Jimmy Burch

Baylor’s Briles not alone in rolling dice on sketchy players

Based on the backlog of tweets on my Twitter timeline, Baylor football coach Art Briles is either the biggest snake-oil salesman in the college game or a misunderstood empire builder who wins championships while restoring the self-worth of second-chance citizens along the way.

There seems to be no middle ground, with opinions split along the lines of College Football Playoff rooting interests. While neither extreme offers a fair characterization of a guy who may be the most creative mind in college football, this much is 100 percent true about Art Briles:

He is far from alone in harboring players with sketchy or violent backgrounds on his roster like Sam Ukwuachu, the transfer from Boise State who was sentenced Friday to six months in jail and put on 10 years of probation for raping a former Baylor women’s soccer player in 2013.

The point here is not to absolve Briles or Baylor from any public scorn in the way the Ukwuachu situation was handled. Failings in that area led to Baylor President Kenneth Starr calling for a “comprehensive internal inquiry” into the situation that should cost some folks their jobs in Waco.

It is too early, at this juncture, to offer suggestions to Starr about steps needed to rectify a troubling situation on his campus. But this seems like a perfect time to remind football fans of other schools that, while Briles is being used as a piñata in the court of public opinion, it would be wise to avoid swinging the stick too lustily.

Chances are good that your coach could be next in line for public condemnation if one of his “second chance” players steps out of line. That’s because most of the nation’s 128 FBS teams, particularly the ones in line for CFP playoff berths, will roll the dice on a transfer player from another school if that player deepens the existing talent pool on campus.

Most extend even more wiggle room to their own signees, although TCU finally cut ties with defensive end Devonte Fields, the 2012 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, after a domestic violence charge involving a gun. Fields will resurface this season at Louisville.

At Baylor, Ukwuachu became a public-relations nightmare without ever taking the field in a Bears uniform. But that lesson will not stop rivals who covet a championship.

In September, Oklahoma will suit up two players coming off one-year suspensions related to mistreatment of women: running back Joe Mixon, who punched a woman before the 2014 season and broke four bones in her face, and linebacker Frank Shannon, who spent last season serving a one-year suspension imposed by the school after a Title IX sexual misconduct investigation.

During last month’s Big 12 Media Days, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops defended the presence of both players on this year’s roster while also conceding violence against women “should never happen.” But after a year away from the field, Stoops said it is time for both players to return because, “Being an educational institution and the age of these young men, they deserve an opportunity to do that, and it’s our job to help them.”

One incidental fact Stoops did not mention: Mixon, a five-star signee, and Shannon, the team’s leading tackler in 2013, can help OU close the talent gap on Baylor, a team that outscored OU by a combined 89-26 margin the past two seasons while claiming consecutive league titles.

Understand this type of logic is applied universally by coaches who feel the need to win to maintain their high-paying jobs (in other words, 128 of 128 head coaches at FBS programs). It’s why Stoops accepted receiver Dorial Green-Beckham into the OU program for one season after he was dismissed by Missouri, although DGB never suited up for the Sooners.

Outside the Big 12, recent examples of dice-roll players who made major impacts in college football despite incidents of mistreating women include Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde (three-game suspension for hitting a woman) and LSU running back Jeremy Hill (pleaded guilty to sexual battery while in high school).

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston led his team to a national championship and won the 2013 Heisman Trophy while playing amid allegations that he sexually assaulted a female student on campus in 2012. No criminal charges were brought against Winston, but a civil case was filed in April by Erica Kinsman, the alleged victim.

While enrolled at Georgia, quarterback Zach Mettenberger (sexual battery) and defensive tackle Jonathan Taylor (domestic violence) were dismissed from the football program before resurfacing, respectively, at LSU and Alabama. A second arrest on the same charge led Alabama coach Nick Saban to remove Taylor from his program.

In May, SEC schools adopted a policy that prohibits league schools from accepting transfer students with histories of domestic violence or sexual assault.

Such a policy at the national level would be a good idea and is one that has drawn the support of Texas coach Charlie Strong. During a Saturday news conference in Austin, Strong said coaches “have to know what really happened” at another school before accepting a transfer. In particular, they need to know about issues related to domestic violence.

“You have to respect women. They have value,” Strong said. “This can’t continue to happen.”

Expanding the SEC ban on transfers who have crossed that line into a national standard would be a nice step in that direction.

Until that happens, expect elite programs to continue recycling one another’s problem players. And realize the next coach to serve as a piñata in the court of public opinion could be yours.

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