Marshall: Bad Behavior Will Be in Spotlight

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about SEC football and baseball in this column.

In working on a story for Sunday's Huntsville Times on offseason strength and conditioning programs in college football, Alabama linebacker Juwan Simpson was among numerous players and coaches to whom I talked.

As we talked on the telephone just last Friday, he was articulate, friendly and polite. I hung up impressed.

Simpson, a fifth-year senior, has had an impressive career at Alabama on the field and in the classroom. He's a standout linebacker with NFL potential. He was an academic All-SEC selection last season. He already has his degree. He was honored by his coaches last spring for his commitment to community service.

Here's what he said about college football players going through grueling summer workouts while their friends and classmates plan vacations:

"It's summertime and people want to relax and have fun, but this is why you are here. You can relax and have fun when all this is over."

Alabama's Juwan Simpson

Sunday morning, as is my habit, I sat down at my computer and began looking at various newspaper web sites. That's when I saw the story that Simpson had been arrested and charged with receiving stolen property, possession of marijuana and possession of a firearm.

I was shocked.

Before I go further, remember he is charged with these things, not convicted. They teach you early at good newspapers that you never say someone was "arrested for" something. That indicates the person is guilty. You say he was "charged with" something. We don't know that Simpson is guilty, don't know the story at all.

But, at the very least, he obviously put himself in a position that was not a good one. And already he has paid a price.

If Simpson, a former star at Austin High School in Decatur, was not an Alabama football player, the story would have merited a few paragraphs in his local paper. It would be a nightmare for him and his family, but few others would be aware or even be interested.

But he is an Alabama football player, and lots of people are interested. It's a lesson that is driven home over and over again to athletes at big-time programs.

Georgia coach Mark Richt, in Opelika for the Jimmy Rane Charity Golf Tournament, talked about that in a conversation we had last Thursday.

"They don't have a lot of privacy," Richt said. "When they do well, they get an awful lot of attention, probably more than a young guy should. When they do bad, they get a lot of attention, too. That's the price they pay for the notoriety they have."

Auburn linebacker Kevin Sears learned that the hard way last year when he was charged with driving under the influence. Again, it's a story of little public interest if he's just another college student. But he's not.

No matter the eventual outcome of the case, Simpson will never be viewed quite the same.

It is situations like this that must be the hardest part of being a big-time college head football coach. What do you do now if you are Mike Shula? Does one apparent bad decision trump four years of doing the right things?

I don't think it should.

Obviously, the legal system has to run its course, but it's unlikely Simpson would receive jail time as a first-time offender. On the football side, my guess is he'll be suspended and face other unspecified punishment. I believe that's as it should be.

At the Jimmy Rane event, Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom also talked about the challenges of dealing with the mistakes college football players, like others their age, make off the field. It's a far cry from his NFL days.

"In college, the guys are more like your own kids," Croom said. "As in any family relationship, there are going to be negatives and positives. But the reward is very good. When you see guys grow and develop, when you see guys make mistakes and they own up to them and move forward, that's the joy I get out of it."

Not ever player earns the benefit of the doubt. When a player is consistently in and out of trouble and finally goes over the line, the best thing might be to send him down the road.

But second chances are not a bad thing. I've had a plenty of them in my own life.

In almost 37 years of covering college athletics in Alabama, I've seen dozens of athletes get second chances and make good, far more than I've seen waste those second chances. I've seen my own children, in the oft-heard words of Pat Dye after Auburn won the first Iron Bowl played at Jordan-Hare Stadium, "wrestle with them angels" and come out better and stronger for having been through it.

I hope that's what happens with Juwan Simpson.

Moving on...

One of the stranger Southeastern Conference baseball regular seasons I can remember ended Saturday.

How strange?

Florida was in the national championship game last season and was No. 1 in the nation in some preseason polls. Tennessee was in the College World Series. Auburn had been to eight NCAA regionals in nine seasons going into this season. Mississippi State is probably second only to LSU in baseball tradition in the SEC.

Those are the four teams that will be sitting home when the SEC Tournament starts Wednesday. LSU backed in as the No. 8 seed with a 13-17 SEC record.

On top of that, long-suffering Kentucky shared the SEC championship with Alabama, one season after winning just seven SEC games. Georgia, which finished third and was probably the league's best team at the end, finished 11th last season.

The trip from the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top in SEC baseball is a short one...

Jake Slaughter is trying to make the NFL as a rookie fullback for the Kansas City Chiefs.

In a recent column about question marks faced by Auburn's football team going into next season, I left out a significant one. The Tigers must deal with the loss of fullback Jake Slaughter, and that's a bigger loss than a lot of people realize.

Slaughter became an integral part of the offense last season. There is no one in sight that comes close to bringing what he brought to the offense. There'll be more two-tailback sets with Brad Lester, Carl Stewart or Tre Smith playing what Auburn calls the "F" position.

It worked well in 2004, but that was with Ronnie Brown playing that role on his way to being the second player picked in the NFL draft. It might work well again, but we won't know until we see.

Until next time...

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