ATHENS — This week was supposed to be a fresh start around Georgia athletics. The first football game of a new season is Saturday. The new athletics director, Greg McGarity, starts Wednesday.
Then came the wee hours of Friday morning, a driver with a suspended license, a parking deck and yet another arrest of a prominent Bulldogs athlete.
So, a week from the start of the season, Georgia fans, players and coaches were back talking about off-field problems, much as they were this spring and summer.
The arrest of tailback Washaun Ealey, the Bulldogs’ leading rusher last season, reminded everyone that seven other players had been taken into custody in 2010. It also underscored that McGarity’s new job only became vacant after the arrest of the previous athletics director.
Head coach Mark Richt, entering his 10th year, came out with a forceful verbal response about Ealey’s situation and suspended him for a minimum of one game, although Ealey was back practicing with the team Saturday.
Richt has always believed in giving players an extra chance or two. But David Pollack, one of Richt’s greatest former players at Georgia, thinks that may be changing.
“He’s starting to get more strict with it, I think,” said Pollack, now a commentator on ESPN and Atlanta radio. “He’s starting to get fed up with it.”
Four of the eight players who have been arrested this season are no longer with the team, including quarterback Zach Mettenberger (dismissed after an undisclosed violation of team rules, which followed a previous arrest). Ealey and receiver Tavarres King (an alcohol-related arrest in July) are both sitting out the opener.
But what does the rash of arrests mean to the image of the program?
“I think it’s gonna depend on the eye of the beholder,” Pollack said. “I think some people are gonna look at it and say, ‘Man this is crazy.’ And I know a lot of people want to say that Coach Richt doesn’t have control of his players.
“These are grown men. And not only that, a coach can’t hold your hand. Coach can do what he wants to do when you’re within the 20-hour rule, when you’re in camp and you’re checking curfews. But bottom line is if you’re going to find a way to get in trouble, you’re going to find a way.”
There have been 33 known arrests of Georgia football players since February 2007. All of them were misdemeanors, 16 involved alcohol, and eight involved a suspended license.
Ealey, a 21-year-old sophomore, was picked up after a hit-and-run incident involving a parked car revealed that he had a suspended license, as well as a bench warrant for a failure to appear in court on a traffic charge.
Ironically, Ealey’s suspension helped two other running backs who have had their own run-ins with the law. Caleb King, now the unquestioned starter for the opener, was cited in July 2007 for operating a scooter without a license. Fred Munzenmaier, another running back and a special teams captain for the opener, was suspended for the first two games of the 2008 season after being charged with underage alcohol possession.
Of course Georgia is hardly alone.
Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley had to deal with a bar brawl just months after taking the job. Auburn’s new starting quarterback, Cameron Newton, left Florida a few years ago after some off-field trouble. Mississippi could start quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who was just dismissed by Oregon after a series of incidents.
“I think any time a fan base wants to pound their chest and say, ‘Oh it doesn’t happen to us,’ then it happens to them,” Pollack said.
This year, it has been Georgia in the spotlight. Ealey’s charge means the Bulldogs have all but clinched the Fulmer Cup, which is bestowed by the website Every Day Should Be Saturday. The creators of the website have a Florida bent, hence the name making fun of the former Tennessee head coach.
The most notorious incident doesn’t even involve a player: Then-athletics director Damon Evans was charged with DUI in Atlanta on the night of June 30, and when embarrassing details in the police report came to light, Evans was forced to resign.
After Friday’s practice, Richt was asked if the players understood the image problem.
“I think they probably do,” Richt said. “But like a lot of people, they don’t think something could happen to them.”
Then Richt referred back to Ealey, who had been told not to drive on his suspended license but did anyway.
“He probably thought this short little trip wouldn’t end up being a big deal,” Richt said. “But it turned out to be a real big deal.”
Junior tight end Aron White said the team would forgive Ealey and move on, as it has in any previous case. White defended the leadership of the team and didn’t know why some people continue to make mistakes.
“As far as our team image, I’m sure it’s suffered a little bit, but at the same time, the people we’re concerned about are the people in that (locker) room,” White said. “The people that put that ‘G’ on their helmet every day. We care about what people think, but at the same time we can’t worry about it.”