Anyway, today's column on (what else?) the Johns situation is the best perspective anyone's offered thus far. Thus, here it is in its entirety ...
Trouble was always brewing for Jimmy Johns
Cecil Hurt Sports editor
For three years, almost everyone involved has been trying to write a happy ending to The Jimmy Johns Story.
The saga had the right start: A talented recruit, a former “Mr. Football” in Mississippi who spurned his home-state schools to come to Alabama. But every time Johns’ career came to a crossroads, he would go down the path with a dead end.
There were dreams of making him a quarterback, but those were never more than dreams. In his brief stints at that position in Crimson Tide practices, he never displayed an SEC-caliber throwing arm. That doesn’t even begin to touch on his capacity to make quarterback-level decisions.
The next solution was to try Johns at running back. He played more there than anywhere else in his Alabama career, although he wasn’t a natural at the position. He appeared stiff, blessed with strength but not vision or elusiveness. So there was another move, this time to linebacker. Would that move have worked? There is no way of knowing, but we can guess.
From the start of his career until the end, which came to a crashing close Tuesday morning when he was arrested on serious drug-dealing charges, Johns never once displayed the mental discipline needed to play team sports. His (rare) moments of brilliance always came with a price tag. Every one of the multitude of chances he received, on or off the field, was squandered.
The on-the-field examples are well-known, typified by the fourth-quarter fumble in last November’s UA loss to Louisiana-Monroe. Johns, who had seen his playing time at running back dwindle to nothing as the 2007 season progressed, was pressed back into service by Alabama’s extreme injury situation in the backfield. It was an opportunity that turned into a disaster when Johns fumbled the ball away deep in ULM territory.
It would be easy enough to dismiss that as an excusable mistake, if it hadn’t been part of an obvious pattern — penalties, poor decisions, terrible timing — that marked Johns’ career.
Off the field, it was the same. Even in the small glimpses that Alabama’s privacy policies allowed, trouble was always brewing for Johns. There was only one game suspension (in 2006), but there were numerous attitude adjustments and spring demotions for transgressions ranging from poor class attendance to missed meetings to “undisclosed.”
Johns kept getting chances. So did he get one chance too many?
I’m not going to second-guess UA head coach Nick Saban here. I certainly don’t subscribe to the theory that Saban “knew” about Johns’ extracurricular entrepreneurial adventures. If Saban had known that Johns was dealing dope, he’d have dismissed him on the spot.
On the other hand, the coach knew that Johns was a problem child. He knew that the risk/reward ratio with keeping Johns on the team was high, far higher than it was, for example, in the case of senior Rashad Johnson. Saban stood behind Johnson when he was arrested in the spring and was right to do so. I generally support coaches giving second chances, and not just at Alabama.
Furthermore, I don’t think that even if Saban had adopted the draconian line and tossed Johnson off the team for a misdemeanor, it would have made a bit of difference to Johns. If you are determined to sell cocaine, you are not going to stop selling it just because your coach got tough with a teammate. (If a potential lengthy prison sentence isn’t going to deter someone, why would potentially losing a football scholarship have any effect?)
I also don’t think Johns was saved simply by his athletic ability. Saban saw the Crimson Tide games last season. Johns wasn’t a huge contributor, except (arguably) on special teams. The move to defense wasn’t going to make him a contributor. I honestly think that Saban’s prime motivation — one that is shared by a lot of football coaches — was to give Johns an opportunity to turn around on the road to disaster that he was taking.
But, to repeat the question, did Johns get one chance (or even several chances) too many? Even if Saban had the best motives in the world, he can’t have had high hopes for success on this reclamation project. The coach was asked about Johns fairly frequently in the off-season — Alabama fans never did lose their infatuation with Johns. Saban’s answers were usually exasperated rather than optimistic.
No one is saying that Saban should have a crystal ball, or that he will be able to prevent every possible future transgression with a pre-emptive strike. Only Saban and Johns know the conditions under which the player was allowed to remain on the team, and it is the right of every head coach to make that sort of decision for his team. I am not second-guessing that, and I am not implying that anyone knew that Johns was out at night committing felonies.
However, Saban had to know that Johns was a risk in terms of public perception and team morale. Johns’ career history suggested that risk, strongly. And it was probably more of a risk than Saban should — or will — run again.
Cecil Hurt is sports editor of The Tuscaloosa News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0225.