Stallings, Spurrier, Garcia and Discipline

Apparently, Steve Spurrier has finally cut the chord and dismissed Stephen Garcia from the South Carolina football team.  Every time I heard about football players being disciplined in the SEC, my mind always wanders back to the days of Gene Stallings and David Palmer at Alabama

Palmer was a fantastic college football player that played for the Tide during the 1991 through 1993 seasons.  He wasn’t big and he he didn’t have the speed of a player such as a Pierre Goode, but the kid could flat play.  Wide receiver, punt returner, quarterback – you name it he could play it.  He was probably one of the better defensive backs as well.

But Palmer was always getting into trouble.  His knack for this was especially on display during 1992 when he was arrested two times for drunken driving – once in the summer and once after the first game of the season.  The second arrest came the night after Bama’s first game of the season – a game in which Palmer had been suspended from playing because of the first arrest.

Palmer was eventually reinstated during the 1992 season and became a key component of that championship team.  Although Stallings endured some criticism for how he handled Palmer, his credibility had already been established years before.  Following the 1962 season, Stallings, then a member of Paul Bryant’s coaching staff, voted to suspend Joe Namath for his use of alcohol.  Stallings’ response has echoed with me for years:

“I think he needed the relationship with the team,” Stallings said. “I think he needed the camaraderie and the fellowship of being in a good environment. The dorm. The dining hall. The plane. The bus. The hotel. I felt like he needed that more than we needed him.”

Palmer believes the coach was right. The coach believes it is too early to tell.

“I’ve never said the decisions I made were the right ones,” Stallings said. “I’ve said I think they were right. We won’t really know whether this is the right decision for two or three years.”

Palmer needed the team more than the team needed Palmer.  The game results might argue against Stallings’ point, but he was right.  The team might have lost games without Palmer, but the season wouldn’t be cancelled without him.

Palmer without the team, however, may not have turned out so well.

As is noted above, Stallings said time would tell if his decision was the right one.  Obviously, it was.  Yes, Bama went on to win the 1992 national championship and Palmer was a big reason for that, but he also went on to have a successful seven year career in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings.  More importantly, he’s leading a productive life and giving back to his community.

So what does that have to do with Spurrier and Garcia?  Well, we generally assume that Spurrier has made all of his decisions based simply on wins and losses.  While I’m sure that has factored into his decisions, what we don’t know is the relationship that the coach has with his player.  We see the outward handling of Garcia by Spurrier, but we don’t see how these issues are struggled with behind the scenes.  It’s easy to be cynical about these situations, especially if you’re a fan of an opposing school.  And certainly after six or so suspensions everyone begins to question your sanity if you don’t kick the player off the team.

But discipline isn’t always a black and white situation.  I’ve recently been reading a bit about church discipline and have been told there are at least three purposes for it:

  1. Glorify God.
  2. To maintain the purity of the church.
  3. To reclaim or keep the disobedient sinner. 
Since many of us worship college football teams anyway, it’s not too much of a stretch to apply this approach to discipline to our teams as well.  Of course we want our teams and their behavior to glorify God (i.e. act right and do the right things), but discipline should also be applied to maintain the structure of your team (i.e. don’t let the inmates run the asylum) and to help transform the team member that may be struggling.  These things, in turn, define the character of your team and the culture of your program.
Sometimes there are fine lines that need to be walked to get all of this done.  Handle one situation wrong and your team thinks you’re lax on the rules and chaos reigns.  Handle a situation another way and the team could rebel at your heavy handedness.  But if it’s done correctly, it teaches your players how to operate in society.

Again, after six or so suspensions, it’s pretty easy to say too much grace has been shown to a player.  But we still don’t know what went on behind the scenes and what Spurrier’s plan was to help or reclaim Garcia.  I’ll go ahead and give Spurrier the benefit of the doubt and assume that he thought Garcia needed the team more than the team needed Garcia.  Unfortunately, though, Garcia has now run out of chances.