It’s likely been a busier offseason than Willie Fritz thought he’d have when he took over as head coach of the Georgia Southern football program in January. It started with a clean slate.
“Willie’s done a good job of coming in and giving everybody (on the team) a clean slate and allowing them to prove themselves,” GSU athletic director Tom Kleinlein said. “He said, ‘Hey, start fresh and we’ll evaluate you based on what we observe.’ When they violate that, there are going to be consequences.”
Fritz has had to deal with the offseason arrests of three GSU players. Running back Dominique Swope was arrested Feb. 17 for battery and defensive lineman Deonte Dempsy was arrested April 15 on drug possession charges. He also allegedly bit a police officer. Swope and Dempsey were dismissed from the team. Cornerback Tay Hicklin was arrested for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana and has been suspended indefinitely.
“Clearly when there’s violence involved, when there’s drugs involved, when we’re talking about major crimes here, those are major problems that need to be addressed with significant consequences,” Kleinlein said.
Two former players, Josh Rowe and Javon Mention, also were arrested in the same bust that caught Dempsy.
Former running back Irving Huggins, who already been dismissed from the team, was arrested May 7. He was charged with two counts of sale of marijuana and one count each of marijuana possession with intent to distribute, possession of a Schedule IV drug, unlawful use of communications facilities, and possession/use of a drug-related object. His roommate, Hicklin, was arrested for possession.
Unlike many football programs that drug test players randomly, Fritz takes it much further.
“I drug test everybody. Some places, you’ll randomly drug test,” Fritz said. “They’ve drug tested here for some time, but I’m always going to drug test the whole team.”
Fritz has a two-strike policy for most offenses and said he adheres to it.
“I want to help these guys and I want to mold them, but there is going to be a penalty when guys make mistakes,” he said. “I’m going to dismiss them from the squad. Some people’s philosophy is, if they’re a good player, they’ll slap them on the hand, and if they’re real good, they’ll slap them twice and move on.”
Fritz said he is in favor of a more firm approach, but is open about consequences with his staff and with the team.
“I run a very open program,” he said. “I include assistant coaches. I call the parents. Sometimes that helps and sometimes it doesn’t, but after a guy’s made one mistake, I don’t want there to be a surprise when I dismiss him for a second mistake.”
Kleinlein, along with associate ADs Jeff Blythe and Cathy Beene, are responsible for supervision all of GSU’s athletic programs. Kleinlein oversees the whole department, but is also in charge of the supervision of football, men’s basketball, baseball and women’s soccer.
He is involved in all disciplinary decisions but is pleased with the disciplinary approaches of GSU’s coaches.
“Once I have the information we sit down and I listen to what the coach’s thoughts are, and 99.9 percent of the time their thoughts are in line with or beyond what I would have done,” Kleinlein said. “All of our coaches are pretty strong when it comes to, ‘Hey, this is the line, and if you cross it, there’ll be consequences.’”
Fritz believes that prevention of misbehavior begins early.
“You’ve got to develop a relationship with them before you can have effective influence,” he said. “There are a lot of factors involved with having a team that avoids these issues, and number one is recruitment. It’s huge.”
He said his goal is bringing high-character players into the program, but it doesn’t stop there.
“You’ve got guys 18 to 22 years of age. It’s the most important time of your life to influence the rest of your life,” Fritz said. “You’ve got to talk to them on a daily basis. When you look at it, 95 percent of our guys were doing things right. Unfortunately, there were guys who weren’t. Hopefully, they all see a guy screw up and they learn from that mistake. You don’t repeat it.”
While Fritz has had to discipline players on the roster when he came to GSU, he is pleased with the overall culture of the team.
“One thing I can tell you is that there are a lot more disciplined kids here than the other stops I’ve been to, so that’s the good news,” he said. “But when you have problems, you’ve got to deal with them and you’ve got to deal with them quickly.”