Early Offseason Legal Troubles Plaguing SEC Programs

By Brad Stephens
Kelly Lambert – USA TODAY Sports

The SEC had their streak of national championships broken in January, but one streak appears to be intact heading into this offseason. An SEC team has won the “Fulmer Cup” for every offseason since 2010, and the conference may extend that streak in 2014. The offseason has become a time of dread for coaches and fans, much to the dismay of SEC commissioner Mike Slive.

The Fulmer Cup was created in 2006 as a tongue-in-cheek award to the Division I school whose players have the worst criminal record in the offseason, based on a points system for the seriousness of the offense and the circumstances behind the arrest. Five of the eight Fulmer Cups have gone to SEC schools. Interestingly enough, the Tennessee Volunteers have yet to win the award named for their former head coach. However, the Alabama Crimson TideGeorgia Bulldogs. Arkansas Razorbacks, Auburn Tigers and Vanderbilt Commodores have all hoisted the dubious trophy since its inception.

While it does generate some laughs and message board fodder, these legal issues are a recurring nightmare to the programs involved. Having a high number of arrest records negatively impact the school, the team, the coaching staff and the ability to recruit at times. Coaches would rather spend in-home visits with recruits discussing playing time, not convincing parents that their children are not joining a band of outlaws.

Not to mention, many of these offenses result in the suspension or dismissal of the player. Granted, many SEC teams begin the season with a directional school or an FCS opponent, but several have opted for a more challenging early schedule. Missing key players can make all the difference in a win or a loss, a scenario that any SEC coach can ill-afford to face.

The Ole Miss Rebels are making an early run at the Cup with two more arrests this week. All-SEC linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant were arrested in separate incidents in Oxford. While the facts are still in the air, it appears both incidents involved alcohol and disorderly conduct. Both have been suspended indefinitely.

This is not what Hugh Freeze envisioned from two team leaders who will be major factors in the Rebels’ quest for success in 2014. Cornerback Bobby Hill was arrested in January for sexual battery and has been suspended from the team as a result. Defensive end Channing Ward has already pleaded guilty to a DUI stemming from a Jan. 19 arrest.

Although it does not count in the Fulmer Cup standings, a civil suit has been filed against Nkemdiche, his brother Robert and five other unnamed Ole Miss players in the alleged beating of Matthew Baird, an Ole Miss student who claims he was attacked at a fraternity party in Feb. 2013. The authorities investigated and cleared all seven players, but that has not stopped Baird from filing suit for $2 million.

This is yet another unwelcome distraction for Freeze, and something that will undoubtedly affect each of these players until the matter is settled.

Auburn saw one of its signees run afoul of the law just two days after Signing Day. Kalvaraz Bessent was arrested in Florida for felony possession of marijuana and misdemeanor drug paraphernalia. The charges have been dropped, but Gus Malzahn continues to investigate and has not made a decision on Bessent’s status with the team.

Up the road in Tuscaloosa, cornerback Tony Brown got his Alabama career off to a rocky start by landing in jail for resisting arrest and failure to obey. Nick Saban has not made a decision about Brown’s fate.

Even coaches are not immune. Vavae Tata, the newly-minted Vanderbilt defensive line coach, was arrested in Nashville  on Feb. 16 for DUI and leaving the scene of an accident with property damage. According to the police report, Tata tried to avoid police and struck two other vehicles before trying to escape on foot. Once in custody, he blew .18 on the breathalyzer test, more than double the legal limit in Tennessee.

Vanderbilt  is still recovering from an ugly sexual assault case that plagued James Franklin‘s last season in Nashville. so this incident is another black eye for a reeling program.

Human beings are prone to errors in judgment. Mistakes will be made and consequences will be doled out, as coaches cannot follow 85-90 people around every minute of the day. However, the SEC seems to be plagued by these issues more than other conferences. From now until Aug. 29, fans will log on to message boards daily, holding their collective breath and hoping for an empty blotter.

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