Back when he was winning national championships, back when he was helping a young quarterback named Tim Tebow become a crusading football evangelist, Urban Meyer explained one conquering night why his program at Florida was successful.
“At the end of the day, you want a bunch of players that are committed to the right thing. And it’s not easy to get that. It’s not easy,” he said in his post-game news conference after winning the 2008 national title, as the Associated Press pointed out recently. “In 20-something years of coaching, on one hand I can hold the amount of teams that I’ve been around the kids that do it the right way. I’m not talking about a few; I’m talking about the core of your team, if you do it the right way. And we’ve got it here at Florida.”
The rIght way? When he was at Florida? You can hear the snickering throughout college football five years later, as evidence continues to mount that Meyer is running wrong-way programs. First it was a report by the New York Times, following up on the Orlando Sentinel’s running database crime tally, that calculated the number of players on Meyer’s 2008 roster who were arrested during their college careers or after leaving Gainesville.
Forty-one, to be exact.
A third of the roster, busted
And one of the players who wasn’t arrested, though he did have scrapes with the law, was Aaron Hernandez.
Don’t forget Riley Cooper, either. He’s the one who fired a racial slur at an African-American security guard during a Kenny Chesney concert. “I will jump that fence and fight every (N-word) here, bro,” Cooper said. He was a receiver for Meyer at Florida.
Now there is trouble for Meyer at Ohio State, where his steady hand in reviving the Buckeyes after Jim Tressel’s messy departure has been interrupted by more arrests. When the focus should be on a possible national title run in the negotiable Big Ten, there instead are behavioral issues that jolted Meyer in a single swoop. A star cornerback, Bradley Roby, was arrested on a battery charge. A standout running back, Carlos Hyde, was investigated in the alleged assault of a woman at a Columbus bar, and even after police dropped the case when the woman didn’t press charges, Meyer still suspended Hyde for “at least” three games. One freshman was kicked off the team for the season after he was charged with obstructing police business, and another freshman will miss a game after a fake ID/underage alcohol episode.
All of which makes us ask if Meyer’s self-righteous spiel — “it all comes down to getting guys to … live right,” he said that long-ago night — has backfired on him irretrievably. A coach’s track record on discipline has to match his mission statement.
Any major program, of course, can be clouded by conduct problems at any time. But Meyer has a way of inviting criticism in and out of his profession, dating to a 2009 “resignation” at Florida that lasted, basically, a day. Remember when he staged a major press conference to discuss concerns about chest pains and headaches, announced he was leaving, then showed up at football practice the next day? Wasn’t he maybe a little bitter over losing to Alabama in the SEC championship game? Wasn’t that a dramatic power shift that led Meyer to ESPN and Nick Saban to three national titles in four years?
The knock on Meyer within his profession is that he has phony, backstabbing streaks. Consider how Ohio State twice has reported Florida for alleged secondary recruiting violations, which prompted Meyer’s successor in Gainesville, the feisty Will Muschamp, to fire back about Ohio State’s discipline issues (though he simply said “Ohio,” which also is Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s way of getting under Columbus’ skin). So the vultures are going to descend when a Florida rap sheet becomes an Ohio State rap sheet — in the very summer when Hernandez, whom Meyer took under his wing in Gainesville and recommended to Bill Belichick in New England, is charged with murder. Fair or otherwise, Meyer has a rep of letting football players go wild in an era when behavior never has been scrutinized more on the NFL and collegiate levels.
Facing the Big Ten media last month in Chicago, Meyer said he always has wanted to help young people instead of burying them. He is rethinking that strategy.
“I think you always can do more,” Meyer told reporters. “I mean, that’s something you wake up every day with … In the end you’ve got to feel in your heart we’re doing the right thing, that we’re in the people business and we have to do what’s right by those people. There’s never been one time that I thought we did wrong by that person. Now, sometimes I sit back and evaluate that we give too many second chances.
“Obviously there are some things that maybe we erred. We’re not the only program in America that makes mistakes, (but) we’ve had too many, and I’ve self-evaluated, evaluated our staff and evaluated how we do our business, and we’re continually changing to make sure we do it the right way.”
In fairness, Meyer maintained peace and order in Columbus in his transitional first season. The Buckeyes, ineligible for a bowl game after players swapped memorabilia for tattoos and Tressel didn’t quickly report what he knew, went 12-0. Then, all hell broke loose. “For 12 months it’s been really, really good, and I don’t want a disruption for this team,” said Meyer, who could start 12-0 again this season with Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller at quarterback. “The guys work too hard. To have a couple of knuckleheads make some decisions that reflect the entire program, I guess it’s part of the deal. It’s something that bothers me, bothers our staff, and we work very hard to avoid with our players.
“When a mistake happens, you have to react and get it done. So I’m disappointed. I think furious might be the word that would best describe when I first got the phone call.”
The biggest knucklehead is in a jail cell in Massachusetts. “It felt awful. It was a sick feeling,” Meyer said when he first learned of Hernandez’s arrest. “Your thoughts and prayers are with the family of the victims. Every player situation, every recruit situation, all I know is (it) will always be in the back of my mind. That’s all I can say.”
He’d probably like to remove the chosen headwear of two ex-Gators, twin brothers/NFL centers Mike and Maurkice Pouncey, who were photographed wearing “FREE HERNANDEZ” hats.
Muschamp has had his own internal issues. Starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison will miss the first two games after he was arrested twice in five weeks. HIs first problem — charged with battery for punching a bar bouncer — was serious. His second problem — barking at a police dog — was dismissed. Why would someone bark at a police dog for any reason, much less five weeks after punching a bouncer?
These are the questions college football coaches must ask every day when they recruit young men to represent universities and fan bases. We can debate whether Meyer is a hypocrite or a victim. But this much can’t be disputed: He should cease all commentary about doing things “the right way” when his path has taken a sharp detour.