SOUTH CAROLINA OFFICIALS let Stephen Garcia off the hook this week. In the end, the university operated in the best interest of the football team and not in the best interest of the student-athlete.
Garcia should not be on the practice fields this week ... for his own good.
The message sent by allowing Garcia to rejoin the USC football team two weeks ahead of schedule is clear: You are important to the football program’s success; you are an exception to the rules; you are a possible superstar, and we will bend the rules at every turn to ensure your success.
Frankly, that is hardly the message that needs to be sent to a 20-year-old student who has demonstrated an inability to deal with pressures inherent to being labeled the savior of a program.
By holding to the original Aug. 15 reinstatement date, USC would have sent a much stronger message to Garcia: You are no different than any other student-athlete; come back to school and fit in as a student, first; work your way back onto the football team, but your performance on the athletic field is not paramount to us.
Instead, an athletics department official defended the early reinstatement of Garcia by saying it was reward for the player having been an exemplary citizen during his suspension.
Wait a minute. Is the university saying he is receiving early parole for good behavior? This is not a legal system. The university set down a list of criteria for Garcia to gain reinstatement, and he apparently met those stipulations. There should be no reward attached.
I commend the university for requiring Garcia to undergo counseling, drug and alcohol testing and community service during his suspension. At least the school saw fit to somehow punish Garcia for his three run-ins with the law over a 15-month period.
On the athletic side, Garcia has gone virtually unpunished. He was not allowed to participate in drills this past spring, but most college football players would tell you that is hardly a penalty at all.
Because Garcia redshirted a season ago, he could play in USC’s opener against North Carolina State on Aug. 28 having never missed a game. Some penalty. Some message to a young man who appears to be crying out for more discipline.
The entire Garcia saga is a mystery to most. He is a bright young man who excels in school. He is good natured and fun to be around. He hails from an affluent family and never before displayed criminal behavior.
So, when someone of Garcia’s stock repeatedly places himself in precarious situations, he probably is trying to tell us something. The first offense was a mistake. The second one was his choice. The third one was an alarm that something is amiss.
Understand, Garcia’s situation is far different from those of Derek Watson and Demetrius Summers, would-be USC superstars who repeatedly maimed their college football careers with self-inflicted wounds. Watson suffered the misfortune of never having enough parental guidance to differentiate right from wrong. When Summers finally was asked to work for something once he arrived at USC, he found himself incapable.
My guess is Garcia was not ready to accept the position of being the premier recruit among Steve Spurrier’s four classes at USC.
To be a highly-touted quarterback at any major college football program is difficult enough. Then Garcia’s hype was ramped up because he was the first big-time recruit under a coach considered among the greatest quarterback coaches in college football history.
Compounding Garcia’s situation was his early admission to USC, a practice that should be addressed by the NCAA and eliminated for all athletes before it gets out of hand. Garcia proved he was not prepared for the social aspects of college. He should forever be Exhibit A that pushing a young man or woman through high school early and directly into college rarely — if ever — benefits the individual.
Still, it was difficult for anyone not to like Garcia, if only because he is daring and carefree enough to wear his hair to shoulder length. Throw in the fact that Garcia is an affable sort who watches ancient war movies, quotes from Greek mythology and collects swords, and you have all the makings of a bigger-than-life persona.
Now, upon his return to USC, Garcia sends out a statement that says “the media attention needs to go to Tommy Beecher and the other players on our team.” It reads like a plea to let Garcia establish himself as a solid citizen in Columbia and again as an outstanding student.
Unfortunately, USC allowed Garcia back on the football team two weeks ahead of schedule, thus getting the priorities out of order. He would have benefited from two more weeks off USC’s roster. The two weeks away from the football team also would have delayed his inevitable climb from third-string quarterback.
That timetable may not have benefited the football team, but it would have been best for Stephen Garcia.