Second chances and transfers are tricky

A Georgia grad sent this message: “I hope Tray Matthews enjoys seeing himself on Auburn’s video board before every game.” As the world knows, Matthews was the defensive back bumped by then-teammate Josh Harvey-Clemons off the descending pass that became the deflected Prayer-at-Jordan-Hare touchdown on Nov. 16, 2013.

Having since been booted from the Georgia squad, Matthews announced last weekend that he’s taking his talents to the Loveliest Village. “I’m excited and ready to excel at AU,” he tweeted. Many Georgia fans were excited, too, though in a less-charitable way.

Kevin Bailey, whose son Sterling is a Georgia defensive end, called AJC colleague Chip Towers to assail Matthews and his parents. “For him to come out like that and make it seem like the University of Georgia had done him wrong, that’s what makes me so mad,” Bailey told Towers. “Same with Shaq Wiggins and the other kids who had the opportunity to play at Georgia. They leave and transfer and get dismissed from the team and they blame it on the school system. It’s not the system; it’s the kids.”

This prompted LaToya Cox-Thomas, who’s Matthews’ aunt, to fire off a missive to Towers in her family’s defense. Wrote Cox-Thomas: “Mr. Bailey himself has to admit that he has proudly cheered and supported No. 28 as a Bulldog, but now that the error of Tray Matthews’ ways has led to his dismissal, Mr. Bailey has obviously traded in his cheers, support and claimed friendship.”

Also: “Our family has not defended what Tray did, nor have his parents upheld him in his wrong. We have simply offered the support that we should once the damage was done. Tray’s actions caused a reality check for him – being dismissed and seeing his dreams deferred – but like it or not the same talent that he possessed as a Bulldog has provided him with a rare opportunity to be able to pick up the pieces.”

Georgia fans have cause to be sensitive regarding transfers. Harvey-Clemons, also dismissed, is bound for Louisville to play under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who spent the past four years in Athens. So is cornerback Shaq Wiggins, who left Georgia of his own accord. Three defensive backs who started for Georgia will play their next collegiate games elsewhere. And the incongruity of seeing quarterback Nick Marshall – who lofted the pass that was misplayed into the winning Auburn touchdown after starting his college career as a Georgia cornerback – take the Tigers to the BCS title game remains fresh and jagged.

That said, three of the four transfers – Matthews, Harvey-Clemons and Marshall – weren’t given the option of staying. Matthews had been charged with misdemeanor theft by deception and, by his admission, had been involved in a classroom disruption. Harvey-Clemons had reportedly failed two drug tests. Marshall had been linked to a dormitory theft. There was a time when coach Mark Richt might have exercised more tolerance. (The name Odell Thurman springs to mind.) That time has passed.

Over the course of a 40-minute conversation last summer, Richt offered his evolving view on second chances:

“I do care very much about the individual player, and I do like a redemption story. I like a guy who when he makes a mistake can turn it around and do well. But what I’ve learned over time is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be at Georgia. He can turn his life around and continue his career and have a great success story where it’s not at Georgia. I also have a responsibility to the other guys. I don’t want anything that can negatively affect the other guys. And I want parents to know and players to know that if there’s an element on our team that doesn’t belong, whether it’s immaturity or just a bad egg, I don’t want that person to destroy what everybody else is trying to build.

“I’ve also seen guys like even my own son (Jon). He left Clemson, not because of anything bad, and he went to Mars Hill College. He started four years and had a great opportunity to lead. It was a great move for him. If he’d stayed at Clemson and ridden the bench for four years, he might have lost some faith and some confidence in himself as a person. When you see that, it gives you a little bit different perspective.

“I’ve always felt that we owe the players, and we do, but the players owe us as well. It is like a marriage – a contract, so to speak. We’re going to give it everything we’ve got, but they’ve got to give us their best, too. That was kind of galvanized through Jon going through his thing. I’m like, ‘Son, you owe it to Clemson to do your best while you’re there because they’re giving you this opportunity.’ Maybe living through that over the last four or five years changed my thinking just a little bit.”

Such equanimity should stand as an exemplar. Richt gave Matthews — and Harvey-Clemons and Marshall — an opportunity to play college football. Ultimately he decided they were no longer worth the trouble. That’s his responsibility as a coach.

Richt understands the risks of dumping someone. A dismissed player isn’t apt to join a monastery. He’s going to play football somewhere – and we know from history (recalling Cam Newton, once a Florida Gator) that Auburn is often willing to serve as a landing spot. That player could wind up playing against or even beating his former team. That mightn’t seem fair, but it’s reality.

More reality: It’s Auburn’s prerogative to offer Matthews scholarship, his prerogative to accept it. But it was Richt’s choice that set Matthews on that road. As overheated as the back-and-forth’ing can get, it’s far too simplistic to brand a transfer a traitor or an ingrate. Some places aren’t suitable for some guys, and that’s OK.

The key part of Richt’s quote was him mentioning an erring player turning things around and then saying, “But it doesn’t necessarily have to be at Georgia.” It doesn’t. Nor should it be.