What punishment fits on the field? The answer may vary.
The early part of the college football season tends to be the time of year suspensions peak. Around the country, teams are cleaning up offseason messes on their rosters, sitting players out for indiscretions that range from arrests to a lapse in basic judgment.
Assault charges prompted Oklahoma to suspend freshman running back Joe Mixon for the season. An undisclosed violation of team rules — common coach speak for anything from getting to class to a failed drug test — got three Florida players suspended for an opening game that lasted 10 seconds before being cancelled for weather.
Notre Dame has benched five players amid an academic cheating investigation. Texas suspended two starting offensive linemen on rules violations. Southern California’s Josh Shaw is suspended indefinitely for covering up an injury by crafting a fib that he saved his drowning nephew’s life.
The severity of the penalties can seem kind of random, but coaches say that a lot of things go into a decision to discipline a player — and that what he and his teammates think about the penalty is more important than what anyone else thinks.
Former coach Mack Brown recalls an offseason at Texas during which he had three players get DUIs. Two of the players had been trying the coach’s patience for a while. The other had been a model citizen.
The first two players received three-game suspensions to start the season, and weren’t allowed to address the media. The other got one game, and Brown put him in front of reporters to show his remorse.
“You’ve got to be consistently fair with your rules, understanding that there are so many inconsistent things that are thrown at you,” said Brown.
“If the team knows you’re fair, you’re good,” said former Auburn coach Gene Chizik. “You want to be as consistent as you can be, but consistency is not always doable. Fairness can be.”
Former Arkansas and Mississippi coach Houston Nutt said he learned an important lesson about disciplining players from former Cowboys and Miami coach Jimmy Johnson.
Johnson was an assistant at Arkansas when Nutt played in the 1970s. Nutt said Johnson taught him “there is no one-size fits all” when it comes to doling out discipline.
Players who rarely if ever step out of line get leeway and second chances. Problem children don’t.
“You earn what you get,” said Nutt.
For serious offenses involving criminal charges or failed drug tests, often there are black and white guidelines for discipline and decisions are taken out of a coach’s hands. University handbooks cover certain legal missteps and schools have hard rules regarding drug use by athletes, though those vary from school to school.
“It would be much easier if everything were cut and dried and had a written policy — like our drug policy,” Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze said. “Every situation is different and every kid is different. So I think you have to deal with every case differently and obviously try to be as fair as you can be with precedence, but there’s no manual for this.”
Freeze suspended middle linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche for all of spring practice and the first game of the season in Atlanta against Boise State for an offseason arrest on a disorderly conduct charge. The Georgia native returns Saturday when the 15th-ranked Rebels play Vanderbilt. Two other Ole Miss players who had offseason arrests were not suspended.
“Some people thought it was too harsh (on Nkemdiche), some probably didn’t think it was harsh enough,” Freeze said. “I can’t try to please everyone. I thought it was a good message to our team.”
Another Ole Miss player, cornerback Bobby Hill, was charged with sexual battery and dismissed from school after going through the university’s student affairs process.
Nutt said often coaches must balance sending a message to the team with the possibility of hurting it. Coaches are paid to win games.
Nutt said at Arkansas he once suspended his best kicker late in the season when the player got a DUI after the coach had implored his players to refrain from partying two days before an important game.
“We lose that ball game and we were inside the 30 seven times,” Nutt said. “They dropped the charge two weeks later. Oh, I was frustrated.”
Nutt said he felt terrible for the other players and coaches, but even though the player wasn’t guilty of a crime he still deserved the suspension for being a bad teammate.
“You have no respect for your team and coaches,” he said to the player. “In the long run it cost me but I felt it was the right thing do.”
Florida coach Will Muschamp faced some criticism this week for reinstating three players who were suspended for the opener against Idaho, a game that was suspended after the opening kickoff because of dangerous weather.
Muschamp snapped back: “There are a lot of things that go into discipline. It’s about altering and changing behavior, which we’ve done here.”
Coaches also have other ways to get their message across. Brown said when a player got into trouble at Texas, aside from a suspension, the player was also looking at three weeks of strenuous early morning workouts with the strength and conditioning staff, plus some type of counseling — maybe anger management, maybe time management.
But Brown said he always remembered what the late UCLA basketball coach John Wooden would say about punishing players.
“The thing that you have that the kids want is playing time,” Brown said. “If you sit them on the bench that’s the worst penalty you can give them.”
AP Sports Writer David Brandt in Oxford, Mississippi, contributed to this report.
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