I asked two questions to Florida coach Dan Mullen near the end of his news conference Tuesday. Both were related to off-the-field issues, which I wrote about in today’s Tampa Bay Times.
Judging by the response on Twitter (including one personal threat), not everyone agreed with my line of questioning about a months-old accusation, or what I wrote about it. So let me explain my thought process involving a complicated, messy, nuanced situation.
First, background: In October, Gators defensive back John Huggins was accused of choking a 19-year-old female tutor. The University of Florida Police Department wrote a report on the incident, but the woman chose not to pursue a criminal case.
The incident wasn’t reported at the time by me or my colleagues in the media. I didn’t hear about the case until this week. Although Huggins didn’t participate in five games after the report was filed, his absence was easy to miss. He was a true freshman backup defensive back who recorded three tackles all season. Because he was not arrested or charged with a crime, you’re not going to find a police report like that unless you look for it. And I didn’t know to look for it.
So why did it come up now, 10 months later? Because Huggins hasn’t been with the team during preseason camp.
His absence has been the subject of a lot of speculation over the past few weeks, in part because he’s expected to be a key contributor in a thin secondary. UF has said he’s been dealing with a family issue. I won’t get into rumors that have been circulating on social media and message boards; that’s not fair to anyone. But it’s my job to look into those rumors to see what’s true and what isn’t. That’s why I asked for police reports, which led to the discovery of the October incident and my first question to Mullen: Is his current absence related to the choking allegation from last year?
“No,” Mullen said. “That’s all been handled.”
That makes sense. Huggins, after all, did miss five games last year. So why did I even bring it up? Because it’s possible there was a link between his past and the present. As one hypothetical example, the police report said that the woman chose not to pursue a criminal case but that she “was still able to press charges at a future date if she so wishes.” I asked the question to find out whether something like that happened that might be affecting Huggins’ status on the team.
Again, Mullen said there was no connection between the two.
Regardless, the discovery of the October incident raises more questions about Mullen and his program. I asked Mullen one of them: Now that four members of his program have been accused of violence (or threatening violence) against women, what is he doing about it? I was incorrect, by the way. It was five, not four, because I forgot about Justin Watkins last year.
“We do a lot, you know,” Mullen said. “I mean how many of them are actually charged?”
Three were arrested. Two had their cases dropped, and the third (Watkins) had his reopened recently after he violated the terms of his probation.
With the other two players (Huggins and blue-chip quarterback Jalon Jones), the women involved declined to pursue criminal cases.
I didn’t imply that Mullen has done nothing on the issue. In my story, I pointed out that UF suspended Huggins, Jones and Brian Edwards. The support staff member lost his job. Of the five, only Huggins remains with the program.
I asked the question to see what Mullen has been doing about it. I’ve covered college football long enough to know that allegations like these are not uncommon among big-time programs. But I also know that five members of the program involved in six alleged incidents in 11 months is a lot. It’s also worth remembering that Mullen and Mississippi State received a lot of scrutiny with how they handled the Jeffery Simmons assault case three years ago.
So here’s Mullen’s full response to my question about what he’s doing to address the issue:
“Part of it is also, I mean there’s a lot out there. You know I mean? Now we do a lot of education on our team with that stuff. Obviously I’m a big anti-violence against women person. I’m also a person that I really want to have all of the information as I make decisions and what happens in different situations and that’s one of the toughest deals. Because, it’s a jump to conclusion on every detail that happens sometimes. It’s something that obviously, it puts us as coaches sometimes in a really tough decision as you deal with that stuff. Because you want to give people an opportunity to have rights, like everybody else in the United States are supposed to. But everybody wants to see ‘what are we doing’ instantly.
“And we try to gather the facts. We spend a lot of time in educating our guys. Obviously we are very anti-violence against women, but as you try to investigate the situations, as you try to educate guys on what happens.
“The great thing is educating on how to make good decisions. Everything gets back to decision making, how can I make good decisions in life? If they are learning how to make good decisions and how to put yourself in good situations, that’s how we spend all our time educating our guys on those things — and trying to educate the team as a whole. Educate young people as a whole, some of them have never had that type of education, have never been exposed to those type of thing.
“You don’t know the situations they have been brought up; you don’t know the norm for them is. A lot of guys… I think one of the hardest ones, that I spend a lot of time educating is trying to learn about guy’s backgrounds and what they view as their norm. Whether it’s anything from how to go to class and do your school work, violence against women, on what’s your take on drugs. I had a player once on drugs say ‘I don’t know why we do this. In my culture smoking marijuana is a huge positive that’s embraced in my culture.' We can’t do that here. It wasn’t here it was somewhere else but you can’t do that. So we try to educate all those guys, taking in their backgrounds and how to educate on how to make really good decisions in life. And one of those, it’s a real difficult deal of jumping to conclusions with everything that’s happened.”