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Jeff Byers: Coaches Must be Delicate in Handling Off-Field Issues

by on March 31, 2012 6:00 AM

I read with some interest the story of marijuana and drug paraphernalia being discovered in the apartment — a search warrant says — of Devon Smith and Jack Crawford this past week.

While Penn State has dealt with much bigger news and scandals than this, it is the first opportunity we will have to see how football coach Bill O’Brien handles such situations.

Before you think that this is another sanctimonious piece on how Penn State needs to clean up its act or these athletes need to understand their responsibility, let me assure you I am more interested in the response to the alleged actions.

Coaches, especially those of high-profile programs are in unique positions. On one hand, they are the faces of their programs, the men and women in charge of every aspect of their programs. They are representatives and leaders of their universities.

On the other hand, they are also paid to win. Sure, at places like Penn State, we want them to prioritize academics and citizenship, but we want them to do it while they are winning. They are also mentors to a group of young people. Often, these are young people who have tremendous success in their high school sporting endeavours and just as often, as a result, they have been coddled or at least glorified to some extent during their formative years.

College has long been a place for expanding one’s horizons in a variety of ways including on the social front. Kids with strong values and good backgrounds have been known to fall in with the crowd and sometimes that can lead to problems. Right or wrong, chances are if you are going to experiment with alcohol or drugs or test your sexual limits or engage in any kind of risky behavior, the college years will be the time.

So if you are a coach, what are you to do when a kid “makes a mistake”? There are some that will say you have to run a tight ship and hold people accountable, and if you have a rule against drinking on the team (and just about every team has that rule, as least in season) and someone violates it, they need to be kicked off the team.

Others will take the “boys will be boys” approach and so long as no one gets hurt, what’s the big deal? (especially if the violation is committed by a big star).

The truth of the matter is that the coaches are in a no-win situation. Of course, every coach wants all of their kids to follow all of the rules and behave all of the time. Just as every parent wants his or her child to always do the right thing. But in the real world, it just doesn’t work that way. And the truth is, we would be a dull society if it were so.

But what should coaches do? Most, if not all, coaches establish relationships with the families of their recruits. The parents or guardians are entrusting the welfare of their children with the coaches of the program. The connection thus runs deeper than that of coach and player.

Cael Sanderson took a risk in bringing in Andrew Long to the wrestling team last season. Long had run into some legal problems with alcohol at Iowa State, but Sanderson was hoping the change in scenery and the long-held relationship between himself and the Long family would help the young man turn his life around.

And Long finished in third place for the Nittany Lions, helping them secure their first national title in 58 years.

But the following summer, Long was accused of sexual assault and left school. He has since run into additional legal problems. So, obviously, Sanderson either made a mistake or just used the kid because he could help him win. Except that neither is the case in Sanderson’s mind.

He told me before this past season that he didn’t feel Long had let him down but rather that he had a real problem that obviously had not been appropriately addressed. Sanderson expressed regret at not realizing the extent of the problem and that Long had not realized the importance of taking advantage of the life-line that had been extended.

But for every Andrew Long, there are cases like Bobby Engram and Ricky Sayles. Early in the All-American’s career at Penn State, Engram and Sayles were picked up by police for stealing a stereo. Engram went on to become a legend at Penn State, had a brilliant NFL career and is generally regarded as one of the nicest guys and truest gentlemen produced by Joe Paterno.

And Sayles has devoted his life to improving the lives of troubled youth and providing them clear paths out of desperate situations. What if Penn State had simply turned its back on these young men and not taken the opportunity to influence them?

It is something coaches constantly have to think about. Each case may be a little different and the circumstances may be important. A kid coming to a coach immediately after an incident and apologizing and explaining may be treated differently than a kid trying to hide a situation from his or her coach.

And, of course, the number of transgressions and the seriousness of those transgressions plays a role. While the kids need to be held accountable by the coaches, the coaches will be held accountable by law authorities, athletic directors and presidents, parents and families, other team members and their families, and of course, the alumni and fans. And each will have their perspective on what should be done and what is fair.

Of course, coaches must ultimately live with their decisions and do what they believe is right. But sometimes that is much easier said than done, given the various pressures being exerted. At the end of the day, I’m glad I’m not the one who has to make these decisions, and I respect the job that guys like Sanderson and O’Brien do on behalf of all interested individuals.

Here’s hoping after gathering all of the facts, O’Brien does the right thing — whatever that might be.

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Jeff Byers has been the wrestling team’s traveling announcer since 1990.
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