September 17, 2006

Suspension Saturday

On a day dubbed as Separation Saturday around the rest of the country, it was another Suspension Saturday in Tuscaloosa. The Alabama Crimson Tide was without the services of linebacker Juwan Simpson, halfback Jimmy Johns and cornerback Lionel Mitchell in a 41-7 hammering of Louisiana-Monroe.

And when it was over, the assembled media could not have cared less about Mike Shula's thoughts on being 3-0. The focus of his postgame press conference was on the Tide's latest suspensions -- with Simpson, who started the first two games of the season before sitting down for ULM, serving as the headliner.

Knowing this, after a minute or two of "it was good to see Kenneth Darby get going" and "some of the young guys did some good things", Shula addressed the matter on everyone's mind, unveiling a plan that encompassed seven one-game suspensions over the first three contests of the season.

"We've had seven guys in the offseason who have broken team rules," Shula said. "We had guys sit out games in the order of how they broke the rules. We had two suspended for Hawai'i, one of which was [DJ Hall]. We had two suspended for [Vanderbilt] and we had three who didn't play tonight.

"I don't think it would have been fair to suspend all seven for one game; not for the [other] guys who have worked hard."

Of the seven players disciplined, five have played in two games. In addition to suspensions served by Hall, Simpson, Mitchell and Johns, offensive tackle Kyle Tatum sat out against Vanderbilt last week. Shula refused to name the other two players who were disciplined, but a quick review of the offseason police blotter would go a long way in uncovering one of the unidentified offenders.

While he was at it, Shula took time to outline his reasoning for keeping suspensions under wraps.

"Number one, it's important to us to keep it between us, the student-athlete and his family. It also puts us at a disadvantage when some of our guys don't play and when we announce it, it puts us at even more of a disadvantage," Shula said. "Hopefully this is the last time we'll have to talk about this. These guys have been disciplined in regards to not playing and in other areas. And they've done everything we've asked them to do since they were disciplined."

The manner in which Shula meted out the suspensions seemed to overshadow a bigger concern. With the additions of Simpson, Johns and Mitchell, the total number of players suspended in UA's last four games now sits at nine (Hall was suspended twice).

Despite this, Shula doesn't think it's time to reassess his approach to disciplining his players.

"We deal with each one individually. It's disappointing when someone who represents you and the university breaks team rules," he said. "But one thing we talked about to our team tonight was that there is going to be accountability and to have accountability you have to be consistent with what the discipline is.

"We don't have a bunch of bad kids. They broke some rules and they've paid the price.

"It's unfortunate that these first three games we've had some guys miss because it takes away from talking about football. But we're going to make sure our guys are doing things right."

Though he played in the Tide's first two games, Simpson claims he was never of the belief that he wouldn't be forced to sit out at some point.

"I never thought that. I knew something would eventually happen," he said. "I just knew when my time came I'd have to take it like it like a man."

Among other things, Johns felt the sting associated with watching another talented young back -- Roy Upchurch -- not only get his carries, but perform well in doing so.

"Just having something you love taken away from you and not being out there to help the guys is tough," Johns said. "In my case, there are several spots where I help out and having the game taken away was a learning experience."

Ultimately, the only people Shula must answer to are his players. And while it's entirely possible that they were simply spouting the company line, two Tide veterans said they fully supported their coach's handling of the situation.

"Coach Shula did a good job because he didn't hurt the team by suspending all of them at one time," said safety Jeffrey Dukes, who intercepted a pass against ULM.

"I don't see why he would punish the team for guys who made mistakes," added defensive end Wallace Gilberry. "Those problems are behind us now. We were able to win three ballgames without those guys, and with them hopefully we'll win a whole bunch more."

As for the growing perception that his team is becoming suspension central, Gilberry doesn't think the Tide's rash of recent disciplinary issues makes it different from the caravan family down the street.

"We're like one big family and there's not one perfect family out there," he said. "Everybody's going to make a mistake, and it's up to us to have their backs when we make those mistakes."

And on this night they had their coach's, too.

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