Instead the six players--sophomores defensive end Charles Burns, safety Keith Fitzhugh, offensive tackle Michael Gates, and cornerback Derek Pegues; and redshirted freshmen quarterback Tray Rutland and defensive end Quinton Wesley—are now on their own separate off-season track from the rest of the squad. "Yes, they'll be doing some other things," Croom confirmed. "They're not going to have a vacation!" This will include staying in the normal post-camp conditioning program while awaiting their scheduled May 1 court hearing, where all six face felony assault charges.
And this hearing is when their futures as Bulldogs, and even as MSU students, will be settled. Thus Croom was hesitant to comment on whether the indefinite nature of this team suspension will end before or after the 2006 season opener with South Carolina. "Anything beyond what we've talked about right now depends on the results of the judicial process," Croom said.
Five of the six players were arrested Sunday evening after the incident, a fight at the Level III club on Main Street in Starkville. The sixth, Rutland, was arrested Monday afternoon, which was a primary reason Croom delayed announcing the disciplinary action until Tuesday. At a Monday team meeting (there was no Monday practice) Croom told the Bulldogs he "would take some action."
"I wanted to think about it a night," the coach explained, "yesterday afternoon was the first chance to really talk with the players as a group and get their side of what happened. I'd been listening to everybody else and finally sat down and talked with them and got a feel of exactly what was going on. Then I took some time to think about it again, even though I already had some ideas about what we would do."
Croom knew even before the meeting with the players that there would be some sort of disciplinary action forthcoming. The extra day gave more time to gather more information from all parties and decide the exact course of action. Now those suspended players will miss the last week of spring camp, including two full practices and the spring game. They also have to think about what could come out of the May 1 hearing.
Yet Croom is hoping that during this time every Bulldog is thinking, long and hard. He said he has addressed this matter with the entire team and tried to make one over-riding point. "And the big thing is simply this. You have to understand that those of us fortunate enough to play football at this level and beyond, we live in a fishbowl. You're judged differently from how everybody else is judged.
"Incidents happen, hopefully you can see them coming before they occur and walk away. And if there is an opportunity even after they occur to leave, that's very important that you do so."
Croom is not the only authority figure on the MSU campus who tells the Bulldogs this, regularly. All MSU athletes attend various seminars through the school year about how to handle themselves in public, about the challenges and risks they are certain to face both on and off campus. Croom said these players, just as all others, have been told first to try to avoid bad situations, and secondly to either defuse them or, as he put it, "vacate the premises as quickly as possible. From my standpoint that is what did not happen. So that's why we took the action that we took."
In other words, these young student-athletes had been warned and didn't play—live, actually—by their instructions. So they will pay a penalty, and not just in discipline or extra conditioning work. They are going back to class. "When you get to handling behavior and situations, we've got everything right here on campus. Paul Mock and Ann Carr head up those seminars and type things and we've been using them ever since we got here."
"We're not about just punishing people," Croom added. "I hope not only the players involved, I want to make sure our entire football team learns from these incidents so they don't occur here, or after they leave. It's not just to protect our football team and Mississippi State, it's a learning process for them later in life as well."
Croom often speaks of how teaching college players is only part of how he sees his role and responsibility as a head coach. This includes ‘coaching' them on how to live in the college football fishbowl. And it isn't easy. Croom may often come across as an idealist, but he offers real-world examples of what student-athletes are going to run into. And it doesn't have to be at a crowded nightspot.
"What if you're driving down the street and somebody shoots you the bird?" Croom said. "What happens in the store when somebody bumps you in the line or says something to you? What happens if we lose a ball game and somebody says something to you totally out-of-kilter, or you're out with your girlfriend and somebody pushes her or says something? In your mind you're justified, but…when you're an athlete you lose. You're not going to win that situation."
The six suspended Dogs have lost some valuable spring time with the team. All were either first- or second-team players expected to contribute this fall. If nothing serious comes from the legal process demanding further action from Croom or the University, their suspensions could presumably play out over the course of the summer. But as the coach said, that is still to be determined by others first.
While Croom harps on discipline, both individual and team, he has been in football for a lifetime. He has said before that in his own college playing days plenty of things happened both inside and outside the team that never became public knowledge. Today's athletes are not nearly so insulated and their sins are instant news. Croom knows players can be lectured constantly and attend every seminar at the school, but…
"These things happen. When you have 130 boys things happen. It's my responsibility to make the right decisions after I get all the information available to me, and I think we made an accurate and fair decision and did it in the timeframe it needed to be done. As far as I'm concerned that's that. We won't do anything else until the judicial process runs its course."
Croom also hopes he doesn't have to do any more serious disciplining of Dogs this year, or ever. But living in a football fishbowl means everyone is watching, and opportunities for trouble will always be a part of the game.
"The tough thing, what makes an athlete, what makes all of us compete, our pride is what makes us good," Croom said. "But it's that same pride that can get us in trouble and keep us from walking away from situations."