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Cook: Rutherford incident worthy of suspension

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

So much for the naive notion that someone might actually learn something from the Joey Porter shooting.

Pitt quarterback Rod Rutherford certainly didn't. It's not as if he could have missed the Porter coverage Sunday. It was all over the news. It's always big news when any Steelers player -- especially an All-Pro linebacker -- is the victim of a drive-by shooting outside of a bar, putting his career on hold and threatening to dampen the team's Super Bowl plans a week before the season opener.

If ever there was a night for a Pittsburgh athlete to stay in and avoid the risk of trouble, it seemed as if it would have been Sunday night. But there Rutherford was, at a Station Square establishment late Sunday and in the early hours of Monday, perhaps in violation of Pitt's team rules. An incident with a woman allegedly took place. A car window was said to be shattered. The police were notified.

Suddenly, Rutherford was in the jackpot and had joined Porter in the headlines for all of the wrong reasons.

Pitt Coach Walt Harris should suspend him if for no other reason than sheer stupidity.

How Harris must have hated to take the call about Rutherford. It's every coach's nightmare. The timing of this news was funny, in a sad sort of way. On Sunday, after hearing of the Porter shooting, Harris must have thought, "God, I'm thankful I'm not Bill Cowher today." Fewer than 24 hours later, he was.

Harris should be getting used to this kind of thing. This has been his toughest year in coaching in that sense. Earlier this summer, he got word that one of his wide receivers, Billy Gaines, had died in a fall while drunk. This news wasn't nearly as devastating, but it still is a major distraction. It doesn't matter if Rutherford is innocent of any criminal behavior. No charges were filed yesterday. He still exhibited poor judgment and created an unnecessary headache for the team only days before its season opener against Kent State Saturday.

That Rutherford is involved has to hurt Harris as much as it angers him. It goes beyond the fact Rutherford is a team leader, the guy expected to lead Pitt to a big season, perhaps even the Big East Conference championship and a Bowl Championship Series game. Harris coaches the quarterbacks. He and Rutherford have worked closely together the past four-plus years. He has come to trust him. Rutherford let him and the team down big time.

It's hard to imagine what Rutherford was thinking to allow himself to get in that kind of position. He could have lost everything in that moment of anger Sunday morning. What if the broken glass had severed a tendon or an artery? His career could have been finished.

It's sad because Rutherford has worked so hard to make himself a star player and an NFL prospect. Early last season, his first as a starter, he heard boos and jeers from Pitt fans, not to mention chants for backup quarterback Tyler Palko. He shrugged it all off, went on to have one of the finest seasons in Big East history and led Pitt to nine wins for the first time since 1982.

"I couldn't be more proud of Rod," Harris said. "He's earned everything he's gotten."

Harris couldn't have been more disappointed in Rutherford yesterday.

It will be interesting to see how Harris disciplines Rutherford. We won't be the only ones watching. The other Pitt players will be, as well.

Harris has to suspend Rutherford at least for the Kent State game, doesn't he? This involves more than just the one player. It involves the team. Harris has to send a message that he won't tolerate that kind of behavior from anyone, not even the star quarterback. If being involved in an incident at a bar in the early-morning hours during a game week doesn't qualify as conduct detrimental to a college team, it should.

Harris also must stand in front of his players and preach to them again about responsibility. Cowher, in his first meeting with the Steelers since the Porter shooting, told his players yesterday "to make a five-month commitment to football."


Concentrate on what's important and save the partying for the off-season.

"It's not really about living in a cage," Plaxico Burress said. "It's about making smart decisions. It's about putting the team first, right up there with your family."

That's not too much for any coach to ask.

That's not naive thinking.

That's just common sense.

Ron Cook can be reached at or 412-263-1525.

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