Honestly, we've stayed away from this story because it hasn't really been a story since March 18, when Derek Dooley announced that Bryce Brown had removed himself from the team. We had a basketball game to win that night and spent the next week winning a couple more, were happily lost in the euphoria-turned-heartbreak-turned-appreciation for BruceBall, and meanwhile spring practice went on without #11.
It's been 71 days since March 18, which is also the answer to "how many days in a row has Coach Dooley been asked about this?" His response has always been steady: no old doors are closed, no new doors have opened, nothing to see here. Once again, our coach is fluent in Sabanspeak.
So after more than two months of will they or won't they, Brown and Dooley apparently had their much anticipated meeting on Tuesday evening ($). The meeting is more significant because of who else was there: Jim Chaney (which suggests this probably wasn't just a final farewell), as well as Brown's father...and his brother, Arthur.
Both Brent Hubbs and Jimmy Hyams have reported that the Brown Brothers want to play together. Arthur Brown was the #2 LB in the Class of 2008, and signed with Miami. But in two years, he's made only 17 total tackles for the Hurricanes, and has seen action only in a backup role. Arthur left Miami in early February, and most believed he was headed home to play for Kansas State, but he is currently enrolled in a junior college.
So one assumption (which is still really all we have at this point) is that the Brown family met with Dooley about the possibility of Bryce returning to the team and Arthur transferring in; my assumption would be if Arthur came here he'd have to sit out 2010 and would then have two years of eligibility left.
So if you're Derek Dooley...what do you do?
Brown was the #1 player in the Class of 2009 according to Rivals.com. That ranking carries extra weight when you consider some of the other guys who've held it, including Vince Young, Adrian Peterson, and Percy Harvin. His freshman campaign got him off to a good start: 476 yards on the ground as Montario Hardesty's backup, plus another 10 catches for 137 yards, with four total touchdowns. The stage was set for Brown to become a big star and the focal point of the offense.
Dooley didn't ask for any of this mess, and players leaving after a coaching change isn't a new thing. Keep in mind that we went through the exact same thing a year ago, when Lennon Creer quit the team in the middle of spring practice. Creer may not have been the #1 recruit in the nation (he was #57 overall/#6 RB in 2007), but did run for 388 yards as a backup the year before Kiffin arrived...and since Phillip Fulmer once compared him to Chuck Webb on a postgame show, we all had high expectations for him. So for the second consecutive year, the guy we thought was going to be the new feature back has left the team (though it's interesting to note that Creer was apparently being outplayed by Tauren Poole when he left last spring).
But no one blamed Kiffin for Creer, in large part because Montario Hardesty took command of the running game. However, while Hardesty certainly wasn't a guarantee in May of last year, the running game situation looks a lot more bleak for 2010 simply because of the offensive line situation.
So, let's say Derek Dooley tells Bryce Brown (and Arthur) thanks, but no thanks. No hard feelings, but you quit on this team in spring practice and I'm not convinced you really want to be here, so we'll see ya, boom. Then Tauren Poole and David Oku struggle all year behind said offensive line. Meanwhile, Brown goes to Kansas State and lives up to his #1 overall ranking (something that would be much easier to do in the Big 12 North than the SEC East). It would be unfair to praise Dooley for telling Brown no, then criticize him later when things aren't going so well...but that could easily happen.
I've admired Dooley for putting the ball in Brown's court after he quit, and not re-recruiting him, instead focusing on Poole and Oku, and the guys who want to be here. He's making it clear that this is his program, run his way. You don't want to be overly stubborn in this situation when a player shows signs of repentance...but you can't chase after kids who quit either and lose some of your authority in the process. Dooley has done a good job finding the balance...but if there is a choice to be made now, which way do you go?
To me, the real question with all of this comes down to Brown's character. And since he and Derek Dooley haven't known each other very long, that's a hard thing to judge. It's impossible for me or any of us to judge it because we've never met him. But I do think there are two possible pictures here.
One is the kid in the Potential Players shirt, holding a press conference six weeks after signing day to announce his choice. He's there because he loves the spotlight. He complains loud enough to take playing time from Tauren Poole and has to be catered to by the coaching staff. He is, as others have noted, more concerned about the name on the back of the jersey than the T on the helmet. He quit on his team in spring practice, and now he and his family are trying to work a backdoor package deal on their terms. He will not be a good teammate, and if he doesn't get his way he might quit again. And either way he will only cause drama. If this kid has another press conference - even if it's one to announce he's coming back to Tennessee - then I'm much more inclined to put him in this category.
The other is an 18 year old kid who got swept up in the entire recruiting process, maybe by his father, maybe by Brian Butler (here's an excellent piece from Hooper from Feb. 2009 on this). To a degree, people took advantage of him and used him because he was the #1 player in the country. He ran hard and ran well for us last year despite two concussions. He was betrayed by Lane Kiffin like the rest of us, and didn't instantly fit in with Derek Dooley. He made a rash, emotional decision to leave, and now he regrets it. He's humble, contrite, and willing to do what it takes to stay at Tennessee. He is a good teammate. He wants to play with his brother, and he wants it to be here. And he will do anything his head coach asks of him for another chance.
Which one is the real Bryce Brown? If it's the first one, I hope Dooley tells him to enjoy Kansas. If it's the second one, then I am very okay with Dooley taking him back and giving him a second chance.
And of course, the real Bryce Brown is probably somewhere between the two. But I think Dooley's decision has to based more on Brown's character than his ability - it's not a good move for Dooley to let a kid quit spring practice, then come back and say "The only way you get me is if you take my brother too," and do it just because we're hurting for depth and talent right now. It's an even worse idea in the first year of Dooley's tenure here, which makes this choice (if he actually has one) a very important one.
Is that what's actually happening? No idea. Dooley has spoken of a football team as a bell curve - that you take some questionable character/high talent kids, and you take some high character/lesser talent kids, but the majority have to be in the middle, a nice mixture of the two. So where does Bryce Brown fall on that curve?
It is worth
nothing noting that while Brown has been discussed in potential recruiting violations, he's never been in trouble and is a good kid by all accounts. The other key question is what the rest of the team thinks about Brown coming back after missing spring practice - will they be united and support his return, or will his presence cause problems? And by united, we need more than 51% of the players in support of his return. What do the seniors think? What does Tauren Poole think?
If there is a story here, we'll know it when Dooley says so or the Browns show up in Kansas. But as it now appears that Dooley does have some sort of choice, what should he do? Would you take Bryce Brown back?