Football woesoff field rivalthose on field

by Scott Bradley

Late last year, the men’s athletics department extended Jim Wacker’s contract through the 1998 season, believing the Gophers football coach was doing everything right except winning.
Wacker’s behavioral expectations, his commitment to following NCAA rules and his team’s high graduation rate were reasons administrators supported the coach. Wacker, whose overall record at Minnesota after four seasons is 12-32, was bound to win football games in time.
But lately, several of Wacker’s athletes have performed as poorly off the field as they have on it.
According to police records in Ramsey and Hennepin counties, 17 players from the 1995 roster have been charged with criminal offenses, such as domestic assault and theft.
Many of the athletes have been suspended or dismissed from the team, which is consistent with University policy. Others, however, have not faced disciplinary action and will be with the team when practice begins next month.
Consider the recent cases of junior Raymond Baylor and sophomore Kahlen Barnes.
Baylor, a defensive tackle from Houston, is charged with two counts of fifth degree assault and one count of disorderly conduct stemming from an April 2 dispute with his wife. He is scheduled to appear in court July 25. He was also arrested on similar charges in June 1995 after he kicked and punched his wife during a verbal dispute, according to police reports. Those charges were dismissed.
Barnes, a defensive player from Brooklyn Park, Minn., was convicted last July of fifth degree domestic assault. Based on police reports, he repeatedly slapped his ex-girlfriend on the face outside a Perkins restaurant near the West Bank campus.
Despite their problems off the field, they will likely play this fall without facing suspension or dismissal. Men’s athletics director Mark Dienhart said he was not aware of wrongdoing by either player.
It’s no secret football players are often unfairly viewed as undisciplined and violent. Yet the recent actions of the University’s players seem to personify that image.
University Police detective Brad Herberg, who has been with the department for more than 20 years, said the problem of unruly football players is the worst it’s ever been.
Among the 17 players who have been charged with criminal offense, 14 have been arrested within the last year.
“It seems that within the past year (the University) has had more problems with football players than they’ve ever had,” Herberg said. “And I don’t quite know what the real issue is. It’s just been one thing after another.”
Among the athletes already dismissed are junior defensive back Joe Justice and sophomore running back Rafael Cooper; both were projected starters for the Gophers this fall.
Justice, who came to Minnesota from Texas City, Tex., was charged with two felony counts of credit card fraud and one count of theft stemming from an incident at Dayton’s Rosedale store in May.
Cooper was dismissed from the team May 1 after allegedly forging a signature on a stolen credit card. Police have also recently issued a warrant for his arrest for an alleged assault that occurred in February.
Gophers football players say they are frustrated with the program’s recent troubles, especially considering Wacker’s commitment to rebuilding the struggling team.
Quarterback Cory Sauter, one of four captains, said athletes who have been disciplined give themselves and the football program a bad name.
“The things that some of the other players did is out of our hands and out of our control,” he said. “We primarily focus on what we can control. The players on the team right now and building with what we have is our main goal.”
Although Herberg said many of the players are good citizens, he thinks some of the younger ones are causing problems. In some cases, he said, one player’s actions probably provoke another’s.
In one incident last October, sophomores Ansel Carter, Jimmy Wyrick and Fred Rodgers were suspended for two games because of their involvement in an assault outside Bailey Hall on the St. Paul campus. Carter was convicted of third degree assault, which is a felony. Wyrick and Rodgers were convicted of fifth degree misdemeanor assault.
Carter has since decided to leave the University. He said he is planning to play football at another Division I school.
Recruiting and the pressure of winning football games at the Division I level are directly related to the Gophers’ off-field problems.
Big Ten football is big business. The University program’s annual budget is $2.7 million and the team provides about 85 full scholarships.
Dienhart said football programs attempting to rebuild, such as Minnesota’s, are in a tough recruiting position. Schools with more storied programs, such as Nebraska and Notre Dame, are typically more attractive to the nation’s best student-athletes. Hence the Gophers are usually limited to a smaller pool of top recruits.
“It does cause us to recruit kids primarily based on their athletic ability,” Dienhart said. “And we end up taking risks sometimes.”
One of Minnesota’s popular recruiting spots since Wacker arrived has been Chadsey High School in Detroit. The school has also produced several troubled Gophers players.
Cooper, Jerome Davis, Kevin Holmes and Tony Vann attended Chadsey. They have all faced disciplinary action from the University during the past year.
Dienhart said Minnesota needs to be more careful about the scholarship athletes it recruits.
“The only way you can be more careful is to gain more information on the people you’re recruiting. We have to look for more information and dig deeper,” he said. “And as a program we have to improve overall to be a more attractive option to the very best athletes.”
Once at the University, athletes are informed of the consequences of engaging in illegal activity.
The athletics department provides each athlete with a handbook that specifically addresses conduct. One portion of the book states that student athletes who do not follow University conduct codes are subject to discipline ranging from warning to dismissal.
Rufus Simmons, director of the Center for Student Athlete-Development, leads seminars throughout the year that review these policies. All athletes are required to attend the sessions. The seminars include presentations from the FBI and University and Minneapolis police. Issues such as sexual and physical violence, gambling and alcohol abuse are covered.
“We can’t prevent individuals from making poor decisions,” Simmons said. “What we hope they will have is the insight to make good decisions. But when they don’t there are consequences.”
Sauter said the seminars are useful for the athletes.
“The bottom line is that all the players on our team know the difference between right and wrong,” he said. “And we’ve given them enough education about what’s going on. From there, it’s up to them to make the right decision.”
Although the University has its own policies regarding discipline, the NCAA and Big Ten do not. Mark Rudner, an assistant commissioner with the Big Ten, said the conference does not have the authority to enforce such policies.
Individual schools must enforce their own regulations. There is, however, a broader sportsmanlike conduct policy in the Big Ten to deal with an athlete’s conduct during competition.
Minnesota isn’t the only Big Ten program to experience off-field problems with its athletes. In fact, it’s become commonplace throughout the conference and the country.
Former Wisconsin star Brent Moss, for example, was kicked off the team after he was arrested for cocaine possession after the Badgers won the 1994 Rose Bowl. Moss had one year of eligibility remaining and was touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Earlier this month, Iowa tight end Zeron Flemister was charged with drunk driving, eluding police and reckless driving. Flemister, an incoming freshman, was expected to challenge for the starting spot this fall.
At the University of Miami, which has perhaps the most notorious football program in the country, at least nine players have been suspended in the last three weeks.
With only three years remaining on his contract, Wacker will only have more trouble rebuilding Minnesota’s football program in light of the team’s recent off-field problems.
Wacker, despite repeated phone messages, could not be reached for comment.
Dienhart has been very supportive of Wacker during the program’s troubles and said he believes the coach has made the right decisions in disciplining athletes.
“(The disciplinary action) shows that there are some people who are not as committed to rebuilding this program as others on the team,” he said. “And that’s a tremendous disappointment.”