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Community, Culture and Change at Tennessee

If this was only about Nu'Keese Richardson, Tyler Smith, and Darren Myles, it would be bad enough.

But the common thread in Tennessee's three most-publicized arrests - not just in the last 240 days, but probably ever - is that none of them were cases of one individual making one bad decision. 

On November 12, Nu'Keese was joined by Mike Edwards and Janzen Jackson in an attempted robbery of some guys eating cheeseburgers outside the Pilot on Cumberland Ave.  Jackson was later cleared, though video that was released months later didn't exactly line up with the "I just happened to be walking out of the Pilot" story.

On January 1, Tyler Smith, his gun, and its altered serial number took a ride with Brian Williams, Melvin Goins, Cameron Tatum, and some drugs.  Though Smith was the only one dismissed from the team, the other three served lengthy suspensions.

And on July 9, anywhere between four and ten football players were at the scene and involved in a 2:00 AM fight at Bar Knoxville, which sent an off-duty police officer to ICU.  The final word on this incident hasn't been spoken.

Between the three events, you have at least thirteen players who were either arrested or taken in for questioning.  Even if you only talked about the four players who were dismissed (so far), you would have a hard time making the argument that these were three isolated incidents that don't speak to the culture in Knoxville.

But as it stands, the culture in Knoxville has involved several players together making several bad decisions - even if it was nothing more than wrong place, wrong time for some of them - all leading to three embarrassing incidents for the entire Tennessee family.  We don't have isolated incidents.  We do have large groups of athletes making very poor decisions.  And as such, we do have a culture problem.

18-22 year old kids are going to make bad decisions.  And sometimes, they're going to make very bad decisions.  I did.  So did you.

But these sorts of bad decisions - armed robbery (pellet gun or no), possession of a firearm with an altered serial number, sending an off-duty police officer to ICU in a huge, one-sided brawl - with this many student-athletes involved can't simply be chalked up to youthful ignorance.  Anyone can look at this and see a cultural issue.

Derek Dooley sees it too.

In his statement tonight:

As I have referenced on many occasions, a change in culture is achieved in time through a combination of education, discipline and support. We will aggressively continue to build on the many positive changes that have occurred over the last five months to ensure our program is represented with class and dignity.

And from his later press conference:

I think that a lot of the culture is probably perceived worse than it is, and it always is, because we have some great young men who want to do right, and are doing right.  But there have been enough incidents to know that we can't just stick our heads in the sand and say, "Oh, we're really okay, just one or two guys did this."  I don't ever stick my head in the sand.  We take responsibility for it, and we're going to continue to change it.  I don't know how you define it, I just know it's not where it needs to be.

You don't talk about changing the culture so much - something Dooley has done before today - if you don't believe that it needs to be changed.  And again, this isn't "just one or two guys", as he points out - these are group activities.

The Default Setting is "Blame Kiffin"

...which is fun, but it's also easy.  And the easy answers are rarely the right ones.

It is worth pointing out, however, the fate of Kiffin's February 2009 signing class, which we praised for its excellence at the last minute:

(List sorted by Rivals ranking)

  • #1 Bryce Brown:  transferred from program
  • #2 Janzen Jackson:  involved with robbery at Pilot, but charges dropped; reportedly was present at the Bar Knoxville fight, but walked away
  • #3 Jerod Askew:  redshirt
  • #4 Nu'Keese Richardson:  dismissed from team after robbery at Pilot, making a strong case for worst judgment in a crowded field with this class
  • #5 Marlon Walls:  idefinitely suspended today in relation to Bar Knoxville fight
  • #6 Eric Gordon:  redshirt
  • #7 James Green:  did not qualify
  • #8 Darren Myles:  dismissed from team after second arrest in four months, evaded and resisted arrest before assaulting a police officer after Bar Knoxville fight
  • #9 David Oku:  contributor on special teams and in the mix at RB
  • #10 JerQuari Schofield:  redshirt
  • #11 Marsalis Teague:  contributor at WR
  • #12 Mike Edwards:  dismissed from team after robbery at Pilot
  • #13 Daniel Hood:  redshirt, prior issues
  • #14 Arthur Jeffery:  redshirt
  • #15 Greg King:  indefinitely suspended today in relation to Bar Knoxville fight
  • #16 Robert Nelson:  redshirt
  • #17 Nyshier Oliver:  cited for shoplifting last fall
  • #18 Zach Rogers:  minor contributor at WR
  • #19 Nigel Mitchell-Thronton:  contributor at LB
  • #20 Kevin Revis:  redshirt
  • #21 Rae Sykes:  no signficant contribution
  • #22 Toney Williams:  medical redshirt

Of Kiffin's 22 signees, six of the top twelve are either not with the team or are on indefinite suspension.  Ed Orgeron's infamous "We're not angels, and we're not going to recruit angels" quote was quite right.

But...there's a reason it's called the Fulmer Cup and not the Kiffin Cup (not yet, anyway).  Discipline problems at Tennessee were not a new thing for Lane Kiffin, nor are they new for Derek Dooley.  The difference for Fulmer was, the vast majority of his discipline problems did not involve such large groups of players at once, and did not involve such serious crimes.  I don't know if you can fairly draw a straight line between the group incidents and Kiffin's recruits, but it is worth pointing out that we've seen a third of our 2009 class run into serious problems, and they've only played one year.

Discipline problems are also not unique to football.

The Bruce Pearl Approach

No one has made more tough decisions with greater on-court consequences than Bruce Pearl.

Going all the way back to the beginning of his tenure in Knoxville, Pearl dismissed Jemere Hendrix and suspended Andre Patterson in the last incident that really comes close to what we've seen in the last eight months, as the two got in a brawl with football player Daniel Brooks, who was also dismissed.  Pearl, like Dooley, was brand new and needed all the help he could get; dismissing Hendrix meant Dane Bradshaw would have to play power forward, which at the time seemed like a death sentence.  But Pearl tossed Hendrix and held firm, never allowing his return.

And of course, Tyler Smith was believed to be our best player in January, but Pearl did not hesitate to dismiss him from the program once all the facts were known.  More than that, two guys who were only guilty of being in the car - Melvin Goins and Cameron Tatum - sat out five games.  When Pearl drops the hammer, he leaves no doubt.

The problem is - and really, God bless Bruce Pearl - but look how often he's had to drop the hammer.

My hope would be that the hammer's swiftness would be enough to remind players that they should do the right thing.  And yet, in five years Pearl has dismissed Hendrix, Ramar Smith, Duke Crews, Tyler Smith, and suspended Josh Tabb indefinitely, which led to his withdrawal from the university. 

I think in every one of these situations, Pearl has handled it the right way in an appropriate amount of time.  But why do these situations keep coming up?

It's true for Fulmer, Kiffin, Dooley, Pearl, and every coach in America:  you can't always be with these kids, they're 18-22 and prone to wander, and bad decisions will happen.  But the frequency, the intensity, and the number of players involved are all alarming, and all indicative of a cultural problem.

The Distribution of the Bell Curve

In one of his best analogies, Dooley said that he wanted his recruiting classes (and thus, over time, his team) to resemble a bell curve:  that there are some high character/lower talent kids, and some high talent/questionable character kids, and most of the players are a good combination of the two.

Is our current distribution out of balance?

Here again, it's easy to blame Kiffin.  But he again we have to also remember that in college football, winning is god.  In Fulmer's heyday, we treated everything from Peyton Manning mooning someone to LaMarcus Coker's fourth failed drug test with somewhat of a wink and a shrug...because we were winning.  It's the same thing they've been doing in Gainesville since Corch arrived.

Right now?  We're not winning.  Dooley knows better than any of us how difficult it's going to be to win in the fall...and knows how much more difficult it's going to be after today.

So maybe when we're not winning and we have thirteen players arrested or questioned in an eight month span, we treat it more harshly.  But in the long run, it has to be dealt with...and Dooley has an excellent opportunity to shape his foundation today.

He stressed in the press conference that they have made changes already.  For us, there's a lot we don't know.  I don't know how things are different on campus, in the football office, and within the team since Kiffin left town.  I don't know what sort of strides have been made in leadership - and I've never met Nick Reveiz, Chris Walker, or any of the other seniors that some are pointing fingers at now.  I don't know what they are or aren't doing, and it's unfair to assume that they haven't tried to lead.

But today oblierated the idea that significant changes have been made in the culture since January.  And Dooley knows that too.

I also think he knows the most important piece of the puzzle:  we don't just want apologies and consequences.  We want change.

I think Tennessee fans are tired, more than anything else.  Not necessarily fed up, though I'm sure some of us are...and I'm also sure some of us are too tired to be fed up, which is how the deadly "apathy" word that Mike Hamilton was so concerned with two Novembers ago can creep back in.

But we've been through a lot, from Fulmer to Kiffin to the basketball arrests, to this.  Defending your team and dealing with stories like this one are easier to do when you're winning, right or wrong.  With few giving us an opportunity to do much winning this fall, and us continuing to shoot ourselves in the foot with these incidents, hope becomes rare.

Tennessee isn't in danger of its real fans leaving it for another college team.  But people will only stay so frustrated for so long before they seek change...and when the news is always bad both on and off the field, what keeps us from being frustrated?

Dooley's baby is this Vol For Life (VFL) program, under the direction of Andre Lott.  In the eyes of the public, that program hit the reset button tonight.  But the reasons for its existence remain essential:  we shouldn't just close our eyes and hope that fewer bad things happen, punish guys when they do and apologize.  We have to do what we can to move the culture in the opposite direction.

Derek Dooley won't change the culture of major college athletics.  There's too much power, too much money, too many places like Bar Knoxville that will happily give VIP status to college athletes, and too many places like...well, our site...that exist because of these kids in the first place.  To play football or basketball in Knoxville is to be a celebrity; Dooley won't touch that.

But I do believe - and I believe he believes - that he can make an impact on the culture.

We have a long way to go when this many players are involved in an incident like this one, or the previous two.  But that's also where the process starts:  making enough of an impact on our own team, that there aren't large groups of players out together at once causing trouble. 

I'm not at all saying those guys went to Bar Knoxville looking for a fight.  But perhaps we can also change the culture to where ten or more football players aren't at Bar Knoxville at 2:00 AM on a Thursday night.

Who are the leaders within the team who will step forward now and help this process along?  Dooley, the other coaches, the chaplain, and the administration can't do it alone - they need players.  Who will lead?

I have no doubt that the team is already involved with some level of community service; one act, no matter how violent or idiotic, doesn't mean that this team and this program aren't also involved with some good things.  We need to hear more about them, and we need new and creative ways to reach out to the community.  Mike Hamilton serves on the board of directors for Blood:Water Mission, which is one of the most creative charity organizations I know of.  Bruce Pearl and the basketball program have raised thousands of dollars with the OUTLIVE program for cancer research.  We can find ways to make positive headlines, even if we're not winning.

And that's the thing:  we're pretty smart, no matter what they say about us on the internets.  We can read a depth chart.  We're braced for struggle this fall, I promise.

But again, what Dooley has said before is true:  this team can make progress in the way that it plays, and the way that it carries itself, regardless of the 2010 record.

Best example I know of:  Jerry Green's basketball teams were ranked just as high as Bruce Pearl's.  Which one was more fun to cheer for?  Why?

As we've mentioned, Pearl's program has had its issues with discipline and consequences.  But the team plays hard, the coach wears the orange mantle like he was born in it, and the ones who remained carried themselves in a way that made us all proud.  They have heart.  And all of those things go together.

This fall, heart may be all we have.  But on the ground floor, it can be enough...if we protect it, play with it, and carry ourselves in a way off the field that promotes it instead of disgracing it.

The January 1 Tennessee Basketball arrests could've been the end.  Instead, it was the beginning.

This incident offers Dooley a chance in the midst of his own beginning.  He's already acted swiftly in dismissing and suspending players within hours of returning from his vacation.  He's apologized, and said the right things.

But we need more than apologies and punishment.  We need change.

Now, Dooley and the Vols have a chance to send a message that this will not be tolerated, and start moving in the other direction.

It will take time.  And it will not be perfect:  there will be additional 18-22 year old brain farts.  But it doesn't have to be like this.  Not this many.  Not this serious.  Not this often.

Today was a dark moment for the University of Tennessee.  But from the ground floor, this too can be a beginning:  Dooley has a chance at the start of the process of creating a winning football team, to also start the process of changing the culture in Knoxville.

Dust off your britches, Tennessee, and let's go to work.