Arkansas coaching staff focusing on off-field discipline

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- In his six years as Arkansas' head football coach, Houston Nutt has seen no fewer than 26 of his players arrested on charges ranging from felony drug counts to misdemeanor alcohol offenses.

It peaked last year, when eight Razorbacks went to jail. One, senior starting linebacker Jimarr Gallon, was kicked off the team during the season after his second arrest in nine months.

The arrests -- and the attention they garnered -- left Nutt frustrated and embarrassed. This year, a major focus of the coaching staff has been discipline off the field as well as in uniform.

The result? Not one Razorback has been in legal trouble since last spring.

"We live in a world where nothing is swept under the carpet, nothing is hidden," Nutt said. "As much attention as you get for scoring a touchdown, you get twice as much for making a bad decision."

The coaching staff and others have taken a hard-edged approach to off-the-field discipline but are treating the players as adults. Coaches don't preach to players about "behaving" or "good conduct"; they remind them to make good decisions no matter what situation they face.

It's a message that's reinforced every day.

Assisting the coaching staff is Roger Hunter, who played football at Oklahoma State with Nutt. A former cocaine addict who became a drug and alcohol counselor, Hunter works with athletes in all Razorback sports programs. He said he's seen an improvement in
the football team's conduct.

"The student-athletes that we have today, not to say they're better than the ones in the past, but they're making better decisions," he said.

Hunter runs several programs designed to promote good citizenship. Among those, he arranges speeches by state inmates on the consequences of breaking the law and lectures by NFL officials; encourages athletes to participate in Big Brothers-Big Sisters, volunteer to work with elementary school children and other programs; and runs Bible study groups.

Hunter said his job also involves teaching life skills like how to give a firm handshake, how to conduct yourself during an interview and basic etiquette, down to learning which fork to use.

The most important thing, Hunter said, is to teach athletes -- especially football players in the gridiron-crazy Southeastern Conference -- that just because they are celebrities on campus, they aren't above the rules or the law. Behavior that would go unnoticed by regular students will be magnified for athletes.

"It's really hard. You have to help them understand that God gave them a gift with size and speed. We just try to keep them on an even keel," he said. "They know they're on a pedestal. They know people are watching them everywhere they go. We just try to help them see that they are in that spotlight and should carry themselves like gentlemen."

The most serious breach of law under Nutt's tenure occurred in October 2002, when defensive lineman Jermaine Brooks was arrested and charged with felonies including drug possession, drug distribution and simultaneous possession of several rifles and
handguns. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to drug charges in February 2003, spent 103 days in a boot camp and is on probation until March 2013.

Last year was the worst for the Razorback football program as far as sheer number of arrests. Even though most were for relatively minor offenses, Hunter said, Nutt quickly became intolerant of wayward behavior.

"He explained to this new group that there's going to be consequences," Hunter said.

The worst thing an athlete can be punished with? Suspension.

"You can put the fear of God in their hearts. If you go out and get a DUI, you're going to be off the team," Hunter said. "Taking away their playing time, they're going to think twice."

Nutt said every position coach has a personal relationship with his players, letting them know that there is an adult on campus they can talk to who cares and is watching their actions. He said the secret to selling players on resisting the impulse to do things that might have negative consequences is reminding them that their actions reflect on their school, team, family and themselves.

A bad decision can bring shame on all of the above.

Still, Nutt said, it's not easy to ride hard on a bunch of young men who are naturally testing the boundaries of the freedom college life affords.

"This is just a full-time job, and you have to keep on top of it," he said.