by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

First of all, get out of Gary Moeller’s head. You don’t belong there, neither do I. All these armchair psychiatrists who are rooting around his brain as if it’s their personal attic — “I think he’s under too much pressure. . . .” “The eight losses in two years have gotten to him” — they have no idea what they’re talking about and never will.

Whatever got into Moeller last Friday in a Southfield restaurant that led to a very uncharacteristic display — he was reportedly drunk, acting rudely and ultimately accosted a police officer, which led to his arrest — whatever it was, it is inside him for now, and he doesn’t choose to share it.

OK. Show him that respect. He didn’t kill anybody, didn’t hurt anybody, didn’t get on the roads while intoxicated. His crime was embarrassment, to himself and to his school, and he began paying for it when they put him in a cell that night and he continued to pay for it Monday, when athletic director Joe Roberson took him aside and said, “Gary, I have to suspend you.”

When asked how Moeller took that, Roberson said: “He was crushed.”

Now, make no mistake, the University did the right thing. A suspension with pay is appropriate because, if they do nothing, they’re saying an arrest doesn’t warrant action, yet if they take away his money, they’re saying he’s guilty before anything is proven.

Still, a suspension is serious business. I don’t believe a Michigan football coach has ever received one. It means Moeller will not be able to run meetings, recruiting, or any other football duties for at least the next week or two. He has not been banned from U-M offices — “There was no reason for that,” Roberson said — but I doubt he’ll come in, if only for the stares he might get.

For a football fanatic like Moeller, this is torture.

But it is typical. Famous actors can get drunk and wreck hotel rooms. They become cult heroes.

College coaches misbehave, they get a chorus of clucked tongues.

Goes with the job. Consider the record

Moeller knows this. Believe me, he does. He has not blamed the police, he has not blamed hecklers, he didn’t say he was picked on because of his celebrity. He told Roberson that he “lost it.” He knows the consequences. He knows in college sports, certain actions bring certain reactions.

He knows it from suspending players on his own team.

Which is what this is about. “We had to do at least what we would have done with a student athlete,” Roberson said. “A coach has to adhere to the standards we set for the team — maybe even higher ones.”

And so stiffer penalties may be decided down the road. Fine. We’ll see what happens. But just as, in a court of law, Moeller’s previous record — which is zero — will be considered, so too should it be considered out there in Fan Land.

And here in the news media.

And these are the facts: Moeller has no history of outbursts like this. He is not Woody Hayes, whose military approach was criticized long before he punched an opposing player. He is not Eddie Sutton, who had pushed the recruiting limits of Kentucky basketball long before an envelope with cash was discovered en route to a recruit. Bear Bryant used to get drunk regularly at Alabama. Barry Switzer was a wild man at Oklahoma. Fortunately for them, they stayed within the protective cocoon reserved for successful coaches in college towns.

Moeller did not.

Just the same, he is a guy who has never before violated personal standards of decency, and has agonized when his players have been unable to do the same. I have seen Moeller’s face contort in pain at the news of a player’s bad behavior. I have known him for years. And while nobody knows another person’s demons, I can attest he is a decent, fair, serious- minded leader, and without a record of bad behavior, I for one am going to wait to hear his side before passing judgment.

Others are not so patient. I hear many people calling Moeller’s arrest the latest dirty item on a “laundry list” of Michigan violations.

This is an interesting use of facts.

But not the whole story. A different era

Yes, if you list some of the recent incidents in Ann Arbor, they will not make alumni proud. Basketball players stealing beer. Football players in credit card fraud. One athlete shooting from his window. These are all serious violations, and all required disciplinary action — which was taken. “If there’s a bigger problem here,” Roberson said, “we are going to get to the bottom of it.”

(By the way, if Michigan State people are somehow gloating over these developments, you can understand it, although gloating doesn’t improve anyone’s image of them, either. Bad is bad, be it green or blue.)

Still, when I hear people saying “This never would have happened under Bo Schembechler,” I have to laugh. Yes. I guess that’s true. This wouldn’t have happened under Schembechler.

And Howard Stern would not have been a radio star during the Eisenhower administration.

Folks, these are not the Schembechler years, not in terms of players, not in terms of media. You are dealing with lowered standards in a society of lowered standards, and a media that is armed to the teeth, ready to uncover everything.

Sure, Schembechler ran with an iron fist; both his team and the press. Things happened in the Schembechler years. He squashed them. And you never heard about them. That holds for many big-time college programs in the ’60s and ’70s.

Moeller, in the ’90s, isn’t recruiting the same type of kids, nobody is, because they don’t exist. And he can’t pull down an iron curtain over the spotlight — especially when he makes the trouble.

And that is where he takes the biggest hit. On his own chin. Had this happened in Ann Arbor, the police might never have made the arrest. That’s not right, but it’s the truth. And had this happened at a private football banquet, attendees might be laughing it off, saying, “Old Mo got a little crazy the other night.”

But it happened in public, it happened in front of police, and it is inexcusable for a man in the spotlight. Moeller will pay the price. Trust me, he’s been paying it from the minute that squad car closed its door.

But that doesn’t mean you decide his case without hearing his side of the story. His record warrants it.

That’s not favoritism, by the way, that’s just perspective. College coaching is high profile. Some things go with the job. Crucifixion isn’t one of them.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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