Wiedmer: Russ Huesman's tough love is needed

Wiedmer: Russ Huesman's tough love is needed

June 22nd, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Staff Photo by Angela Lewis<br> UTC coach Russ Huesman

No one yet knows how University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football coach Russ Huesman's Monday decision to suspend running back Keon Williams for the entire 2011 football season will play out.

It may cause Williams, the former Red Bank High School running back, to turn his life around following his guilty plea on charges of possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. Or it may not.

As Huesman told our John Frierson of the multiple conditions the player must meet to return in 2012, "[Williams] has got his work cut out for him. If he's back on the football team, he came a long way and did a lot of things to get back on it."

But at least Huesman stood by his principles. He didn't buckle under to what may have been temporarily better for the Mocs' upcoming season rather than what could make Williams a better person in the long run.

At least he wasn't former Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin half-heartedly disciplining defensive back Janzen Jackson during the 2009 season in order to win an extra game or two for the Big Orange.

Less than two months from the start of this season's fall practice, no one in Knoxville yet knows whether this year's Vols will have the extraordinarily talented Jackson on the field or not.

For reasons yet to be disclosed, the player withdrew from school this past winter over personal issues. To guess what those issues might be would be unfair to both Jackson and current coach Derek Dooley - no stranger to tough love, just ask Montori Hughes - who has repeatedly said he would welcome the player's return if he's eligible.

And most folks in Knoxville believe that Jackson will indeed start for the Vols this autumn if he re-enrolls. But one can't help but wonder how different the rising junior's career might have been if Kiffin had disciplined him his freshman year with the same tough love that Huesman is showing Williams.

In case your memory needs refreshing, Jackson was suspended for UT's 56-28 rout of Memphis that November for reportedly failing a drug test. The next week came the infamous attempted armed robbery by three UT players of some guys sitting in a car outside a gas station near campus at 2 a.m.

One of the three players was Jackson, though charges against him were later dropped. Yet because that robbery occurring less than 60 hours before the Vols were to face Ole Miss in Oxford, Kiffin was forced to suspend Jackson, Nu'Keese Richardson and Mike Edwards for that eventual 42-17 loss.

The day after police cleared Jackson of the robbery charges, he was back on the team, however. He played a pivotal role in the regular-season finale victory at Kentucky and major minutes in that December's Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to Virginia Tech.

You can certainly argue that if the police decided to let Jackson off, then Kiffin should have also. And Richardson and Edwards were kicked off the team.

Then again, what was a freshman who'd just been suspended the weekend before that Mississippi game for violating team rules doing out at 2 a.m. two days before facing the Rebels on the road?

Moreover, if Jackson thought so little of his second chance that he needed a third almost immediately, what lesson was Kiffin teaching him by bringing him back? That talent trumps all?

Maybe Jackson's current problems would have occurred regardless of what disciplinary actions Kiffin did or didn't take. Maybe UTC's Williams will see the error of his ways during a season on the sidelines. Or maybe he'll bolt his hometown for a new beginning.

But more than 40 years ago, a coach far more famous than either Huesman or Kiffin suspended a player far more famous than Williams or Jackson for his school's final two games of the season, both of them important contests on national television at a time when few games were nationally televised.

Having found out that his star quarterback, Joe Namath, took a drink during a November off-week - not a bunch of drinks, one drink - Bear Bryant suspended the junior All-American for a regular-season finale against Miami and a Sugar Bowl matchup with Ole Miss.

With Cleveland, Tenn., native Steve Sloan under center, the Crimson Tide won both games.

A little more than a year after that, Namath - having just signed with the New York Jets of the American Football League for $400,000 - told his college coach, "You did the right thing, suspending me. And I want to thank you."

Decades later, when Namath was a paid spokesman for Chattem's Flex-All heat balm, the Hall of Famer labeled that suspension, "One of the most important moments of my life."

There's a strong chance Williams will one day utter similar words regarding Huesman. There's almost no chance Jackson will ever similarly praise Kiffin.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.