Off-field distractions hurt Bulldogs

ATHENS — When Mark Richt made stops throughout the state last summer, the talk almost always centered on the high expectations that surrounded his team, the preseason No. 1 ranking, the dream that this year might just be the season when Georgia returned to the pinnacle of college football with a national championship.

By the time Richt sat in front of reporters for his first news conference of the year, however, the seeds of what would become the most disappointing season of his tenure in Athens were already being planted. There was little excitement in his voice as he explained the details of yet another player suspension following three off-field incidents that occurred in the same night, just days before the Bulldogs opened preseason practice.

Four months later, as Georgia prepares for its date with Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl following a 9-3 regular season, linebacker Rennie Curran said it’s hard to draw a distinction between the off-field problems and the on-field disappointments.

“That’s been something that’s been a problem with the offseason, all the downtime, and it kind of transferred onto the field,” Curran said. “You try hard not to let those things affect you, but when you don’t have everybody on the same page, it hurts the team. It’s not 10 guys that get the job done. You have to have all 11 have the right mind-set and focus and all those things.”

Darius Dewberry’s two-game suspension that was the primary topic of conversation at Richt’s preseason news conference was the sixth of the year for the Bulldogs. Two more followed during the regular season after Brandon Wood and Kevin Perez were both arrested on charges of driving under the influence.

Three players — former Stratford star Michael Lemon, Donavon Baldwin and Jeff Henson — were dismissed from the program for off-field rules violations in the past year, and several other players have faced in-house punishments for disciplinary issues that didn’t rise to the level of suspensions or dismissals.

The effects of so much off-field discord were evident, Curran said, but what isn’t quite as clear was whether the problems were a cause of Georgia’s on-field failures or simply a symptom of a bigger problem that undermined the Bulldogs’ season.

Defensive tackle Corvey Irvin said he doesn’t believe the multiple off-field incidents are an indication of a serious problem within the locker room, but rather a result of an immense spotlight that shines on Georgia’s football players nearly all the time.

“Stuff happens. Stuff happens every day. If the guy would never have been playing football, I wonder if it would have been that big,” Irvin said. “But since he was playing football, they made it a big deal. I don’t believe it was a lack of focus, I think it was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Certainly not all of Georgia’s disciplinary problems can be painted with same broad brush.

Dewberry’s suspension came after he damaged property at St. Mary’s Hospital following a fight in which two teammates were injured. Other players, meanwhile, have fallen victim to their own bad decisions, including those charged with DUIs.

Athletics director Damon Evans, however, said the problems have become so pronounced this season that the legal severity of a particular incident isn’t important in terms of how it will be viewed by the school.

“You need to realize you’re casting a negative light on this institution, and in my eyes, that’s major to me, that’s major to our alums, and that’s major to the people who love the Bulldogs,” Evans said.

Regardless of the severity, Curran argues each incident can be attributed to a lack of focus on the task of winning games, and the blame should be shared by everyone on the team.

“Guys getting in trouble when we’re all together, there should be none of that,” Curran said. “We should be able to step up and say, ‘This is wrong.’ I feel like that doesn’t have anything to do with the coaches. The lack of focus is on us, whether it’s off the field or on the field. It’s the whole accountability thing. That’s been a big thing this year — us all having to get after each other, us all being on the same page.”

Both on and off the field, players have appeared to have divergent agendas this season.

At various times throughout the year, players have spoken out in hopes of putting an end to the off-field incidents and gathering the team together around a common goal, but the results have been mixed at best.

“We talked about holding each other accountable and being your brother’s keeper and staying out of trouble,” Irvin said. “But you know, trouble is so easy to get into and hard to get out of.”

The numerous distractions haven’t made for an easy season for Richt either.

From an extensive amount of injuries to the devastating losses to Georgia’s chief rivals to a vocal backlash by some fans, the 2008 season has taken its toll on Richt, but never has he seemed as disappointed as he has in the days following player arrests.

Richt has repeatedly discussed the difficulty in balancing compassion for the players with the need for significant consequences. He called Lemon’s dismissal from the program following an assault charge the hardest decision of his career at Georgia. He waited nearly two months to make final decisions on the fates of Henson and Baldwin, and he spoke glowingly of the responsibility Dewberry and Wood took for their actions.

Still, the plight of their head coach wasn’t enough to eradicate the problem for the Bulldogs this season, and Evans said things must change moving forward.

“Believe me, (Richt) and I, neither one of us want the university to be represented in an inappropriate manner,” Evans said. “We’ve just got to take a hard, hard look at what transpired this year and figure out ways to minimize those types of incidents.”

Evans suggested a more proactive approach to discipline would be necessary and didn’t rule out the possibility of increasingly severe penalties for players who get into off-field trouble, but the real solution has to start internally, Curran said.

With the NCAA restricting the level of involvement coaches can have with players after the season ends, and a roster that outnumbers the coaching staff by a 10-to-1 margin, it will be up to the players to assume the mantle of leadership as the Bulldogs prepare for another long offseason, one Curran said must be approached with a far different mind-set than the Bulldogs have employed during the past 12 months.

“I owe it to the guys to let them know I do care about the team and put that urgency on them to care as much as I do,” Curran said. “We owe it to ourselves to do things right if we’re going to put this much work in. We owe it to each other to do things right on and off the field, to do it the Georgia way. If we’re not, there’s no point in us being here.”