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Smith the disciplinarian?

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Being an attorney by trade who happens to moonlight as a columnist (I do NOT drive a taco truck, contrary to a rumor I just started), I am generally reluctant to presume the guilt of a college athlete who has been pinched for some sort of silly offense. That may be utter naivete more than a function of my career training, admittedly.

The Arkansas football program has had enough surreal goings-on lately that any further misfortune borders on masochism, but go figure, the coaching upheaval at center stage has been flanked by a slew of mild legal issues afflicting mostly ancillary players. The six Razorback players arrested in the past several weeks have ranged from likely starters to marginal contributors. Jason Peacock and Marquel Wade played prominent roles in 2011 and were expected to be significant cogs in the 2012 offensive machine as well; on the other hand, Kane Whitehurst and Andrew Peterson probably weren't going to blossom into All-SEC types this year.

At this point, if your preferred team survives an offseason without a hint of alleged or conclusively found criminal conduct, it is nothing short of miraculous. And it also borders on being irrelevant, at least if you covet wins and nothing else. Urban Meyer's six-season run in Gainesville, Fla., had all the earmarks of prosperity and corruption at once: 65 wins, two national titles, and more than 30 players arrested for various missteps. The Gators, of course, can afford attrition because of their abundant recruiting base. Also, Meyer's own leniency was patently obvious: he suspended Carlos Dunlap for the SEC championship game but brought him back for the BCS title game after a late-season DWI, and made Brandon Spikes sit out a measly half for trying to gouge the eyes of a Georgia running back.

John L. Smith did not inherit anything resembling a lawless program. To Bobby Petrino's credit, his four years were generally bereft of player drama, and when certain talented individuals (Lance Ray and Anthony Oden, to name a couple) ran afoul of the law, their dismissals came swiftly. But Smith does tote a "player's coach" reputation around, something Petrino could hardly be regarded as, so there has to be a measure of trepidation about how he will handle these incidents, especially in the context of what looks to be short-term employment.

What causes concern about player transgressions more than anything else is usually the accompanying police reports and the sensationalized (perhaps unintentionally so) recapitulation of them. We read about Jason Peacock allegedly taking a debit card and swiping it at the gas pumps and shake our collective heads in bewilderment. We hear that Wade, Peterson and Maudrecus Humphrey were just casually entering dorm rooms and grabbing swag, and we marvel at the audacity and/or stupidity. It bothers us that young men who have been given such opportunity make such incomprehensible decisions.

Then those instincts recede and we consider the obtuse nature of the NCAA, the organization that once suspended a Mississippi State quarterback for borrowing money to put tires on his vehicle. We have some ancillary awareness of the impediments that college athletes face in terms of finances, and it does give us a measure of empathy or understanding on some occasions (violent offenses obviously excluded).

The purely local perspective is that Arkansas is not a program fraught with disciplinary issues; globally, I'm not sure anyone really cares because the Hogs are still not the kind of powerhouse that inspires both envy and resentment across the country. In the 1980s, and even still today, most casual fans despise the culture of Miami football due to its renegade image, but mostly due to its success. Selfishly, most of us in Arkansas cringed at Auburn winning its national title in 2011 because it had an ill-gotten veneer, but mostly because...well, damn it, why can't we have one of those crystal footballs?

This is a digression, though. The six arrested Razorbacks will certainly meet some form of punishment, and Smith seems to have integrity in spades, so he will hopefully ensure that these problems do not fester and overwhelm a team that is already under a microscope. But pay careful attention to how he addresses each particular case, because there's a subtext looming beneath each suspension or dismissal. Smith sees the 2012 season much differently than most on the outside see it; what we view as an understudy role is what Smith presumably perceives as an audition. If he is able to demonstrate a commitment to character this summer and win big this fall, then the postseason promises to be as adventurous and divisive as the spring has been.    

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