When Derek Dooley arrived at Tennessee one of his main talking points regarded character. Perhaps it was a reaction to the “we’re not looking for angels” comment former Lane Kiffin assistant Ed Orgeron said months earlier. Perhaps it was a reaction to the number of Kiffin and Orgeron recruits who landed in trouble soon after landing in Knoxville. Whatever the reason, one of Dooley’s main recruiting points — a point he made on the stump with Vol fans during his early meet-and-greets — was character-first.
Fast-forward to signing day 2012. Dooley and his Vols inked four-star cornerback Deion Bonner. Bonner, you may recall, was arrested and charged with theft after he stole a number of iPods and iPhones from Georgia’s locker room during a UGA football camp last April. Bonner entered pre-trial intervention and had the misdemeanor charge dismissed. Still, a number of programs backed off of the player. Character-first Tennessee wasn’t one of those that backed away.
Dooley recently defended his decision to sign Bonner in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
“We do a lot of diligence when we recruit, and we certainly recognize that there are no perfect players and we all make mistakes as young people. But what I saw was a player who had a clean record prior to the event [at Georgia], and a player who was very honest and forthright with what happened.
He’s a player who paid the piper about as hard as any high school player could ever pay for what he did … getting the suspensions that he did, the absolute public humiliation that he went through, the fact that everybody stopped recruiting him, and the community service hours … he did a heck of a lot of restitution for what he did, and still came out playing great football down the stretch.
He kept a great attitude and a great outlook, and I saw someone who made a bad mistake and appears willing to learn from it and to let it make him a better person. So we were willing to take a chance on Deion. Part of character is not saying ‘I only want perfect people.’ We’re all flawed and we all make mistakes. The question is: Do you have the character to learn from it and get it right?”
Sounds good. And if you’ve read this site for the past 3-4 years you know that we often come down on the side of second- and third- and fourth- and fifth-chances when it comes to non-violent crimes. This writer has had failings. We all have. So here’s hoping Bonner makes the most of his second-chance.
That said, we find it odd that of all the schools to provide him that second-chance, it’s Dooley’s that’s being so open-minded. The coach beat the “character counts” drum too loudly to then go out and ink a player who stole iPhones and iPods from players who at that point could have wound up being his teammates. (It’s no wonder Georgia backed off of Bonner. Can you imagine the welcome he’d have received from UGA players had he signed with the Dawgs?)
Again, we take no issue with Bonner. Good luck to him. But Dooley shouldn’t have made such a case for his program being one of upstanding citizens if he had no intention of living up to the high standard he spent so much time promoting. And, to be honest, this isn’t a first time thing. Dooley allowed former safety Janzen Jackson about 15 chances before finally dismissing him from the Vol roster last year. A third-string linebacker would have been booted months prior to Jackson’s final heave-ho.
Like most coaches, Dooley clearly feels great talent can earn a player more opportunities. Unlike most coaches, Dooley went out of his way to make “character counts” a pillar of his program, a key recruiting point. We feel he’d have been better off not trumpeting character as much as he did. Had he not, we would not now be pointing out the irony of his program signing a player with Bonner’s record.