The Message Behind The Suspension of USC’s Baxter
Lane Kiffin’s message was louder than the irritating horn signaling the end of practice at USC’s Howard Jones Field on Wednesday.
When the new Trojans coach suspended Dillon Baxter, a freshman he described as “potentially the most talented player on the team,” he was making it clear that he and the program won’t put up with any of this funny stuff anymore.
They’ve had enough. They are still reeling from the NCAA sanctions over the Reggie Bush mess. They barely had time to get past their starting fullback seriously injuring a defensive back in a fight and sidelining him for a month. And now Kiffin is being investigated by the NCAA for possible recruiting violations in his brief, one-year tenure at Tennessee.
So when Baxter, the young tailback from San Diego who’d been the sensation of the spring, “violated team rules,” the head coach, as well as Pat Haden, the new athletic director, and J.K. McKay, his new associate, were not about to take a wait and see attitude.
They had to act swiftly, and they did. Baxter has been suspended for the opening game in Hawaii, and what happens after that depends on him.
Apprently, this is a little more serious than just a freshman arriving late to team functions. The L.A. Times is reporting that Baxter was cited in a USC Department of Public Safety incident as the “unnamed individual” who violated team curfew and was accused of being under the influence of a controlled substance.
Kiffin’s hope is that the kid, who might be the most talented runner to enter the university since, ahem, Bush, will straighten out his act and be ready to contribute to the rest of the pivotal 2010 season.
But make no mistake. This was not startling news to those close to the football program. As clearly talented as he was in the spring, there were almost as many whispers about Baxter as there were confused, groping tacklers. Some worried that he was undisciplined and immature off the field and that it could lead to potential problems.
Well, those problems seemed to have surfaced a few months later.
It’s too bad, because this is a freshman who already stamped himself as a special athlete. He has the kind of breakaway running skills you cannot teach, and Kiffin and his coaches quietly had him pegged to be a major part of the offensive game plan.
The newest Trojans drama played out on a warm Wednesday afternoon while Baxter was still practicing with the team. His parents were on the sideline, huddling with McKay, who appeared to be explaining why the decision to suspend their son had been made.
“He (Baxter) has two choices facing this kind of adversity,” Kiffin said after practice on Wednesday. “He can sit around and pout or take this as a learning experience and move on from here and get ready for the Virginia game.”
The Trojans hope the kid chooses the latter. “This not only helps him, it helps our whole freshman class,” Kiffin said. “They now know we have extremely high expectations.”
At this point, Kiffin, Haden and McKay are like a staggered boxer who is stuck in a corner. The other guy is wading in and throwing punches at will. There is no other option now.
At USC, it is time to punch back.
Young Mr. Baxter unfortunately picked the wrong time to expose his chin.
— STEVE BISHEFF