Editorial Section: Bielema, Marshall and Malzahn

SEC Media Days have finally ended after four full days of press conferences and radio row marathons. One comment that drew notice at the event in Hoover, Ala., was a little jab by Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema at the situation facing Auburn coach Gus Malzahn and quarterback Nick Marshall. During his podium session on Wednesday, Bielema told assembled reporters, “Knowing what I know as a head coach, Nick will be there.” That’s a nifty and not-too-veiled way of saying, “Of course Malzahn won’t suspend Marshall.”

Was Bielema showing empathy for Malzahn while delivering a joke, or was it more than that? The Student Section editors discuss an issue that has stood out from others in the month of July.


For more post-media days SEC content, here’s a Florida-Tennessee discussion and a retrospective on the conference’s first championship game, 22 years ago.  – The Editors


1. Were Bielema’s comments about Gus Malzahn playing Nick Marshall in their season opener gamesmanship, or just having a little fun?

Matt Zemek:
On Twitter @SectionMZ

The answer? Both.

Bielema actually treated Auburn and Malzahn with plenty of respect on Wednesday during his SEC Media Days session. Bielema didn’t take the bait in terms of lashing out at Malzahn when given a chance to do so. Sure, he reiterated his stance on pace of play issues, but he didn’t spew venom. He was treading lightly, so it’s reasonable to say that the Boss Hog was having a bit of fun.

Yet, let’s not pretend that the comment was gamesmanship-free. Bielema is highly skeptical that Marshall will be held out of the Auburn-Arkansas game to any extent. He knows how pervasive and suffocating the pressures of big-time college football really are. If Marshall is announced as the starter, this remark serves a purpose: questioning the legitimacy of Marshall’s presence on the field. It probably wouldn’t throw Marshall off his game… but it wouldn’t be an unheard-of event for a young athlete to perform poorly in the wake of a distraction-filled offseason. The same Bret Bielema that loved to hang huge numbers on the Indianas of the Big Ten didn’t make this statement as a laugh line and nothing else. Of course there was some intentionality mixed in with the lighthearted attempt to rib Gus Malzahn.

Bart Doan:
On Twitter @TheCoachBart

Bielema’s never been a man of few words. Earlier this year, he mentioned that during his time in the B1G, in meetings there would be talks about how to compete with the SEC, obviously taking a jab at his old conference.

Clearly, answer #1 they came up with was: Send Bret Bielema to coach an SEC team.

So Bret isn’t above a loud quote or gamesmanship, and that’s what this is. This smells like an NBA coach in the playoffs calling out the officiating whether it had an effect on the outcome or not, just to put the bug in the ear for the next game of, “I’d better not act X because people will think Y.”

All he’s doing is tossing a little more light on a situation that would benefit him if the decision to sit the player occurred. Great coaches are always looking for an edge. And Bret Bielema, apparently.

Seeing as Arkansas’ 2013 season was basically listening to Hanson on loop for 4 months, any edge … ethereal, motivational, or tactical … they can attempt to get is probably worth the ole college try.

Terry Johnson:
On Twitter @SectionTPJ

It was definitely Bielema having a little bit of fun. Broaching such a sensitive subject might have made for an interesting sound byte or two, but it wouldn’t give Arkansas any type of competitive advantage.

Let’s be honest: The Hogs aren’t even the best team in the state of Arkansas this year. As such, Arkansas has no chance to beat the defending SEC champions. Whether it’s Nick Marshall, Jeremy Johnson – or even an old, fat guy like Terry Johnson – under center for Tigers, the offense will have no trouble moving the ball behind a veteran offensive line that returns four starters from a unit that averaged 6.30 yards per carry last year.

That’s not exactly an ideal matchup for a Hog defense that allowed 5.3 yards per rush in SEC play in 2013.

2. Will Malzahn suspend Marshall for at least part of the Arkansas game?

Bart Doan:

Steve Fisher used to have this quote. A coach of mine used it as well: “I’ll treat you all fairly, but not equally.” It’s a loaded statement that admits for the most part what goes on in every locker room and board room in Anytown, USA. Those who produce get more leeway, those who contribute more to the overall goal are given more rope.

That said, considering Malzahn’s past verbal scourging of drugs, you can expect that he’ll be suspended at least for part of the game. It’s a “stems and seeds” way out: “Let’s see how things are going but give us an out in case we’re down 10-0 at halftime.” Yet, we probably need to stop thinking that college sports is this benign, innocent world where pixie dust comes out of the shower heads and morality rules all because … you know … amateurism.

I don’t agree with the above theory, but I will say this: The media and fans don’t know everything. Just because Gus threw a kid off the team for a drug related offense one year doesn’t automatically mean a similar style issue creates the same result. Maybe other things factor in, like offenses not caught by the public, bad work ethic, negative effect on teammates, poor classroom record, etc. We all need to stop pretending we know everything. So will he do it? Yeah, I think so, for at least a half.

Terry Johnson:

Will he, or should he? That is the question.

Whether Malzahn will suspend Marshall is anyone’s guess at this point. After all, the penalty for the first drug-related offense at Auburn doesn’t involve a loss of playing time. It only results in weekly drug tests, and mandatory counseling sessions. Since Marshall has been a model citizen at Auburn aside from this incident, it’s easy to see Malzahn letting him play, while serving an alternative form of punishment.

However, if we’re asking if Malzahn should suspend Marshall, then the answer is an unqualified yes. As I mentioned in the previous question, the Tigers do not need Marshall in the lineup to beat Arkansas. There’d be absolutely no danger in suspending him.

Even if there was a chance that Auburn could lose, Malzahn needs to sit Marshall out for at least the season opener to send the right message to the players in the program. By doing this, he’s telling his student athletes that all actions have consequences. Regardless of whether it’s a sixth-string walk-on – or in this case, a potential All-American – anyone who breaks the rules will be held accountable for his actions.

Matt Zemek:

Will Malzahn suspend Marshall? College athletics being what they are, what do you think? I’ll let that rhetorical question linger in your mind, and allow that to serve as my immediate answer.

Should Marshall be suspended? Terry has stolen my thunder here. Allow me to amplify what Terry has just said, though:

Coaches obviously fear the day when a star player is suspended. That said, when the smoke clears and a team takes the field with a backup in a leadership position, a coach — if worth anything as a teacher and molder of men — should relish the opportunity to coach his backup to the fullest extent possible. If his team can win with a backup under center, a coach in Malzahn’s position can then tell his team, “We’re stronger together than you might have believed before. We can overcome mistakes and losses. We have Nick Marshall’s back. We now know that players on this team can step up and perform in adverse situations. We have come through this time of trial and are now tougher than ever.”

Coaches should embrace this line of thought, but the stakes in a billion-dollar industry are often too high for the men who are given millions of reasons (paper reasons with dead presidents on them) to keep their star players on the field.


3. What’s the most important lesson to take from this story? (You can mix in the coaches’ takeaways if you want).

Should people be punished equally for the same basic kinds of offenses? That basic question is being asked a lot, and with good reason, in the wake of Nick Marshall's citation for possession of marijuana.

Should people be punished equally for the same basic kinds of offenses? That basic question is being asked a lot, and with good reason, in the wake of Nick Marshall’s citation for possession of marijuana.

Terry Johnson:

If there’s one thing to take away from this story, it’s that college football needs to have a universal standard for punishing drug offenses.

Make no mistake about it: What transpired with Marshall is a not a newsworthy event. Sure, it’ll allow fans (and maybe a coach or two) from rival schools to make a few jokes. But for the most, part people understand that college kids aren’t perfect and will make mistakes from time-to-time.

With that said, the reason that this incident is still in the news is because people want to know what Marshall’s punishment is going to be. The minute that’s announced, this story will disappear faster than T-bone steak among a group of offensive linemen.

That’s where uniform penalties for drug related offenses would come in. Yes, there’d be plenty of debate about how severe the punishments should be. But with a set standard in place, everyone would know right away what Marshall’s fate would be, making the issue irrelevant. That would free up people in the media to focus on more important topics – like the players on gridiron.

Imagine that, SEC Media Days focusing on football. What a concept!

Matt Zemek:

The jocular answer: Try to get the SEC schedule makers to not put a conference game on the slate in week one, so that you can schedule a cupcake instead and suspend your quarterback for that comparatively unthreatening contest.

The serious answer: We have to stop policing the use of marijuana in this country. I realize SEC fans might not yet be ready or willing to embrace such a position, but it’s well worth noting that a figure no less esteemed than William F. Buckley, before his death, became an ardent opponent of the War On Drugs. Dealing cocaine or heroin? Yes, that’s a threat to the well-being of others. Dealing marijuana? The distribution of a non-lethal substance should not be policed. Using said substance is even more in the realm of an individual’s right to do as he or she pleases.

Law enforcement hours need to be devoted to matters of life and death… not an ounce of pot. Can we see the absurdity of this? It’s like policing 10-dollar lunches columnists want to give collegiate athletes during interviews, or 200-dollar payments benefactors give collegiate athletes for some spending money. (Recall the episode involving Kansas State basketball player Jamar Samuels before the 2012 NCAA Tournament.) The sooner nickel-and-dime stuff is removed from enforcement’s radar screen — in the realms of college sports and community policing — the better for everyone in this country.

Bart Doan:

The two guys above me are looking for legislation. I am not.

For me, the takeaway is what I said earlier this week in a more longform column … that Gus Malzahn missed a golden teaching opportunity this week by holding Nick Marshall out of media days.

People forget that coaches, especially at the scholastic level, are teachers/counselors/advisors as well, and the overriding goal of college is to prepare you in some way for the remainder of the world, even if that lesson is “you don’t belong here studying because you cannot handle it.”

Holding Marshall out of media days sends a message that when you do something wrong, someone will step in and shield you from having to own up to your mistakes rather than forcing you to face them as a grown man should.

Look, we live in a forgiving society for the most part. You go up, give some canned statement about being wrong; if you’re good, actually put emotion into it, say it won’t happen again and that you let (insert everyone, ever) down, that’s it. It’s over. Look at baseball’s steroid era. The apologizers are shrugged at. The guys adamant about never doing it are shunned.

In this case, Marshall comes away learning nothing. When you break the rules in the real world, one not insulated by touchdowns and college coaches, no one’s making you run stairs at 5 a.m. to make up for it.

In this case, Marshall was owed the maturity that comes with facing your transgressions and dealing with them in the limelight. That’s who he is … a person in the limelight. Hiding him from facing the issues teaches nothing and only enables the person to think they can be protected if they do it again. That’s the real takeaway.

About Terry P. Johnson

Terry Johnson is the Associate Editor for The Student Section. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation.