Posted: Friday April 28, 2006 1:27PM; Updated: Friday April 28, 2006 6:17PM
While no reasonable person believes college athletes can be closely watched around the clock, the reality is that head coaches are ultimately held responsible for their players' actions. Ohio State's Jim Tressel was crucified a couple of years ago when the Buckeyes had an unusually high string of off-field transgressions. Florida State's Bobby Bowden has been answering questions for years about the often unflattering perception of his program.
Carroll, on the other hand, has remained largely unscathed despite an ever-growing litany of incidents. In 2004, police investigated a sexual assault case involving tailback Hershel Dennis. He was never charged. Tackle Winston Justice was suspended from school for a year following his arrest for brandishing a replica firearm at a student (he received three years probation). Cornerback Eric Wright, who has since transferred to UNLV, was charged with sexual assault last year (the charges were later dropped) and was suspended from school because police found 136 ecstasy pills in his apartment. And linebacker Rey Maualuga was arrested for allegedly punching a student at a Halloween party last year (no charges were filed).
Sadly, player arrests are not unusual in big time college football. What is unusual is Carroll's response to these incidents: There usually isn't one. While known for his candor with reporters when discussing most other topics -- like why he loves USC, why the Trojans are so good, and how many blue-chip recruits are lining up to play for them -- Carroll has always been notably evasive, if not downright defensive, when it comes to the subject of player discipline. His reaction to Sanchez's arrest was to issue a brief statement saying the university would handle the matter.
Carroll is an NFL guy running an NFL-style program, and part of that means a 24/7 focus on football. You don't hear many soliloquies from him about "preparing young men for life" like you do from more old-school college coaches. Whether that's actually part of the job description is open to debate.
It's no secret that USC has long operated in a far more laid-back manner than most other powerhouses. Practices are open to just about anyone. Carroll and his assistants are known to end practice by running around the field playing "football golf." Pranks, like last year's Halloween "walk-out" by running back LenDale White -- which ended with a dummy being tossed off a nearby roof -- are not uncommon.
Such antics have long been viewed in a wildly favorable light by those who cover college football, a refreshing change from the buttoned-down operations at places like Michigan and Penn State. Carroll's reputation as a "player's coach" has helped the Trojans attract No. 1 recruiting classes year after year. But has his seemingly unconditional support of his players gone too far?
Many feel the Trojans' head man set a dangerous precedent last season when he never officially reprimanded Maualuga -- who, it should be noted, was also dealing with the illness of his father, who died on Jan. 2 from cancer. Carroll, the toast of both L.A. and national media since engineering USC's resurgence, received only mild criticism at the time about his handling of the situation (one Daily News columnist did take him to task), but his laissez-faire approach did not go unnoticed on campus, where students who attended the party and witnessed Maualuga's punch were stunned to see him receive no discernible punishment. Meanwhile, Wright was suspended from the team but never dismissed; he transferred of his own accord. And Justice's suspension came from the university, not the football program.
One alarming note is that the alleged cases involving Dennis, Wright and Sanchez all took place at the same apartment complex, Cardinal Gardens, where many of the Trojans' freshman football players live. Because of the limited number of residence halls on USC's campus, approximately 1,000 freshmen live in university-operated apartment complexes that, like Cardinal Gardens, are within walking distance to campus but also to fraternity row and the popular 901 Club, which, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, Sanchez entered using a fake ID only a couple of hours prior to the alleged incident.
For those who know Sanchez, news of his arrest was downright astonishing. Groomed since youth to be a quarterback by his father, Nick, a former high school quarterback and a constant presence at Trojans practices last season, and older brothers Nick and Brandon, both former college quarterbacks themselves, the Orange County native is friendly and articulate. By all accounts he is a model student and teammate. Rightly or wrongly, however, his reputation has now been irreparably tarnished. So, too, has USC's.