To Sign Or Not To Sign Is The Question

Columnist Phillip Marshall discusses Auburn basketball and baseball.

Chances are, by the end of the week Auburn will have signed Rodney Tucker of Tallahassee Community College to a basketball scholarship.

Is he good enough to help the Tigers rebound from a dismal, unhappy season? I have no idea. But that won't be the debate. The debate will be whether he should have been signed at all. In case you haven't read it already, Tucker pleaded no contest the other day to simple battery on a female while he was a basketball player at Florida State. He was originally charged with sexual assault, a felony that could have landed him in prison for up to 30 years.

The female student claimed that she went to sleep on Tucker's bed and woke up to find him having intercourse with her. The case dragged on for 19 months. Finally, he was sentenced to pay court costs, spend three days on the county work program and serve six months probation.

I'm not about to speculate on the merits of the charges, the sentence, the accusation or anything else. I will say, however, that neither the judge nor the prosecutor must have thought Tucker was much of a danger to anyone, considering the plea bargain they accepted. If Rodney Tucker had been just another student, few people ever would have even known he faced charges. But he wasn't just another student. He was an athlete, and that makes his life oh so public. That's reality any young man or woman competing in big-time college athletics must face.

There are those who say Auburn should not sign him. I disagree. It's so easy to look from afar with righteous indignation. Would the right thing be to deny Rodney Tucker the chance to use his God-given ability? I don't think so. I have a friend in law enforcement who told me something enlightening one day. He said, "There are bad people in jail, but there are a lot more good people in jail who made bad mistakes."

Rodney Tucker

Tucker has already paid a fearsome price for whatever he did. He's had his name smeared, and it will be smeared again. His basketball career was disrupted, causing him to leave Florida State and play last season at Tallahassee Community College. He's spent almost two years, no doubt, with a knot in his gut, wondering what would finally come of the charges against him. Now it's over and he's free to go on with his life. He'll apparently do that at Auburn.

I remember another coach taking a chance on a player. Pat Dye signed Otis Mounds from Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale. He signed him even though he'd spent almost a year in jail on a drug conviction.

Mounds became a good player, not a great one, but it was the signing of Mounds that started the Dillard pipeline to Auburn that is open to this day. Without it, without Frank Sanders, James Bostic, Calvin Jackson and friends, there would certainly have been no 11-0 season in 1993. That's not what really matters. Mounds is coaching now at Dillard High School, helping other young men avoid the trap that snared him. If Dye had not been willing to take a chance and to absorb the criticism that went with it, that might never have happened.

I'm glad Cliff Ellis is willing to take that criticism and not back down. I'm glad he's willing to give Rodney Tucker a chance. Will Tucker be a great player? Probably not. He averaged 14 points and seven rebounds a game in junior college, not overwhelming numbers. Will he get an Auburn degree and go on to live a good and productive life? Time will tell.

Tucker was accused and charged with something very, very serious. He pleaded no contest to something unfortunate. He has not been found guilty of anything and has no criminal record. His junior college coach calls him "a great kid."

Barring an unexpected turn of events, he'll soon be an Auburn Tiger. He'll have an opportunity to do big things on a big stage. He'll have an opportunity to prove those wrong who would label him without ever meeting him. He deserves that chance. What he does with it is up to him.

TALKING BASEBALL

It is getting down to crunch time for Auburn's baseball team. The Tigers, 27-15 overall and 9-9 in the Southeastern Conference, need 15 wins to have a realistic shot at the SEC Tournament field. That means they have to play .500 baseball the rest of the way. If they can do better than that, they'll probably put themselves in position for a regional.

The first order of business is this weekend's trip to Alabama. The Crimson Tide lost two of three at home to Ole Miss last weekend. The West Division race that seemed almost over is on again. Ole Miss is just one game back. Auburn, four games behind Alabama, would have to sweep this weekend to get into serious championship contention. That isn't going to happen. What the Tigers need to do is make sure they don't get swept.

The schedule is favorable down the stretch with home series against Georgia and Vanderbilt and a trip to Arkansas, but an Alabama sweep would put the pressure on. If the SEC Tournament were held today, Auburn would be in as the No. 8 seed. But Arkansas and Tennessee are within striking distance. The final four weeks of the regular season are going to be interesting, very interesting.


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