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Summer games

FSU's good-behavior streak ran out -- and now Bowden has a dilemma

Posted: Wednesday July 14, 2004 1:35PM; Updated: Wednesday July 14, 2004 4:13PM
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Bobby Bowden
Bobby Bowden's Seminoles quietly finished 10-3 in 2003, losing twice to the rival Hurricanes.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

For football coaches, summer "is the scariest time," Tennessee's Phil Fulmer told me recently. Falling after spring football and the fight for roster slots but before preseason and its physically demanding twice-a-day practices, June and July are when coaches are least aware of what their athletes are up to. It is a time for "voluntary" workouts, few (if any) classes, and boys' nights out. It is, tacitly, a time when players can emerge from their helmets and just be, as coaches are fond of saying, "regular college kids."

Too often, college football's version of free play turns foul, as proven by the latest spate of headlines involving charges of football players who were not merely misbehavin', but apparently mistaking townsfolk for tackling dummies.

The most disturbing of these charges involved Bobby Meeks, a 23-year-old starting guard in what looked, to this spring-ball observer, to be a stellar offensive line for Florida State. The short of it, according to the police report: Early Saturday morning, just after the 2 a.m. closing of the Tallahassee nightclub Chubby's, police officers asked the player's uncle, 34-year-old Albert Meeks Jr., to leave the bar's parking lot. As Albert Meeks argued with one officer, Bobby Meeks entered the altercation and challenged the policeman to a fight. When a second officer tried to push the younger Meeks into the back of his vehicle, the 6-foot-4, 290-pound lineman threw a punch, just missing the policeman's face. After being subdued by pepper spray and then a stun gun, Meeks, who reportedly kicked one of the officers during the scuffle, was arrested and jailed on charges of battery against law-enforcement officers and resisting arrest with violence -- both felonies. He was released on $7,500 bail on Sunday.

Until his hearing (unscheduled as of Wednesday morning), Meeks is, of course, presumed innocent of these charges. Regardless of a judge's view on the matter, however, the simple truth is that a Florida State starter made his way into the police blotter at a time when Bobby Bowden's boys seemed to really and truly be getting their acts together, both on the field and on their own time.

Perhaps more than any other top football program, Florida State has been plagued with off-field calamities in the past five years, including a reported 19 arrests of players from 1997 and 2002. After a relatively incident-free, 10-win 2003 season, during which fans had the pleasure of bemoaning back-to-back losses to Miami rather than player misconduct, I made a late-March trip to Tallahassee and was told by tailback Lorenzo Booker and offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden that the team has never worked harder than it had during this offseason; that players were getting to workouts early and leaving late; and that they were bonding and behaving like they had never before.

To boost the positive vibe, Seminoles alum Deion Sanders and more than a dozen current and former NFL players converged on campus in early April to deliver a closed-door pep talk, in which they discussed the importance of staying out of trouble. And, for the most part, stay out of trouble the current players did: The sorriest of recent Seminole headlines, which announced that the team's duo of championship football trophies had been stolen from its football offices, almost refreshingly involved a matter in which FSU players were victims rather than perps.

Ironically, just two days before his starting tight guard, heretofore tagged one of the good kids, allegedly went scofflaw on multiple officers, Bowden, fresh from his annual summer vacation, spoke about his team's recent dearth of behavioral problems.

"Our kids are working hard," the coach told reporters. "It really has been [quiet], but you still can't be naive enough to think that [trouble] might not happen tomorrow."

Now that it has, Bowden might have a crucial decision to make. Per Florida State policy, a student-athlete who is charged with a felony cannot represent the Seminoles in an athletic contest until his or her case is resolved. In the likely scenario that Meeks pleads guilty to reduce the charges to misdemeanors, it will be up to coaches to decide whether the lineman should be suspended for any games, including the ACC lid-lifter against Miami on Sept. 6.

In 28 years at the helm of Florida State, Bowden has been the game's most vocal champion of second chances. But since the coach notoriously said that "he was praying for a misdemeanor" when star wideout Peter Warrick was accused of theft in 1999 -- that prayer was answered and Warrick helped the team win the national title that year -- public tolerance for a throw-up-the-hands attitude toward player indiscretions has worn thin.

Bowden seemed to acknowledge this in 2002 when he kicked a quarterback, Adrian McPherson, off of the team while the player was under investigation for felony theft and forgery-related charges. If Meeks, a first-time offender, is found guilty of even a misdemeanor in an incident of this magnitude, Bowden must realize that Florida State would be better served by the starter's presence on the bench rather than on the turf this September. A single player's reputation might not be of crucial importance to NFL scouts, but a team's reputation means more than you might expect to the parents of high school athletes who are being recruited to live, learn and play there. If handled in the right way, this incident could play into rather than against Florida State's ongoing crusade to polish its program.

What's more, should Meeks be suspended from play, Tallahassee fans can take heart that Miami, too, could be short at least one projected starter on Sept. 6. One day after Meeks was arrested, Miami star cornerback Antrel Rolle was charged with a felony count of battery on a police officer and the misdemeanors of resisting an officer without violence and disorderly conduct. Suspended indefinitely, Rolle will face the judge on Aug. 2.

Makes you long for a time when the idea of summertime shenanigans was more along the lines of firefly squashing and water balloon fights.

Note from the Road

In an example of mindful aggression, LSU players tapped their inner Daniel LaRusso in group karate sessions this spring. For an hour each Wednesday in LSU's indoor football arena, a local sensei taught the Tigers a variety of core-strength-building calisthenics, stretching exercises, and precision-oriented hits and kicks.

"It improves agility, flexibility, blocking technique, everything," says strength coach Tommy Moffitt, who instituted team-wide karate practice when he arrived on campus in the summer of 2000.

A visit to one of these sessions in May revealed almost every Tiger on the three-deep chart doggedly trying to keep up with the lightning-paced workout -- the star of which had to be 6-7, 325-pound offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, who was lunging, grunting and generally hopping around the makeshift dojo like a man half his size. If LSU isn't the SEC's best-conditioned team this fall, the Tigers can at least boast the prettiest roundhouse kicks in the conference.

Note from the News

The six officials at the center of the Big Ten's historic experiment with instant replay this season are scheduled to meet Thursday for the first of several training sessions at conference offices outside of Chicago. Dubbed "technical advisors," these chosen ones will serve as additional officials at conference games in the Big Ten, which was granted permission by the NCAA last winter to conduct a one-year trial of instant replay.

Based on an outdated NFL model, advisors will monitor games from network feeds in the press box and will have sole responsibility for calling for replays or changing calls during league contests. Though coaches such as Penn State's Joe Paterno, whose team was on the losing end of three controversial calls in 2002, are understandably tickled at the prospect of increased accountability for officials, they might not see a big difference in game outcomes. For one thing, advisors' calls cannot be challenged or appealed, which could potentially just lead to more controversy. Moreover, the reviewable calls are limited to passing plays as well as those plays governed by the endline, sideline, goal line and end zone.

In a recent review of televised Big Ten contests from 2003, conference officials found that less than one play per game would have been subject to review, and that just eight to 12 of the 10,800 total plays in those contests would have had a significant effect on the game's outcome -- not exactly overwhelming data in support of this costly mission.

Sports Illustrated writer-reporter Kelley King covers college football for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.