WHERE'S THE LINE?

March 07, 2011

When a coach has to decide whether to take a chance on a player who has been in trouble with the law, he has to size up the offense and the offender and rely on his own moral code—or a gut feeling

The question seems simple enough, but few college football coaches can provide a definitive answer.

Where is the line?

How serious a misdeed must a recruit commit before he becomes unrecruitable? In what cases should a college player who gets in trouble with the law be suspended or expelled from his team? While some schools have written policies that, for example, forbid awarding athletic scholarships to felons, few coaches have hard-and-fast rules when deciding which lawbreaking players are worth the risk.

"Every circumstance is different," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher says. "Is it recurring? Is it a one-time deal? Each person is different."

Says former Brigham Young coach LaVell Edwards, "In my own mind I never draw a line. It has to be flexible."

One veteran BCS-conference coach who requested anonymity said that while few coaches hew to a strict policy, his experience has taught him that many coaches will disqualify a player for three particular types of offenses. "If it's something involving [violence against] women or guns or drugs," the coach says.

But each coach adheres to his own moral code. When he coached at Florida, Urban Meyer spoke often of several "core values." One was that his players should always treat women with respect, and Meyer instructed his assistants to interview everyone they could in a recruit's community to assess how the recruit treated females.

Sometimes, a player may cross one coach's line but not another's. In 2008 Meyer dismissed safety Jamar Hornsby after Hornsby was accused of using a credit card that had belonged to a teammate's recently deceased girlfriend. (Hornsby pleaded no contest to four misdemeanors, received a year's probation and was forced to pay nearly $10,000 in restitution and legal fees.) Hornsby went to a junior college and less than a year later, in February 2009, coach Houston Nutt signed him to play for Ole Miss, but Hornsby never put on a Rebels uniform. He was arrested a month later after an attack on a man in the drive-through at a Starkville, Miss., McDonald's. Nutt waited to see if Hornsby might be exonerated but cut him loose in July '09, less than a week before Hornsby pleaded guilty to simple assault.

Last year Nutt took in another player who had crossed a coach's line. After Oregon's Chip Kelly dismissed quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who in the span of three months had pleaded guilty to theft in a fraternity house robbery and been cited for marijuana possession, Nutt was one of several coaches who recruited Masoli as a transfer. Masoli signed with Ole Miss as a walk-on, started 11 games last fall and had no further legal scrapes. On the day he invited Masoli to join the team, Nutt explained to SI that he believes some players deserve an opportunity to rebuild their life and reputation. "I've been in it for a long time," Nutt said. "You want to try to make a difference."

Why do coaches expose themselves to the risk and potential media criticism? Some feel everyone deserves a second chance, but many feel they must take talented, at-risk players because taking less talented players could cost them their jobs. "Today, that's an equation you have to look at," Edwards says. "There are coaches in that situation. So there are people who take these chances and make these gambles."

Ohio State's Jim Tressel is not one of those coaches. Tressel has won enough games to ensure his job security for years. But last month, he found himself in the same position as many of his colleagues as he weighed the pros and cons of signing a player with a rap sheet. A day before National Signing Day, Chris Carter, a lineman at Cleveland's John F. Kennedy High who had verbally committed to the Buckeyes, was arrested and accused of fondling a classmate under the guise of measuring her for an ROTC uniform. The Cleveland prosecutor's office investigated and did not find enough evidence to charge Carter with a crime, but Ohio State put Carter's scholarship offer on hold.

In January, Tressel spoke of the due diligence he and his coaches do before offering a scholarship to a recruit. "We try to spend a lot of time with the coaches, obviously, the guidance counselors, the principals," Tressel said. "Even sneak back and see the cafeteria worker, and you know, just see what type of manners [a recruit has] and so forth."

After Carter was cleared by the prosecutor, Tressel had to make the kind of decision coaches around the country make every year. He had to weigh what he learned about Carter during the recruiting process against the accusations on Carter's arrest report. Only then could Tressel decide on which side of his line Carter fell. Twenty-three days after Carter's arrest, Ohio State accepted his letter of intent.

PHOTOJOHN BIEVERDUE DILIGENCE Ohio State's Tressel tries to talk to everyone from coaches to school cafeteria workers to find out about a recruit's character.

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