Mark SchlabachESPN Senior Writer5 minute reading
ATHENS, Ga. — Despite two players being arrested in the past two weeks for street racing offenses, including Jalen Carter’s booking Wednesday in connection with a Jan. 15 crash that killed a Georgia football player and a recruiting staff member, coach Kirby Smart insists the program his does not have a culture problem.
“Absolutely not. I would say we’re a long way from that,” Smart told ESPN on Friday. “When you talk to people outside of our program who come into it, they talk about what a great culture we have — and we do an incredible job. Because I have a lot of external entities that come into our program and flow into these the young men.
“Do we have perfect young men and women and players? Not necessarily. But I promise you this, that’s the intent: for us to grow these guys and get them better. And I feel really good about the culture of our program.”
Smart, in his first interview since offensive lineman Devin Willock and recruiting analyst Chandler LeCroy were killed, said he and his staff have worked hard to educate their players about the dangers of speed and racing.
Carter, the former Bulldogs defensive tackle who is a potential No. 1 pick in April’s NFL draft, was arrested Wednesday on misdemeanor charges of reckless driving and racing. He was released after a short prison term. Linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson, a 2022 Butkus Award finalist, was arrested last week on the same charges.
Police officers said they observed Dumas-Johnson’s vehicle traveling at high speeds before fleeing the scene on Jan. 10, the day after Georgia defeated TCU to win its second straight national title.
Then on Jan. 15, just hours after Georgia celebrated with a parade and ceremony at Sanford Stadium, Athens-Clarke County police alleged Carter drove a Ford Expedition driven by LeCroy on a street near campus. Police said the Expedition left the road around 2:45 a.m. and hit two utility poles and several trees.
Willock, an offensive lineman from New Jersey, was ejected from the vehicle and died at the scene. He was sitting behind LeCroy and was not wearing a seat belt. LeCroy was taken to the hospital by ambulance and died as a result of her injuries.
Former Georgia player Warren McClendon and another female employee, Tory Bowles, were injured but survived.
Police said the Expedition was going 104 mph when it crashed. A toxicology report indicated LeCroy’s blood alcohol concentration was 0.197, about 2½ times the legal limit in Georgia.
Smart said he was asleep at home when his wife, Mary Beth, woke him up with the devastating news. He had several missed calls on his cell phone.
“Heartache,” Smart said when asked what he remembered from that night. “Got a call at 3 o’clock or so in the morning. Immediately went to the emergency room. Probably one of the toughest moments I’ve ever experienced as a coach and manager to see the pain on the faces of the players who had joined. in the emergency room that morning. [Athletics director] Josh Brooks was there. You know, [I] still remember the ER doctor who told me the news, and just one of the most painful experiences of my life.”
Smart said many players are still struggling emotionally from the tragedy.
“Inside our building, we have 130 football players who are hurting and have been dealing with pain. And we’ve been emotionally supporting these guys’ mental health,” Smart said. “We had several players struggling to come back after the parade who have really dealt with this. It’s been a tough, trying time for our family, our internal family, both staff and players. And we continue to support both Willock and Chandler- families.”
Smart’s last interaction with Willock, 20, came at the end of the parade and celebration.
“I remember him walking out with a big smile on his face when he left the stadium,” Smart said. “I was just coming through speaking up on the podium and we were smacking each other [and] gave each other knuckles as we did from time to time. He just had an infectious smile. One of the gentlest, best people in terms of character. You know, he picked up my 10-year-old son and carried him off the field on the night of the championship.”
Smart said he did not recall seeing LeCroy, 24, at the celebration.
The expedition that LeCroy drove had been chartered by the athletics department for recruiting. Asked if it was LeCroy’s job to get players home that night, Smart replied: “Absolutely not. Absolutely not.” He added that there was no need for policy changes as a result of the crash.
Smart said he was not aware Carter was cited in September for going 89 mph in a 45 mph zone. The Athens-Clarke County police officer begged Carter to slow down — and tell his teammates to do the same.
“You guys need to slow down, dude,” the officer said and continued, “your break is that you’re not going to jail. Because that would make all kinds of news, wouldn’t it?”
Smart said his program brought in officers from the UGA Police Department and Athens-Clarke County Police last summer to educate players about the dangers of street racing. Smart said Bryant Gantt, the program’s director of player support operations, suggested it after watching news clips of street racing in Atlanta.
If Georgia’s players didn’t heed the warning then, Smart hopes they’ll learn from the Jan. 15 tragedy.
“I mean, there [are] laws in place for those things, to prevent that for a reason,” Smart said. “And we want to educate our players in every way, every part of our organization. We are always looking for a better way no matter what it is, including health and safety. I talked about drugs and alcohol, talked about gambling, talked about racing cars and high speeds. You’ve got to educate your players and you’ve got to make sure they understand the risks and the dangers of that and that’s something we’ve tried to do.”