-of-the-year candidacy in jeopardy by encouraging my children to root for a rogue band of scooter scofflaws. While I feel bad for the young men whose behavioral lapses have cost them dearly, I will have no problem providing my kids with cautionary tales when I am asked what happened to players who have been kicked out of the program.

Player behavior at the tail end of the Jim Donnan era was an embarrassment to me as a Georgia fan. While individual acts of stupidity sometimes make me bang my head in frustration, I’m not concerned that thuggery is being tolerated in the Sanford Stadium locker room. It sounds like the good eggs are getting better and the bad eggs are getting gone, occasional emergences from alleys notwithstanding.

Go ‘Dawgs!