CHANCES TO MAKE a statement for your football program, athletics department and school do not come along often. South Carolina missed one of those chances Monday when it reinstated five-time suspended quarterback Stephen Garcia to the football team.
President Harris Pastides, athletics director Eric Hyman and football coach Steve Spurrier had a chance to forever leave an impression that there is more to college athletics than winning.
USC could have separated itself from the pack. It could have taken the rare high road in college athletics. It could have made a national statement in wishing Garcia well as a graduate student and football player at another school.
Instead, USC will be lumped with all the rest. USC is no different than Auburn, Alabama, Clemson, Southern California, Ohio State and most other schools where winning always seems to trump all else.
USC should brace itself for the inevitable tainting of its football program. As much as USC would like for Garcia and his problems to be diminished, it will not happen. Not this week, not through the summer, not through the football season.
Every time USC appears on TV — just about every game — Garcia will have adopted a new first name. He will be introduced time and again as the “five-time suspended quarterback.” Fans will marvel at how Garcia continues to play for USC. Yet they will not disparage Garcia so much as they will pick at the university for allowing him to continue wearing a uniform with “SOUTH CAROLINA” emblazoned across the front.
There is no doubting Garcia represents USC’s best chance to defend its SEC East Division championship. Spurrier is without an experienced replacement for Garcia, who could leave USC as its most decorated quarterback. He ranks third all-time in passing yards (6,753), completions (528) and passing touchdowns (43).
Garcia has played in 35 games over three seasons and started 30, including the past 28. Without question, his greatest accomplishment has been to not miss a single game because of suspension. Not one.
That is quite remarkable. How does that happen? It happens when an athletics department drops its visor time after time in dealing with suspensions for a star player. The stiffest penalties doled out for Garcia were to miss spring practice. Rest assured many college players would treat missing spring drills as some sort of reward.
“Being a student-athlete at the University of South Carolina is a privilege, not a right,” Hyman said in a press release to announce the lifting of Garcia’s latest suspension.
Hyman’s words ring hollow in the case of Garcia, first because you can be assured a second-string tight end would not have been allowed a third chance let alone a fifth chance. Also, the way a couple of Garcia’s suspensions were handled makes one believe it is a right for him to remain a Gamecock.
Garcia was allowed to return a couple of weeks early from one of his first suspensions. At that time, it was important to Spurrier that Garcia join the team at the beginning of fall workouts.
I wrote then that Garcia’s early return was a mistake because it sent the wrong message. It was roughly equivalent to grounding your child for a month, then reducing the penalty to two weeks based on good behavior.
Then there were Garcia’s off-field transgressions before the most recent Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta. Garcia was caught in violation of team rules at the team hotel a couple of nights before the game.
Fortunately for Garcia, backup quarterback Connor Shaw was ill in Atlanta. So, instead of suspending Garcia for USC’s game against Florida State, Spurrier waited and suspended him for — stop me if you’ve heard this before — the start of spring practice.
Give credit to Pastides and Hyman for USC reaching out to Garcia following the latest incident to make sure the much-troubled quarterback can get his off-field act together. The steps to rehabilitation set up for him should have been instituted following the first suspension.
Once again, though, USC allowed Garcia back on the football team before he completed all the steps required of him off the field. It presumably was important for Garcia to participate in off-season workouts with the team. Thus, the familiar message was sent that winning trumps all else at USC.
That is quite all right. But USC should never again claim to live to a higher standard in college athletics. Sadly, it has proven to be just like all the rest.