This has not been an off-season to write home about for the Georgia football program.
The Bulldogs inked one of the premier recruiting classes in the country Feb. 19. Each player had blue-chip credentials. Couple the great recruits with a top-notch group of returning players, and 2005 appeared to be another banner year for the folks in Athens.
Over the past few months, among injuries, arrests, academic casualties and a case of allegedly cheating on an exam, the once-great recruiting class has dwindled to just 12, and many of the returning contributors will be gone in 2005, too.
Several of coach Mark Richt's prized recruits were unable to get into school because of below-par academic standing, and this has caused a great debate among the Dawg Nation: recruit the superior athletes with borderline grades, or settle for a lesser player whom you can count on to make the grade.
In this debate, Richt cannot win.
If he decides to stop wasting time on the cream of the recruiting crop when grades are in question, it would eventually dilute Georgia's talent level.
Continuing to recruit superstar players who have marginal classroom ability, however, will undoubtedly mean more bad press year in, and year out.
Richt, along with all other coaches, faces this growing dilemma.
I cannot comprehend athletes in this day and age not earning a passing grade in their core high school curriculum.
With access to the Internet and the availability of tutors at many high school programs, it seems like a simple lack of effort.
Should Richt continue to recruit the very best players and let the academic chips fall where they may?
For me the answer is yes, and it has nothing to do with the fact that other schools would gobble up the players UGA looked past. It also has little to do with the effort to be the best football program in the country.
That is part of it, but the major reason for me is that for every nonqualifier, there is a success story you do not hear about. Each year there is an athlete who squeaks into school, and with maturity comes more effort, and with age comes more determination. Oftentimes, those borderline athletes transform into terrific students, earn degrees, and in some instances become very successful in business.
I know, because I roomed with a player like this for two years.
His name was Don Smiley, and despite standing only 5-foot-10, he was one of the top basketball players in the talent-rich state of Kentucky in 1989.
He had offers from Michigan, Illinois and several other big programs. However, because of poor grades, he was not eligible to sign with a Division I program. He was barely able to land a scholarship at the junior college level.
He eventually landed at Reinhardt Junior College in the mountains of north Georgia. As expected, he dominated the JUCO ranks, earning First Team All-American honors as a sophomore, but more importantly, he got serious about his studies.
Not only did he earn his two-year degree, but he went on to earn a master's in business administration. And now he is one of the youngest hospital administrators in the state of Ohio.
I wonder what would have happened to Don Smiley had a college coach not taken a chance on him.
So while Richt might bring athletes in because of their football ability, every now and then a player is able to use that ability to earn a degree and build a nice future for himself.
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