We're not going to condemn Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley for having former Volunteer Leonard Little speak to his team at practice yesterday. We don't know what Little said or didn't say to the Vols. We don't know what messages he may or may not have delivered.
What we know is that Dooley said this about Little's visit, per the Knoxville News-Sentinel:
What we also know is that in October 1998, Little left a birthday party drunk, ran a red light, and crashed into the vehicle of a woman named Susan Gutweiler. Gutweiler died, leaving behind a husband and 15-year-old son. Little registered a blood-alcohol level of .19 and was setenced to probation. Six years later, Little was pulled over for doing 78 in a 55-miles-per-hour zone. He failed his roadside sobriety tests and was arrested and charged with DWI again. (He was later acquitted of the DWI but sentence to two morey ears' probation for speeding.)
"Leonard's got his picture on the wall, he was an All-American, he was a part of one of those banners in there," Dooley said. "That's what we're playing for. He's a guy who lived it, he breathed it.
"I think he lost about four games in his career and then he went on to be a great NFL player. So, he represents everything to me that Tennessee is all about. The more guys like that come back, I love it when they get in front of the team."
Again, for emphasis: who Dooley asks to speak at his practices is entirely his business. We're not criticizing the decision to have Little speak to his team, whatever he might have had to say (or, maybe, because of what he might have had to say).
But we feel compelled to say this: neither Little's presence at practice nor his achievements on the field required Dooley to offer this level of unqualified praise.
Every college football coach -- Dooley very much included -- is fond of saying that what a football player does off the field is just as important as what he does on it. But when Dooley tells us Little "represents everything that Tennessee is all about" in spite of his notorious criminal record, when he tells us what's truly important is how many games Little won in Knoxville and how successful his pro career was, it's obvious just how empty that lip service is.
UPDATE: Asked by the News-Sentinel about the post above, Dooley clarified his statements regarding Little:
"He epitomizes Vol for Life, because the program doesn't give up on you. He even offered to come talk to our team, and I'm going to get him to come talk to our team, about where he was at that low point and how he came out of it.To which we would respond: more power to him, and to Little. If the present Vols can learn anything at all from Little's background, then hopefully some positive can come out of the horrific negatives in Little's past. As we said above: the complaint registered here was never about Little's presence at practice.
"I think it's something to be proud of, I really do. Not the mistake he made, but I think it's a realization that we all make mistakes, our players are going to make mistakes, but the key is when you make them, how do you respond? ... I think he's a great representative, not because of what he did but because of how he handled it. That's what life is all about to me ...
Today was really just about how he felt he became a great player and what's important about becoming a good player. It was right before practice, it wasn't the time to go into his story, but we're going to have that moment when it's the right time."
The complaint was exclusively in regards to Dooley's comments, which ignored Little's "story" entirely in favor of listing his (apparently far more important) football accomplishments. And though we still wince at Dooley casually labeling the death of Susan Gutweiler a mere "mistake," the fuller context of Little's importance to the team does soften those previous remarks. We would suggest that next time, Dooley provide that context to begin with.