Spurrier reserved in judgment

Slow to condemn, USC’s coach takes player discipline seriously and case by case

jperson@thestate.comApril 1, 2008 

When he coached at Florida, Steve Spurrier would joke about rival Florida State’s off-the-field problems, once referring to FSU as “Free Shoes University” after agents arranged an after-hour shopping spree for Seminoles’ players at a Tallahassee Foot Locker.

But the shoe has been on the other foot since Spurrier arrived at South Carolina three-plus years ago.

A spate of recent incidents, including quarterback Stephen Garcia’s third run-in with the law in 15 months on campus, have prompted fans and critics to question whether Spurrier is tough enough on players who get in trouble.

Spurrier responded by pointing to his track record at Florida and explaining how he tries to make the punishment fit the crime.

“It depends on the crime. You take every situation individually and go from there,” Spurrier said in an interview last week.

“I’m going into my 24th year. These are the most problems I’ve ever had. When I was at Florida, FSU had all the problems. They’d always ask, ‘Why don’t you have as many problems?’ We ran a few off there. We had to run a few off.”

Before he called a play at USC, Spurrier dismissed several of Lou Holtz’s former players for a variety of transgressions.

Starting tailback Demetris Summers was kicked out after testing positive for marijuana, while defensive end Moe Thompson, another starter, and defensive tackle Kevin Mainord were booted for burglarizing the dorm rooms of several female students.

Spurrier also has dismissed players he recruited.

Some — such as defensive linemen Shea McKeen and Kerry Bonds — were kicked off following arrests. In other cases, Spurrier chose not to renew the scholarships of players who repeatedly broke team and university policies, including linebacker Dakota Walker.

“They ran themselves off. Stealing and breaking and entering and stuff like that,” Spurrier said. “It depends on what you do.”

Garcia was one of three players cited March 22 for underage drinking after campus police, responding to loud noise in the courtyard between East and South Quads, found them with coolers of beer.

About four hours later, police and firefighters returned to the dorm in response to a fire alarm. Garcia told authorities he set off a fire extinguisher after noticing sparks coming from his stove. He was referred to the university’s student judicial office but was not charged.

“Underage drinking is not right. It’s not good. And I’m not condoning it. You know that’s something that happens all over campus,” Spurrier said. “But what you do after that is what counts. You’ve got to be under control.”

Garcia, a highly-touted freshman from Lutz, Fla., was suspended for spring practice last year after two arrests in a two-week span. He was charged with drunkenness and failure to stop on a police command stemming from an incident in Five Points, before being jailed for keying a visiting professor’s car following a dispute over a parking space on campus.

After the car keying incident last year, Spurrier said Garcia could be in “dire straits” if he were arrested again.

Rather than discipline Garcia himself for the most recent incidents, Spurrier left the matter to university officials and athletics director Eric Hyman, who suspended Garcia until Aug. 15. Garcia, who is allowed to finish the semester at USC, must complete several stipulations, including drug testing and alcohol counseling, if he hopes to be readmitted to USC in August.

Acknowledging that he could have dismissed Garcia, Spurrier said he stepped aside so as not to influence Hyman and the other decision-makers. Hyman said an athlete’s pattern of behavior is one of three criteria he considers when handling disciplinary matters.

“I have told everybody in the athletic department and told a lot of the student-athletes what I look at are the patterns that have taken place, how you deal with authority and whether you’re sincerely remorseful about what took place,” Hyman said.

USC football operations director Jamie Speronis, who worked for Spurrier at Florida, said Spurrier does not rush to judgment when a player has been arrested.

“Coach is very good about being calm and saying, ‘Let’s get all the information before a decision needs to be made,’ ” Speronis said. “And a lot of times, the initial story, whether it’s in (the) paper or on TV, says this event happened, whatever that event might be.

“Quite often as we’ve come to find out, it’s not all that is initially reported.”

Speronis pointed to the case of offensive lineman Kevin Young, who was arrested for fighting and resisting arrest last month in Five Points. Columbia police last week dropped both charges against Young, and SLED is investigating Young’s claims that officers used excessive force in arresting him.

Speronis said a team’s academic progress rate (APR), the NCAA’s new academic measuring stick, also has forced coaches to be more deliberate in making disciplinary decisions.

Teams lose a retention point by dismissing a player in the middle of the school year, and they could lose a scholarship if the player is academically ineligible at the time and the team is below the minimum threshold, as the Gamecocks are currently.

“That’s not an excuse. But that has to figure in,” Speronis said. “That is taking the holistic approach in discipline.”

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.

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