KNOXVILLE — Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton says his tolerance for athletes being involved in criminal activity “has gone to zero” after a second high-profile series of arrests in less than two months.
Senior forward Tyler Smith, junior point guard Melvin Goins, junior center Brian Williams and sophomore guard Cameron Tatum are suspended indefinitely after being arrested Friday on gun and drug charges.
In November, three freshmen football players were charged with attempted armed robbery. Two of them, wide receiver Nu’Keese Richardson and defensive back Mike Edwards, were dismissed.
“I think it’s a really good time to do a gut check with our student-athletes and our coaches and our staff to make sure we’re doing everything possible,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said he and other Tennessee officials may look at long-term changes to the athletic department’s policies on drug usage and gun ownership.
The school already has stringent rehabilitation programs in place for athletes who fail drug tests and prohibits students from bringing weapons onto campus, but changes could include additional punishment for drug offenses and prohibiting all gun ownership by athletes.
Both Hamilton and coach Bruce Pearl have spoken with the players involved and said the players are embarrassed and upset for the negative attention their arrests have brought to the program.
Hamilton said he and Pearl are waiting to make any decisions about the players’ future with the program until their own anger about the situation subsides and they receive more information from authorities and the players themselves.
“Indefinite suspension, what does that mean,” Hamilton said. “For me it means we start at dismissal and work our way backward. It doesn’t mean we start at one game and work our way forward. We’ll see where it goes from there.”
The four players were arrested after police pulled over the car Tatum was driving for speeding and smelled a strong odor of marijuana. Police said they found two guns, one with the serial number altered, a bag of marijuana and an open container of alcohol after searching the vehicle, which Tennessee officials said was borrowed from a friend of the players.
They’re charged with a variety of misdemeanors including unlawful possession of a firearm, possession of a firearm with an altered serial number and drug possession.
Knoxville Police spokesman Darrell DeBusk says investigators are analyzing the guns for fingerprints and will try to determine the guns’ history and ownership. They also will turn their information over to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to review for possible federal violations.
None of the four players have claimed to own either gun, though DeBusk said Smith told police they were aware of the guns’ presence in the borrowed car.
In the mean time, Pearl is adjusting his lineup and his game plan as the Vols (10-2), who despite having their biggest win of the season against Memphis last week dropped two spots in The Associated Press poll to No. 16, prepare to face Charlotte (10-3) on Wednesday.
The four players each average over 15 minutes of play and combine for an average 32.4 points and 14.7 rebounds per game. Smith had started all 12 games this season, and Tatum had six starts.
“This is a chance for me to step up and lead this team like people have been wanting me to do,” said sophomore guard Scotty Hopson, who likely will start with senior point guard Bobby Maze, senior guard J.P. Prince, senior forward Wayne Chism and sophomore guard Renaldo Woolridge.
Their absences leave Pearl with only six scholarship players as a meeting with No. 1 Kansas on Sunday looms. Pearl said he plans to bolster his rotation with three walk-on players, guard Skylar McBee, forward Steven Pearl and point guard Josh Bone.
“I don’t know how good we are right now,” Pearl said. “I know how good we are in practice, and I’ll learn a lot about this group on Wednesday night. And then, of course, we’ll be facing the challenges ahead.”