Kirby Smart is trying to fix as much as he can at Georgia. How players hit. How players think. How players develop into leaders and show accountability and walk into a stadium for a big game in Athens or Knoxville or Jacksonville and prove there’s substance behind the hype.
But Kirby Smart is just a football coach and he can’t fix everything. He can’t fix Jonathan Ledbetter.
That’s because whatever demons Ledbetter may have related to substance abuse can only be fixed by himself. That’s how recovery works, for as much as most parents and coaches prefer to rush this process along and forget it ever happened. Smart understands this, having seen close up what the disease can do to individuals and families. It’s why he said he is determined to let treatment specialists determine when Ledbetter, Georgia’s talented sophomore defensive end, returns to football activities.
“When it comes to his health and safety, it’s absolutely their decision,” Smart said. “I completely understand the situation because I’ve seen it.”
Ledbetter, 18, was arrested twice in a span of four months, first for underage drinking and then for DUI. A DUI arrest carries an automatic two-game suspension, according to Georgia’s code of conduct, but Smart hasn’t said whether the suspension will be longer. Ledbetter originally was suspended one game for the first arrest but that charge ultimately was dropped. So there’s a gray area.
Smart vented the other day when media members again pressed him on the length of Ledbetter’s suspension, responding that the player is “getting help” and adding, “I wish that could be the focal point instead of what is his punishment …”
Folks are understandably cynical when it comes to major college football coaches. Their careers hinge on winning games. It follows that their moral compass sometimes points in the wrong direction. It impacts whether a player is suspended a game, a series or not at all. The fact Smart is a protégé of Nick Saban’s doesn’t sway in his favor in this case when it comes to perception.
“That disappoints me,” Smart said. “I understand coaches have a bad reputation and that’s (deserved) with some coaches. If they don’t care about the kids, then they shouldn’t be in the program. But I don’t want to be labeled as that. I know coaches who are all about (winning at all costs) and I know coaches who aren’t. The guy (Mark Richt) who was here before me was a great example of one who wasn’t.
“I don’t necessarily think the right approach is to give up or get rid of a kid quickly because I am a believer in trying to change behavior and making them a better person. The one thing I did get from Nick, because I know Nick gets criticized about his lack of suspensions, is he has affected a lot of players positively so that they’re better in the long term. That’s my ultimate goal, to make Jonathan Ledbetter, or whoever is in that situation, be a better person five years from now than if I make some rash decision. And that’s not based on wins and losses.”
The latest example of this: Sunday, the day before Georgia began preseason practices, Smart took the lead from medical experts and informed Ledbetter that he would not be allowed to return to football activities and go through drills with teammates or attend meetings.
“He took it pretty well,” he said.
Ledbetter has been getting treatment for four weeks, taking up a good part of his mornings and afternoons. “Intensive care” is how Smart put it.
He is not officially on Georgia’s active roster of 105 players. But he is allowed to come to the football facility to work out and lift weights on his own. He is allowed to go to the practice field to run sprints on the sideline while his teammates are practicing with coaches.
Ledbetter was not on the field Monday during the media viewing period. But that was because of the timing of his return to campus from treatment and other obligations.
“I’m not hiding him,” Smart said.
There’s a side of Smart that believes if a player struggling with personal issues is given the structure of football, he has a greater chance for success in recovery than if he is sitting out with a suspension. The flaw in that belief is that if a young man can’t be comfortable in his own skin without football for a few weeks — using sudden down time to look at himself and his defects — then he’s really not getting better.
But Smart’s also well-versed in this area enough to know the bottom line: “There’s no hope without recovery.”
What shouldn’t be lost in all this is Ledbetter is not a problem kid. He has a good reputation, is solid academically and is respectful of other people. When Georgia players took part in a recent “Camp Sunshine” event at Camp Twin Lakes, Ledbetter looked engaged, not like he would rather be somewhere else. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Seth Emerson snapped a picture of him smiling and signing an autograph for a blushing young girl.
“A great kid. That’s what makes me care even more about him,” Smart said. “It’s not like this is a bad kid who doesn’t care about wanting to do right, or I’d be ready to dismiss him.”
He won’t do that. But recovery doesn’t operate on a football schedule.