Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen had a prime opportunity to strongly defend his team’s discipline of five-star defensive end signee Jeffery Simmons during SEC Media Days on Tuesday.
Mullen missed the opportunity. Badly.
Simmons, the best recruit in Mississippi State’s 2016 class, was suspended for the season-opening game and allowed to enroll at the school with conditions (including counseling) following his role in an altercation earlier this year. Simmons was shown on video in the midst of a parking lot altercation throwing punches against a woman who was on the ground.
In announcing its decision to suspend Simmons on June 2, the school said Simmons was throwing those punches “in an effort to break up a domestic fight between his sister and another adult woman.” Simmons was charged with simple assault and disturbing the peace for his role in the incident.
The first question regarding Simmons to Mullen Tuesday mentioned a sign in the Mississippi State locker room that says “Respect Women” and asked the coach what he told the team to welcome Simmons following his punishment.
Mullen dodged the question. He mentioned treating his players like a family and then referenced decisions and decision-making six times in his three-paragraph answer.
The dodging continued and got less artful as it went on. When asked about Simmons a third time, Mullen disavowed much responsibility for his role in determining the punishment for his prize recruit.
“I wasn’t involved as much,” Mullen said. “It was a university decision, but I was just thrilled that we’re having Jeffery as part of our family coming in.”
If saying he was “thrilled” a prospect captured on video punching a defenseless woman wasn’t enough, Mullen’s answers took a more bizarre turn after he left the podium and was asked by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Kyle Tucker about the situation that got Simmons suspended.
So what if it was a member of your actual family on the ground?
“I don’t know,” Mullen said, “I don’t think it would be my family. I don’t deal in hypotheticals, really, so, um – but anybody, I mean, in the video, I don’t know that my family would be in that situation, to be honest with you.”
According to Tucker, Mullen began his answer to the question – before being asked again – by saying he was again “thrilled” Simmons was on the team.
Mullen’s response that he didn’t have much to do with Simmons’ suspension once again put the responsibility on athletic director Scott Stricklin, who defended the decision after it was made in June. Stricklin told a group of reporters that he wasn’t comfortable making a decision in favor of “long-term game suspensions” for Simmons because he wasn’t a student at Mississippi State when the March incident occurred.
Stricklin also even went as far as to make the distinction between the type of incident Simmons was involved in and one of a domestic or sexual assault nature.
“Number one, if it were a domestic or sexual assault-type issue, if this were a person that had a history, I think that is something you would look at,” Stricklin said six weeks ago. “Again, I think you’re trying to be fair to the young person at the same time and understand that they made a mistake. There’s got to be consequences for that.”
And there should be consequences, at least in the form of public opinion, for a school that imposes lax consequences in the name of second chances.
But while he downplayed his role disciplining Simmons, Mullen did address his responsibility as a coach within the football program and deal in a hypothetical when he was asked about the levels of responsibility within a football program if a recruit with a prior offense committed a violent act as a student. And had he handled his entire media availability the way he handled the question, he would have sounded a lot less obtuse.
“We’re all responsible,” Mullen said. “If that happens, all of us, to be honest with you, I’m responsible for all of the actions for every one of my players. I’m responsible as a head coach. I can’t be with them all of the time. All I can do is be a parent. My wife and I try to be parents to every one of the kids in our program. Not an individual. Just every single one of them. We try to be parents. And I take a great deal of responsibility of all of our players and actions that they do, good and bad.
– – – – – –