Having experienced about every situation a high school football coach can face, Benny Monroe knew he had a decision tougher than any fourth-and-inches call.
As fifth-ranked Ooltewah prepared Wednesday for its first-round playoff game against seventh-ranked Farragut tonight, all-state defensive end Jacques Smith got into a fight with an Owls teammate during practice.
Anyone who has been to a football practice at any level has seen this happen countless times. It's just part of a violent sport. But since this fight went past the whistle and ended with Smith punching a teammate in the face, Monroe knew he had two choices.
To punish Smith lightly would create the appearance of favoritism for a star player, much the same way University of Florida coach Urban Meyer's first-half punishment of linebacker Brandon Spikes for trying to gouge a Georgia player's eyes has been met with national criticism. And any future disciplinary threats would have been a toothless tiger.
But by suspending Smith, a University of Tennessee commitment, for the entirety of tonight's game, in which a loss means the end of a promising season, Monroe also would be indirectly penalizing the entire team.
Monroe's decision to put his star player on the bench was swift and just. From this point on, every player on Ooltewah's roster will understand that no single player, regardless of talent or recruiting hype, is above the team. Having gotten to know Smith the last two seasons, I know he couldn't have a worse punishment than having to stand helplessly on the sideline, watching his teammates try to stave off elimination.
Just because the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Smith is built like a grown man doesn't mean he always will make level-headed, adult decisions. He was wrong for punching a teammate, but he's far from a thug. Yet that's how he began to be painted on some Internet sites when word began to leak that he had been suspended. In the absence of factual details, rumors began to fill in the blanks, leading Monroe to break his silence on the matter.
"I was just going to say it was a violation of team rules, or a coach's discipline, but that seemed to just create more rumors," Monroe said. "I had people calling to ask if Jacques had been kicked out of school or off the team or if his future was in jeopardy.
"The Internet news is a bunch of bull. It's people getting on there and saying things when they have no idea what they're talking about. I want to clear it up right now. Jacques was suspended for this one game by me for hitting a teammate. Period. It doesn't affect him at school, and if we win this game he'll be back next week."
Immediately after suspending Smith, Monroe called Tennessee assistant coach Ed Orgeron to inform him of the situation. Orgeron told Monroe that the Vols' staff knew Smith too well for this incident to jeopardize his future. Smith still plans to enroll at UT in January.
Also, having seen the votes for this year's Mr. Football award, I know Smith's chances of winning that award for a second straight year remain solid as well.
As for Ooltewah's chances of advancing tonight without the state's top-rated prospect, those aren't as secure.