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Roundtable: Is Nebraska Football's "High Character" Perception Hurting Recruiting?

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

It's a roundtable! This time, I ask the questions and the other guys answer!

But first, some background to get us started....

Les Miles recently reinstated* LSU running back Jeremy Hill after Hill plead guilty to misdemeanor battery after he sucker-punched another man from behind (video here), knocking him unconscious. This is after Miles decided to honor Hill's scholarship offer despite Hill being placed on probation after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor for carnal knowledge of a minor.

About the Hill incident, Andy Staples at SI stated:

Despite what many college football coaches would have you believe, they are not in the soul-saving business. They are not, as former Arkansas and Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt once called it, in the "people-helpin'" business. They are in the game-winning business. Not one of them has kept a job because he graduated the most model citizens. Not one of them has lost a job for because too many players got arrested on his watch. Still, some fans and sportswriters seem to consider the offseason to be a character contest.

Ernest Suttles was recently kicked off Nebraska's team after allegedly cutting David Santos with a beer bottle during an off-campus site. He has since signed with the Miami Hurricanes. [Update: Suttles will not be joining the Hurricanes. At this time, I am unsure of whether that's because of failed academics, admissions, etc.]

Question: Would Nebraska fans accept having a recruit on the team with Jeremy Hill's background or allowing said recruit to remain on the team after an incident similar to what resulted in Hill's battery charge?

Salt Creek: Under Tom Osborne? Absolutely they'd be okay with it. Under Bo Pelini? Depends on the fan. Some fans value winning above all else and if it takes a couple of thugs, so be it. Others hold onto an unrealistic and romantic view of Nebraska football as a white knight and would pretty much assail Pelini for bringing a "toxin" into camp. At the end of the day, I don't see Pelini recruiting those kinds of players. Not because of any desire to recruit a certain kind of character but because players like that are a HUGE distraction for the team. And as we've learned by year six under Pelini, the Cornhuskers occasionally struggle in the face of distraction. I just can't see Pelini bringing a distraction into the house when there are already so many he can't manage.

Mike: Depends on how big of a recruit &/or how productive he has been.  Some fans don't care how good a player is on the field, but for others, it's the bottom line.  I go back to Lawrence Phillips and the general lack of outrage amongst Nebraska fans when he was reinstated.  I do believe Osborne truly believed what he did was the best for Phillips at that time, and that football played no part in the decision to reinstate him... but reinstating Phillips was the wrong decision.

BT: I think that Mike and Salt are both right. In this day and age, looking at all "the bad players Urban and the SEC recruit" and such, Nebraska would not like the distraction. And Salt is right, with as ADD as Nebraska seems to be about distractions, one big one like Hill's case is enough to get the attention off of game, especially in late October/November.

HOWEVER... as one Max McGee once said, "When it's third and ten, you can take the milk drinkers; I'll take the whiskey drinkers every time." This is a football business first, you're at a school that is giving 85 kids scholarships for a couple specific reasons, primarily how they have prowess on a football field.

Andy K.: Much of it depends on the crimes & the profile of the player(s)involved. Suttles & Brown, having never played and basically unknown outside of Nebraska, barely registered in the national print. Hell, another national blog's article was actually titled "Husker Recruit Suttles To Transfer To Miami".

Lest we forget, Osborne went swimming in the deep end of the "character issues" cesspool for some key ingredients of those 1993-97 squads. What made the Phillips arrest such a media hit was sensationalism of it all: Phillips scaling the wall, Frost hiding in the bathroom, Phillips dragging her down the stairs by her hair (reportedly false), Phillips bashing in a mailbox with her head (also false), etc. Damon Benning was also hung out to dry on ESPN as well, for what ended up being a case of an ex-girlfriend trying to force her way into HIS house.

Others were actually arrested for much more serious crimes - sexual assault, rape, attempted murder - that didn't garner near the publicity. And outside of Phillips, no one really remembers those things anymore, just the wins. My point? Well, I think former Notre Dame RB Allen Pinkett said it best: "I've always felt like to have a successful team you've got to have a few bad citizens on the team."

And to answer the original question: They already have. They'd do it again. Go Big Red.

Mister Mike: Yes, I think Nebraska fans would be "okay" with it. Look at how some of them were rationalizing the Alex Lewis situation in Colorado, just because he was going to transfer here.  I think one of the largest falsehoods that has been perpetrated by some in the media and by Pelini is the saying "we only recruit high character guys."  Really?  You've been around this recruit for enough of his life to make a judgement on his character?  That's a ridiculous statement.  It also makes you look somewhat of a fool when one of your recruits morphs into a dumb-ass (Suttles and Brown being the recent examples) There's no way to know for sure what kind of "character guy" he really is.  Just like the falsehood that gets thrown around that all "4 and 5 stars are prima-donnas."  No one knows for sure what he's going to get (unless the kid has an arrest record a mile long for instance, that'd be a big indicator).  Go after the best athletes period and deal with them swiftly and appropriately if and when problems arise.

Aaron: We had "the bottle" incident over the summer. Fifteen years ago, that person would be starting and kicking some ass on the field. If we are going to castrate our players, don't expect the testosterone to flow like it should.

Question: Besides talking about "process" and "execution", Bo Pelini emphasizes the character of his recruits and the fact that college football should be more about raising decent young men and less about winning. Does Nebraska (Big Ten!) hurt itself in recruiting because Pelini is less willing to take at-risk players while it's clear that schools like LSU (SEC!) have little problem with them?

Salt Creek: Simply put, yes. Both for the Big Ten and Nebraska. If you limit yourself to high character players like Rex Burkhead, your pool of potential recruits is already smaller than the SEC's. Add in the difficulty of getting players to want to play in the Big Ten and Nebraska having not won a national title since these kids were wearing pull-ups, and that's a significant handicap on our recruiting. That's the reality of the situation.

Mike: If Nebraska and the Big Ten really want to get serious about character, then perhaps it's time to implement some sort of APR-type system to sanction teams that take too many chances on players that cause trouble. At it's most abstract level, if you are winning the Fulmer Cup, you won't be able to go to a bowl game.

BT: Yep. Because last time I checked, there aren't really that many problems with taking many at-risk kids if you make it crystal clear that Nebraska football will be playing games regardless of if they are there or not. This is a privilege to get a scholarship that many want. To go along with Mike's statement (which I wouldn't mind), you also make sure your support staff is there to help the kids who need it. Not every 18-19 year old man is going to need to be constantly reminded to do things like don't drink underage and go to class, but if you take the risk in some kids who you wouldn't normally because your support staff is big and constantly in their ear, you probably will get burned but you also will get rewarded more times than not.

Also, this gives you the clear line in the sand that you say you preach. If you are constantly reminded to go to class, to not drink during the season, to make sure you park your car in this spot, to not strike women and even after hearing it till you're sick in the stomach, you STILL mess up constantly? Pack s**t and get out, good sir, next man up.

Andy K: Absolutely, yes. There's already a huge disadvantage if you're not "allegedly" shelling out loot or dealing with uncles/street agents (USC, Ohio St., the SEC) or oversigning to the point that you can basically cut 10-15 of your worst players every year. Now further reduce the talent pool by eliminating anyone with character issues and 9-10 wins is probably your optimal outcome year to year.

Mister Mike: This goes back to the first question; there's no way that these coaches can know for sure which recruits are "high character" unless they've spent endless hours upon hours with these kids, and that just isn't possible.  Nebraska is absolutely limiting themselves if they continue to make some nebulous claim(s) about character.  No one knows how that recruit will respond once they get on campus.  Look at Ricky Thenarse for example.  He did his best to turn himself around when he got here and he escaped a horrible situation back home.  Turned out to be a great story.  Do you think Pelini would've recruited him?  I would say "no."

Unless there's something glaringly obvious in the recruit's background (again, arrest record, history of violence, etc) that just raises a giant waving red flag, then you offer him and try your damndest to get him on campus.  If he screws up, then bye-bye.

Aaron: I would say yes. To be fair, though, if you want the best football players, you need them to be eating, breathing, and living football and we don't do that at Nebraska. We make them learn calculus, physics, and literature. Of course, a little F=ma might do some of our players a bit of good.

Question: Tom Osborne's 60-3 run in the 90s featured players who were certainly not model citizens nor role models (Lawrence Phillips, Christian Peter), yet Osborne is regarded as legendary. Would you tolerate Pelini changing his tactics and recruiting more at-risk players if it meant more winning? How do you think Nebraska fans would feel?

Salt Creek: Now this is an interesting question. I think Nebraska fans would tolerate Bo Pelini adopting a page from Osborne (who I assume got the book from Barry Switzer) as long as they didn't have to hear about it. That is, as long as the boys stay out of the paper, who cares? Nebraska fans won't care as long as we're winning. Everything can be rationalized if the reward is big enough. But it's a high risk game for Pelini - if he recruits character- questionable players and doesn't win, he's out on the street faster than our linemen can finish off a block of meatloaf.

Mike: It's a risk/reward situation. Nobody wants an Aaron Hernandez on the roster, but the drive to win is the most important thing to some fans.  And let's not get holier-than-thou here:  Bo Pelini did recruit Earnest Suttles, Thomas Brown, and Alfonzo Dennard.

BT: Mike is completely right when it comes to Dennard, Suttles, Brown and others like Mike Caputo and such. Nebraska has been fairly lucky that there hasn't been too many issues compared to other schools, but let us face the fact that it's going to happen at times through the season and year. You can't have 105 kids under your thumb all the time, regardless of the ability to give them resources like I listed above. That also means that you can't hold kids who are "risks" any less liable for their actions than the kids with a high moral background. Eventually, someone is going to take that risk at their school. You can not let the fear of getting burned keep you from going after kids that may be an issue if you make your intentions known. How would fans feel? Well, Madden once said that winning is a great deodorant, so if there were B1G titles and Rose Bowl berths, who would honestly complain? I still am waiting for someone to say they would give back the titles from Peter and Phillips' team because of their actions. I'm going to be waiting a long time for that, because it isn't happening.

Mister Mike: I agree with all of the above.  If Pelini were winning titles and championships, the level of "give a damn" would be low.  But that's how it goes in any program, not just here.  Look at the cognitive dissonance some A&M fans are experiencing right now regarding Manziel, for a recent example.  The reason that Nebraska fans like to go on about this "high character" stuff, is because honestly, we don't have any recent titles or championships to brag about.  So we focus on other things we perceive as positives and tout those aspects of the program instead (graduation rate, grades, character, etc, etc)  Seriously, when was the last time you heard a fan talking some serious shit about how their team's GPA and graduation rate is just so EPIC?  I can't think of any.

College football has morphed into a business.  It's a business that's all about winning, especially (not exclusively though) for the traditional programs.  If Nebraska (and the Big Ten in general) want to compete and are going to compete in this environment, then we're going to have to take more risks for the potential of more rewards.  Whether that's unfortunate or not is up for the readers to decide.

Aaron: Nebraska fans would look the other way if they were winning titles. Besides, in the 90's you could afford to lose one dude that went too far out of line. Just plug someone else into the system.

Andy K.: I addressed that a little bit above in that depending on the importance of the player and the media attention given to the crimes, fans will be willing to look the other way if it produces championships. Although it seemed to happen in greater numbers during the 60-3 run, Osborne often took chances on questionable characters if he thought there was a chance to turn them around. One of the reasons Devaney selected him as his successor was that he connected better than anyone on staff with with the kids with troubled backgrounds, especially minorities.

There's something noble in taking a chance on kids from sketchy backgrounds if you think you see some good there. MM makes a great point about Thenarse above. The drawback is that even the best judges of character can't win 100% of those bets and there's going to be some blowback when it goes bad. But unless it goes horribly wrong, I think you have to dole out second chances, because as Osborne would say, they go into their homes, tell them they're going to take their kid far away to play ball and watch out for them - how can you kick them out the 1st time they screw up after making that promise?

OK, so this turned into a bit of a sermon, but there was a point. As fans of a hugely successful team, we'll not only tolerate but actually justify just about anything in the name of titles. Like I just did. Carry on!

*Technically, Miles let Hill's teammates vote as to whether or not to accept Hill's return to the team, but if you think there's a difference between Miles reinstating him and teammates voting to keep him, don't bother commenting on the article. (Andy K: That's called being a pussy.)