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SMITH LAYS DOWN LAW SO COPS WON’T

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With few exceptions, the Utah State Aggies have struggled on the football field in recent years, but that isn't the worst of it. The Aggies have also had more than their share of troubles off the field with the Logan police department. They have had so many brushes with the law that new coach John L. Smith made the problem one of his first priorities.

Only a few hours after he had officially been announced as the Aggies' new coach last winter in Logan, Smith returned to his motel room and placed a phone call to Logan police Lt. Kevin Christensen to arrange a meeting between them. Smith had already sized up the Aggies' off-the-field misadventures before taking the job."As you're checking things out, you want to get feelings from the people downtown and from the administration about what has been taking place and what changes did they think we need to make," says Smith. "They (the Aggies) have not done what they should have been doing. We want to do the other things off the field that are right, too."

Since 1992, 17 USU players have been charged with either burglary, assault, robbery or fraud, or some combination thereof, sometimes for more than one incident. Instead of the usual knee-jerk defensive posturing we have come to expect from PR-conscious coaches, Smith has been quick to acknowledge the problem and to take steps to improve the team's behavior and its battered reputation. He has discussed the situation at length in meetings with his players, handing out a written list of his expectations.

"We have to change; it is our problem," he told the team.

Meetings between Smith and Logan police have produced a plan of action whose chief aim it seems is to make buddies out of police officers and football players. Earlier this summer, Aggie players participated with police and community members in the so-called Stamp Out Crime Night, a national program designed to increase citizen awareness of crime prevention. A policeman already has begun to lift weights regularly with Aggie players. The Aggies also will attend a picnic with police and their families, and Logan policeman have been invited to speak to the team on another occasion.

"(This) is a way we can bridge the gap,"says Smith. "The players can see the police have a job to do and get involved with the community . . . "We want to get them together in a social setting. Now the players know these officers. Should something come about, (a player) knows this officer; they can go to one another and find a way to keep it from escalating."

Christensen agrees. "I really perceive a good year ahead of us," the lieutenant says. "What I see is that we've sat back and complained about each other, and, hopefully, this will give us a chance to be productive about the situation."

Whether picnics and weight-lifting sessions with police officers can curb the problem remains to be seen, but it seems to be a step in the right direction. The Aggies and Logan police have been on opposite sides of the line frequently in recent years.

Here is a list of some of the Aggies' troubles, with assistance from reporter Gina Howard, who has covered the incidents for the Logan Herald Journal:

- Last June, junior linebacker David Gill (Pleasanton, Calif.), junior defensive back Jeffery Lemmo (San Ramon, Calif.) and running back Jack Roxas (Smithfield) were cited with Class C misdemeanors and fined $100 for disorderly conduct for their part in a brawl at a Logan restaurant.

In March, Gill and Roxas also were fined and placed on probation after pleading guilty to assault charges following a fight at a USU fraternity party.

Gill and Lemmo are on the Aggies' 1995 roster. Roxas finished his eligibility last year.

- Last March, quarterback Jorge Munoz (Spring Valley, Calif.) and wide receiver Scott Moore (Hermosa Beach, Calif.) were sentenced to 30 days in jail, fined $1,500 and paid $260 restitution after beating up a store clerk and stealing beer from a convenience store in September. Both pleaded guilty to burglary, a third-degree felony, and simple assault, a Class B misdemeanor. Moore's charges were reduced to a misdemeanor this summer.

Munoz was dismissed from the team last season, and Moore left the team after the '95 spring practice.

- In July 1993, Jermaine Younger (Hayward, Calif.), the 1992 Big West Defensive Player of the Year, served 25 days in jail for unlawfully firing a gun and violating his probation (and then played the '93 season). In 1991, Younger was granted probation after pleading guilty to fraudulent use of a credit card.

- In 1993, defensive end Scott Moala (Hayward, Calif.) was charged with misdemeanor simple assault, and wide receiver Wendell Johnson (Robbins, Ill.) and cornerback Efrem Haymore (Chicago) were charged with two felony assault charges and resisting arrest after they allegedly punched, kicked and shot at a woman after racial epithets were exchanged.

Haymore and Johnson were found innocent of assault; however, a jury found Johnson guilty of resisting arrest. Moala entered into a diversionary agreement in which charges were dropped after six months. Moala and Haymore finished their careers in 1993. USU officials say Johnson never played in a game for the Aggies.

Another USU student, Jonathan James, who was identified as a walk-on football player (he never played in a game), also was charged with aggravated assault, a third-degree felony, but he plea bargained to one count of assault, a Class B misdemeanor, and was fined $251.

- In 1993, former linebacker Del Lyles (Richmond, Calif.), USU's all-time leading tackler, was ordered to serve two days in jail for assaulting a woman at a Logan apartment in April.

- In August 1992, former defensive lineman Donald Hill (Phoenix) was convicted of simple assault and sentenced to 15 days in jail. He broke the nose of man during a pickup game of basketball.

- In May 1992, another former defensive player, Darrell Hill (Oakland), also was charged with assault for breaking the nose of a man during a pickup game basketball game. According to an official at the first circuit court, Hill was found guilty, but he never appeared for sentencing. A bench warrant was issued for his arrest, but he has never been apprehended.

A new Aggie coaching staff kicked both Darrell and Donald Hill off the team in the spring of '92.

- In 1992, star running back Profail Grier (Atlanta) was arrested for allegedly fondling and assaulting two women at a party near campus. He was charged with gross lewdness and two counts of simple assault but later was found innocent. The jury foreman told Howard, "There was too much conflicting testimony."

- In 1992, cornerback Donald Toomer (Berkeley, Calif.) was sentenced to two days in jail for breaking through the door of his former girlfriend's house and throwing her to the floor after she refused to return some of his belongings. Two teammates reportedly watched from the door but were not charged.

Toomer finished his eligibility in '94.

- In 1992, guard Ruben Farias (Windsor, Calif.) and former quarterback Ronald Lopez (Los Angeles) were charged on suspicion of breaking into a car and stealing a stereo. Curiously, the case still has not gone to trial (it is scheduled for later this month).

Despite the parade of players through the local jailhouse, USU president George Emert says it's nothing unusual. "I don't think we are extraordinary at all," he says. ". . . I do not think USU is even slightly different than other institutions in this regard."

That seems farfetched. One administrator at another major university laughed at Emert's response. "Sounds high to me," he said. "It's an unusual number of serious offenses." For his part, Christensen says the number of serious crimes committed by USU football players has escalated in recent years.

The question of course is why.

According to Emert, it comes with the territory. "Any time you're recruiting strong young men in the peak of condition, you'll get some of the things we have experienced," he says. "I'm not a psychologist, but if you're in a very healthy condition, your hormones, your assertiveness, are in a different state than if you're not. With their strength and aggressiveness, (football players) can hurt somebody."

Christensen believes that USU's players, many of whom have been recruited from large metropolitan areas (as noted above), simply have not adjusted to life in small-town Logan. "If you talk to a lot of people, it has to do with recruiting," he says. "You're bringing in people from big cities. They have a hard time living in a community like this."

According to Christensen, many of the players, when confronted by police at the site of an incident, tell the officers that police wouldn't even bother to respond to such incidents in their hometowns.

"We're not those big cities," says Christensen. "Yes, we respond and will continue to respond."

Other observers believe that Charlie Weatherbie, who was USU's head coach from 1992 through the 1994 season, didn't discipline his players firmly enough. (Ironically, he left USU last winter to become the head coach at the U.S. Naval Academy.) According to Christensen, Weatherbie wondered if police were picking on his players.

Says Christensen, "We discussed that issue - are we targeting players? Is it a black issue? No, it's not a race issue. It's not a target issue. Some of the players are being so aggressive in our community they were becoming known to us."

Emert, who arrived at USU in 1992 in the wake of several incidents involving Aggie football players, says he discussed the situation with Weatherbie. "It was a concern when I arrived at USU," he says. "There was very obvious uneasiness in the community and the university because of some of the interactions between athletes and community members."

Weatherbie declined to comment for this article, but he did note that some of the above listed players either got in trouble before he arrived in Logan - namely, Toomer and Younger (his first incident) - or never played for him - Lyles, both Hills, Farias and Lopez.

"Some of the kids they (reporters) identified as walk-ons, I never knew them," says Weatherbie.

That notwithstanding, according to USU media relations director John Lewandowski, Weatherbie, a likeable, laid-back man with a cheerleader's enthusiasm, expressed some regret near the end of his stay at USU.

"He told me he wished he'd handled some of the situations differently," says Lewandowski. "He wished he'd been firmer, put his foot down. He kept giving (the players) opportunities when he should have forced them to grow up. Instead of giving them second and third chances, he felt he should have drawn a line."

Smith vows to do just that. He believes that was "part of the reason" he was hired. During the job interview with Emert and athletic director Chuck Bell, the Aggies' troubles were discussed.

"He was instructed that we would be very supportive of him maintaining high standards," says Emert. "He was already imbued with those standards before he came to us."

Smith, who has a reputation as a no-nonsense, tough disciplinarian, doesn't expect the team's off-the-field problems to continue. "I wouldn't expect that from here on out," he says. "We will make adjustments. I really believe kids crave discipline. If you lay down the law and they know what's expected, they're going to adhere to it. We're not going to put up with someone who jeopardizes the team with its reputation or not being there to play."

But even Smith acknowledges that it is not quite that simple. "There's a lot of gray," he says. "Do we think we can save the kid? For some guys, you might not have the time. You have to decide, is he worth the trouble and the pain? You've got too many other guys to keep track of. You can only give so many chances."

Smith has had experience in these matters. As head coach at Idaho, he says he cut an All-American because of repeated legal troubles. "I had him write a contract," Smith explains. "He broke the contract."

Emert believes Smith's commitment to USU is one of his strengths in this matter. He reasons that a coach who is not using USU as a stepping stone to a big-time job has all the more reason to keep his hometown happy and crime-free.

Christensen, meanwhile, urges perspective. "The one thing we have to get back to is that we've got over 100 players on that team, and we're not dealing with even 20 or 10 percent of them. "We tend to lump them all together, and we shouldn't do that."