Michael Dyer a good fit at Louisville, for the right reasons

Louisville football entered the offseason with a lot of questions surrounding the running back position, but by August it wasn’t a position battle that attracted the most scrutiny. The announcement that former Auburn star Michael Dyer would play for the Cardinals in 2013 elicited strong reactions from the local media, but the constant refrain was slippery-slope hand wringing peppered with moral reproach. Critics descended upon the symbolism of an elite athlete tarnished by incidents involving handguns and weed being welcomed into a community that emphasizes “no guns” and “no drugs” among its core tenets, displayed on official signage in the football facility. Particularly in the cynical summer of Aaron Hernandez and Johnny Van Der Beek Football, the subject of football players entitled to misconduct by virtue of their talent was, for good reason, a touchy one.

fball core-values

The fundamental rules of player conduct (UofL Card Game)

Adam Himmelsbach suggested Coach Charlie Strong’s moral authority to enforce those standards of conduct would erode as soon as a third-stringer got summarily booted for failing a drug test; that he’s set the stage for a glaring double standard to inevitably expose itself. Eric Crawford pointed out that against the backdrop of escalating gun violence in the Louisville community, Strong risks betraying his “larger audience” by ushering Dyer into the program. Rick Bozich went full kneejerk before Dyer’s decision to attend UofL had even been announced, mocking the “Give Michael Dyer A Chance Society” and falling just short of calling Strong a hypocrite.

That criticism would have resonated more in Charlie Strong’s first season with the Cards, as an inexperienced head coach whose most recent defenses had seen their fair share of trouble with Gainesville law enforcement during Urban Meyer’s tenure. But that was before Strong spent three years demonstrating the sincerity of his appeals to player conduct and, more importantly, player mentorship.

“We have a system in place––a system that has been successful”

Back in the summer of 2010, Demar Dorsey became the first public litmus of Strong’s willingness to compromise his program’s values for talent––or so the media narrative went. By most indications, Dorsey had gotten himself into some trouble at an uncomfortably early age, but had reformed himself and gained the trust of the coaches recruiting him, notably a very vocally supportive Rich Rodriguez. Perhaps “No Fly Zone” had flown a little too close to the sun with two felony charges early in high school, and perhaps the rookie Louisville coach worried about the possibility of suffering a public relations disaster right out of the gate. All this became moot when, for whatever reason, Dorsey was denied admission to the university.

A year later, former all-Big East freshman Darius Ashley left Strong no choice but to suspend him indefinitely after he earned his second DUI in six months. Rather than throw Ashley under the bus to bolster his credentials as a disciplinarian, Strong reaffirmed his commitment to ensuring Ashley had “the proper resources to get him the proper help” and declared, “We’re in this program to help young men.” Ashley, the presumptive starting cornerback that fall, never played another down in college but remained on scholarship while he became the first member of his family to graduate, ultimately earning an MBA at Louisville as well.

Vance Bedford’s “Get on the train” sound bite may have gained more traction with the marketing department, but the Ashley press conference was a more profound watershed moment––one that articulated Strong’s mission statement: “To help young men.”

It’s a mission Strong clearly hasn’t forgotten about. He explicitly referenced Ashley’s successful example during the recent press conference in which he said “I hope the Louisville community will back me in giving Michael another chance.” Strong cited Brandon Heath and Johnny Patrick as other Cardinals who successfully graduated despite behavioral stumbles. Though he wasn’t mentioned by name, Adrian Bushell most closely resembled Dyer’s situation, as a big-time SEC recruit sentenced to junior college purgatory after coaching staffs lost patience with his behavior. Under the mentorship of Strong and his staff, some of whom knew Bushell from Florida, the transfer became a two-time All-Big East selection, waxed his former team in the Sugar Bowl and ultimately inked a deal with the Raiders. Of Dyer, Strong said, “I can’t change his past, but only hope to help build on his future.” Given the coach’s track record thus far at Louisville, it’s hard not to feel optimistic.

But those who expressed misgivings about the Dyer transfer did so without disputing Strong’s ability to “mold and mentor young men;” they focused their criticism instead on the implication that those five core values are no longer equitably enforced. For an outside observer, it’s hard to discern whether those concerns genuinely apply to Dyer, or simply to the intransigent “thug” symbol he’s been condemned to represent. Revisiting the facts, Dyer has never been charged with a crime and has been, by all indications, a model student and member of the community under the guidance of Arkansas Baptist President Dr. Fitz Hill. That he smoked pot in college and owned a legally-registered handgun does not make Dyer an aberrant individual, nor does it prevent him from suspending those behaviors while enrolled at Louisville on a football scholarship. Indeed, laying off the pipe in order to earn and keep a job is a fact of life for many Americans.

Michael Dyer talked the talk and walked the walk in his elective year away from football: he expressed contrition and uncommon self-awareness, worked his butt off in the classroom, and said he chose Strong’s program because it offered a “support system that would continue to help me develop socially, emotionally and spiritually.” Moreover, the player signed a contract agreeing to abide by the same code of conduct as his teammates, though his agreement is likely uniquely restrictive.

If Charlie Strong’s Louisville program is indeed one that teaches and develops and reforms with a compassionate perspective; one that invites earnestness and modesty and redemption; that doesn’t shy away from a tarnished individual because, as skeptical writers observed, he needs the Cardinals more than they need him; then Michael Dyer is a worthwhile addition. If he earns a measure of personal vindication and helps his team win games this season, Strong’s risky decision will quickly become another feel-good newspaper feature.

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