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August 3, 2007

What's fair? What's the solution to UT's problems?

Zero tolerance.

The phrase has been thrown around quite a bit among Longhorn fans over the past two months, with the names of Texas football players popping up on the Austin police blotter at an alarming rate. The most recent incident - an aggravated robbery arrest warrant for defensive tackle Andre Jones - has the Texas fan base fuming, and the most loyal of Longhorn fans are asking for answers and wondering how the program can put a stop to the recent run of mishaps.

How could so many presumably good kids go so wrong? Who is to blame? And most importantly, how can these types of incidents be prevented in the future?

All are legitimate questions that deserve to be answered, but it's not quite as easy as Brown simply laying down a set of rules and then sticking to his guns from here on out.

- Each situation is different from the next, and if Brown were to institute a zero tolerance policy, as some have suggested, he would be doing a disservice to the Longhorn program and to the young men under his care.

Step away from the anger you feel about the recent run of events and think about it. What's Mack Brown to do? Dump a player who was caught at a party having a beer a few months before he turned 21 and was subsequently hit with minor in possession of alcohol charge? Give up on a player like Sergio Kindle or Henry Melton who has a moment of weakness and makes a horrible decision (a decision that for all we know, may have been a one-time occurrence)?

Absolutely not.

Enacting a zero tolerance attitude would certainly damage the football team's ability to have success, but that's really not the key issue. Cutting kids loose after every transgression would hurt the team in terms of talent, but more importantly, it would drive young men away and drastically alter the course of their lives. Mack's job is to win football games, but it's all not about adding up as many victories against very few defeats. His job is also to look out for the kids' best interests and mold them into productive citizens well beyond their playing days, and sometimes that involves a little tolerance and a lot of forgiving.

Obviously, there are extreme situations, such as those in which Jones and Robert Joseph allegedly find themselves, but a zero tolerance policy is not a productive answer.

- "It's very interesting that when you have 130 kids, and 128 of them do everything right, if one gets in trouble, you stir it up about one or two." - Mack Brown at last week's Texas High School Coaches Association.

First off, that's a ridiculous quote when one looks at Texas' recent track record of arrest, and I think even Mack would admit that. The program's problems have run much deeper than one or two bad apples making questionable decisions. It's been unfortunate event after unfortunate event, and some of the charges have been extremely serious.

But, Mack's quote does have some validity to it.

It's the nature of the beast for the media and the fans to be drawn into stories of strife and struggles. The bigger the arrest and the more high profile the name, the brighter the spotlight and the bigger the headline.

The talk around the program right now centers on Jones, Kindle, Melton and Joseph, but what about the guys that do things right?

Why not more talk about the Colt McCoys and Jordan Shipleys when they speak to children or address a crowded church? What about Drew Kelson and his attendance of the NCAA's Leadership Conference or the millions of other things he does right every day? Does anyone care to talk about Frank Okam's participation in A Hero's Tribute, where he welcomed troops back to Fort Hood after being stationed overseas? Or Okam's visits to see patients at the Austin Children's Hospital?

Nope, those issues receive little play because they're just not sexy enough stories. For all the problems that Texas has had of late - and there have been many - this is still a program that boasts as many accomplished, successful and distinguished young men as any other in America. Perhaps it's time to start showing those guys a little more appreciation.

- Mack Brown has taken a lot of heat for the Horns' legal run-ins, as one might expect. He is the top dog in the program and everything ultimately comes back to him. When the team does well, he gets most of the praise. When the team falters, Mack is the one who comes under fire. When a Longhorn player acts a fool and finds himself in the back of a police cruiser, and especially when it happens repeatedly, it's Mack who is held accountable in the court of public opinion.

Is that fair? Probably not, but it comes with the job. Nobody in their right mind can expect the coaches to monitor their players' actions 24/7, particularly during the off-season.

What some people do expect, though, is for the coaches to not bring potential programs into the program to begin with. It's a nice notion, but it's much easier said than done.

During recruiting, the coaches do as much homework as allowable by the NCAA, and they try to get to know the prospects both on the field and off. The Texas staff, probably more than most others around the country, really digs deep with the prospects' high school coaches, counselors and family members to get a feel for the kids' personalities before extending an offer.

Truth be told, they can only do so much. If a prospect puts on a good face when he meets the coaches, makes good grades and draws strong reviews from his high school support staff, that's really all the information that the staff has to work with when deciding whether or not to offer. Unless you want the coaches to hire a private investigator to tale the kids for a week or two before handing out an offer, they're doing the best they can in their evaluations.

Is early recruiting partly to blame? It would seem to make sense. Mack Brown used to rely heavily on his current crop of players to evaluate a prospect while he's on campus during his official visit before deciding if he'll fit in with the Longhorn mold. He no longer has that luxury. There have been high-profile prospects in the past that Texas has passed on because of their actions and attitudes during their official visits, but that's no longer an option. By the time a prospect takes his official visit in today's day and age, he's usually been committed for 10 months. That opportunity for an around-the-clock weekend evaluation is long gone.

- So what's the solution?

First and foremost, kids have to take it upon themselves to make better decisions. That's what it really boils down to. Austin will provide a lot of temptation for any college student, and the players have to be smart enough, be responsible enough, to not put themselves in situations that could turn troublesome.

As has been discussed, Mack and the Texas coaches are going to have to start cracking the whip and making an example of some of the recent offenders. Robert Joseph is gone. Andre Jones will likely be gone if the allegations hold up (it is important to remember that right now these are only allegations). Had Sergio Kindle and Henry Melton's driving while intoxicated charges happened a few years ago, they might have been punished with a slap on the wrist. But with the way things have unfolded of late, Mack needs to send a message and that's why you'll likely see both players on the bench for two or three games.

The other option is to begin punishing the entire team when one guy messes up. If a player gets in a fight, maybe the entire team does a little extra running. Or maybe it's broken down into groups. If a running back gets in trouble, the entire offensive backfield puts in some extra work. If a defensive end is late to a meeting, the entire d-line feels it.

Nothing will make a person toe the line more than knowing his actions will absolutely affect those close to him, and punishing other members of the team just might allow the Texas coaches to open some eyes and drive their disciplinary points home.


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