What happened at Florida? Not what some of the media has been reporting. Written by somebody who observed the Gator program from the inside for an entire season.
By BUDDY MARTIN
Go ahead – throw tomatoes at me. Call me a “homer.” You’ve got your mind made up about Urban Meyer and nothing I write is going to change that.
Let me try, anyway.
I saw Urban Meyer’s Florida football program from the inside for an entire season. Between the Gators’ two national championships, while writing his authorized biography, Urban’s Way, I was granted unparalleled access for a journalist.
I attended coaches meetings; observed dozens of closed practices; ate meals with the team, including during Family Night; rode the bus to the stadium with the team; ran through the tunnel on to Florida Field; sat inside the lockerroom during halftime, pre-game and post-game sessions; listened on the headsets as plays were called; conducted one-on-one interviews with every coach and several dozen players; and spoke off the record with school authorities about the off-field problems of every player who had been in trouble with the coaching staff or the law.
Like at almost all other programs, there were some issues with athletes at Florida. I wrote in the book about 17 players who had brushes with the law – most of them driving violations, suspended licenses, substance abuse or alcohol related incidents, or fights. There was only one case of a firearm which a player shot in the parking lot of bar, for which he was arrested, charged and dismissed from the team.
And before you ask, no, I wasn’t asked to pull any punches in the more than 130,000-word narrative published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press in 2008.
As a condition, I did sign a confidentiality agreement, which I continue to honor. Only now, however, after the recent Aaron Hernandez scandal, do I come forward with some of this information.
So if Urban Meyer is undergoing Trial by Media, what are the charges? That he harbored the criminals? That he knowingly coddled renegade athletes and looked the other way at their indiscretions? Or that he was loose with facts about his intentions to leave the job at Florida and therefore hypocritically portrayed his program as clean when it was overrun by the criminal element? To the well-informed those charges are almost laughable.
If Meyer was harboring criminals or hiding axe murderers in helmets and pads, I must have overlooked them.
Now Meyer is being characterized by some critics as someone who recruited troubled players and allowed them to run amok – not at all what I saw or heard.
As a matter of fact, the “30” which is often used to define the Meyer as the number of players who had been arrested was not even the most in the SEC. That distinguished achievement belonged to Georgia.
There was this huge controversy over how Meyer left Florida for Ohio State, which some critics have tried to lump together with his Aaron Hernandez connection as Acts One and Two of a morality play. But if there was a conspiracy to fleece The Gator Nation and play a Jedi Mind Trick on the fans by pulling off a disappearing act from Gainesville, I’m sorry – I totally missed it, too.
How I know? I lived in his world for almost 12 months.
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I was in the Meyer’s residence on numerous occasions and their lake home several more times. I went with the coaching staff to Longboat Key and cruised Tampa Bay on two occasions. And I was in contact with Urban on a regular basis.
Bitter fans and a few hardheaded columnists will continue to portray him as Jesse James and Benedict Arnold. But I can tell you first-hand that the Urban Meyer they claim to know is not the one I befriended starting in 2007.
Neither was he Al Capone.
Some suggest it was a promiscuous atmosphere around Meyer’s program which led to one of his former players becoming a major suspect in one or more murders.
I would not characterize Meyer’s program as “renegade” or “permissive.” In fact, I venture to say he and his coaches spent more time mentoring/babysitting their athletes than any coaching staff I’ve ever known.
This is not to deny Hernandez got in trouble at Florida. Some bloggers have implied that Hernandez failed multiple drug tests at UF – as many as nine – but Meyer and other insiders I spoke with say that’s grossly exaggerated. The records are sealed.
The Orlando Sentinel reported that Hernandez was among several Florida Gators questioned after Corey Smith was shot in the head at about 2:20 a.m. on Sept. 30, 2007, while driving a Crown Victoria past 1250 W. University Avenue.
According to the Orlando newspaper: “Two men were shot, including one in the head, prompting Gainesville police to categorize the incident as an attempted homicide. No charges have been filed and the case is still considered open.’
The man who drove Hernandez to the police station for questioning told me he sat downstairs for six hours awaiting the outcome. Hernandez was told by police they would get back to him. The next time they did, Hernandez had employed the services of prominent defense attorney Huntley Johnson. The Gainesville cops never interrogated Hernandez again.
When Urban broke his silence on the Hernandez case recently, he vehemently denied that his former tight end had a long rap sheet or was allowed to operate by a different set of standards as a Gator in Gainesville. When interviewed in Columbus: “He was questioned about being a witness (to a shooting), and he had an argument in a restaurant (in which Hernandez allegedly struck an employee in an argument over an unpaid bill), and he was suspended one game (reportedly for a failed marijuana test). Other than that, he was three years a good player. That was it.”
As for the reports that Hernandez failed multiple drug tests?
“This is absolutely not true,” said Meyer. “Hernandez was held to the same drug-testing policy as every other player.”
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This is what I learned about how Hernandez got to Florida. He was recruited by an assistant coach from Connecticut, who knew of his checkered past.
Meyer balked at recruiting him. Partly because one of his assistant coaches was so passionate about signing Hernandez and partly because he became convinced “the mission” could change him, Meyer recapitulated.
Urban brought Hernandez to early morning bible study. He even assigned Aaron as Tebow’s roommate his first year and asked the Pouncey brothers, Mike and Maurkice, to stay close by his side.
Does this sound like a man coddling a criminal?
Or maybe like Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his celebrated coach Bill Belichick, perhaps Urban Meyer was “duped.”
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I can’t say I really know Hernandez, but numerous times I had been in group with other media when he was interviewed. When I talked to Hernandez one-on-one for the Urban Meyer book, he was very expressive about his strong feeling for his coach. This is what I wrote:
” … As Tebow points out, part of the mission is helping young men get their lives on track. One of those most appreciative is Aaron Hernandez, who came to Florida in January 2006, just after his father had died. He was feeling lost and drifting, ‘headed down the wrong path,’ admitted Hernandez.
“I (Hernandez) had a little emptiness in me. He (Meyer) kind of filled it—a father figure, someone I could look up to,” said the junior tight end from Connecticut. “He was always there for me. Even when I made bad decisions, he always took me through them and taught me the right direction. And he showed me the love I needed at the right time.”
Only now has Hernandez come to understand why Urban Meyer was so hard on him for not paying attention to studies, or doing the wrong things off the field.
“He always wants the best for his players. Sometimes it seems like he doesn’t like you. He knows how to play mind games with you to make you reach your potential. Not many coaches in this world really care about their players. He cares about his players. Wants the best for them. Wants them to have a great education. Wants them to do stuff out of football once they’re done. He and I have a bond. I love him as a father figure as well as a coach.”
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As to the inference that Meyer coddled the criminal element, it is true that his home was open to many players who often came over and swam in the Meyer’s pool, feasted on Shelley Meyer’s cupcakes and enjoyed family activities. Including Hernandez.
Would a man allow “criminals” to roam free in his home with his family?
Meyer demanded that all his position coaches “babysit” their players and know everything from their test scores, to their girl friends problems to their after-hours conduct.
Maybe Meyer could be charged with being naive enough to think he could help rehabilitate a soul in a Christian-like atmosphere where forgiveness is the underpinning.
Those who suggest that players with criminal records were held to a different standard should remember that a Heisman Trophy winner who won a national championship for Auburn was run out of the Florida program. Cam Newton was playing behind Tim Tebow when he quit school before he was about to be tossed out.
This isn’t to suggest Meyer ran a school for Girl Scouts.
Know this about his modus operandi: He will take every permissible competitive edge, but he abhors cheaters.
Continuing to recruit players who had verbally committed to other schools before they had signed a grant-in-aid didn’t win him any popularity contest with other coaches.
Media members were miffed that he wouldn’t go public with many of the team injuries – and would not comment on them. The Florida coach was accused of masking suspensions by holding out players with minor injuries.
This bred an air of suspicion and perhaps led to an assumption that Meyer had manipulated the truth when he quit as coach, came back, then announced his health was forcing him to get out of coaching, which he did for a year when he worked for ESPN as a college football analyst. When Ohio State came calling and Urban said “yes,” the I-told-you-sos lambasted him as a hypocrite and a liar.
I can tell you for a fact that Meyer did not orchestrate the Ohio State deal. In the second month of his 2011 season with ESPN, on a weekday, he invited me to come to his home for an off-the-record chat. He was cleared eyed, calm and had put back on about 15 pounds that he had lost due to stress. That day he openly admitted that he wanted to coach again one day but was enjoying broadcasting immensely. “Maybe in a couple of years,” he said of his coaching future.
He knew he wanted to coach again, but wasn’t ready to even tell his wife Shelley about it – let alone make a public pronouncement.
Meanwhile, he still had an office at the Florida athletic department and was sort of a good will ambassador for the program.
At that point, there were still rumors about Joe Paterno, pre-scandal, stepping down and that some alumni had targeted Urban as his successor. Penn State had never been on his so-called short list of coaching jobs, which included Ohio State, Michigan and Notre Dame.
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In the end, all the legal hassles and problematic behavior of his athletes began to wear on Meyer.
With two national championships under his belt, Meyer had the program on elite status in December 2009. Then the bomb exploded. One of his star defensive players went to the birthday party of a teammate, had too much to drink and was found passed out in his car at a stoplight, motor running. Oddly enough, he wasn’t even known among his teammates as a drinker had rejected a ride from a designated driver.
Carlos Dunlap was kicked off the team just five days prior to the Dec. 5 SEC Championship Game vs. Alabama. That Saturday night, had the Gators beaten the Crimson Tide as they had the year before, Meyer had a legitimate shot at becoming the first college coach ever to win three BCS titles in four years. Instead, without Carlos Dunlap as a defender, Nick Saban’s team ran roughshod over the Gators, 32-13, and went on to win the national title. Maybe Dunlap’s presence would have altered that outcome, maybe not. But it certainly had a huge negative impact on the team and the coach.
Later that same night, Meyer fell out of bed clutching his chest and his wife called 911. He was hauled away in an ambulance thinking he was having a heart attack. A few days later he resigned. When he tried to come back, it was never the same. He left behind a legacy of 65 wins, 15 losses as the school’s winningest coach, plus two SEC trophies and a pair of crystal mementoes.
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The real morality play about evil vs. good is still playing out among the triumvirate of Urban Meyer, Tim Tebow and Aaron Hernandez. Little revelations here and there add up to an intriguing scenario about three men who came together on a football field to perform remarkable athletic accomplishments, but are now miles apart in geography and ethical forensics.
After being bashed by those who charged Meyer with a coverup of Hernandez’s alleged criminal conduct at Florida, the Ohio State coach broke his silence in an interview with Tim May of the Columbus Dispatch. He explained why he chosen to so:
“Whenever someone attacks your character, our staff — people aren’t aware of all the things we do in terms of being a mentor, dealing with issues and all that. Yeah, I have been avoiding talking about this because you’re talking about a serious crime; you’re talking about families that have been very affected by this. And to pull something back personal that isn’t true from four to seven years ago, that’s mind-boggling to me.”
Tebow has yet to weigh in on Hernandez. A story recently characterized the quarterback as a willing participant in an attempt to rehabilitate Hernandez who went as far as to try and extricate his teammate from a barroom incident in which he punched somebody.
Squeaky clean Tebow in a bar? “Yes,” so the joke now goes. “He was there to bless the wine.”
So powerful has Tebow’s living testimony been that even troubled stars like Daryl Strawberry have embraced his virtue.
“I look at Tebow. He gets bashed because of his faith. Let ’em laugh. Let ’em talk. He’s a greater man than anyone who might be greater than him as an athlete. He’s a real man,” Strawberry recently said in an interview with Bob Nightengale of USA Today.
The fact is that not even one of the most revered athletes in college football history who wore his faith on his sleeves and his eye black could not reverse the ill-fated fortune of someone accused of such heinous crimes as mob-style execution.
So why couldn’t Meyer and Tebow change Hernandez? Insiders say if he’d been able to play for the 49ers or Cowboys or Packers and avoided going back to his old neighborhood maybe there would have been a shot, so to speak. Meyer talked about that in the Dispatch article.
“At the end of the day, there is free will,” said Meyer. “You can’t change people. You can set the table and try to help them, make sure there is a spiritual component in their life, make sure there is a family atmosphere. And that’s what we try to do — it’s what we’ve tried to do everywhere.”
In a poignant commentary for FoxSports.com, columnist Jason Whitlock blamed the conduct of Hernandez and other criminals in sports on a diseased culture, saying he was “a natural byproduct” of a group that glamorizes the prison/gangster/hip-hop lifestyle and has “installed Tony Soprano as America’s most celebrated icon above Joe Montana.” Whitlock, who is African-American, went on to say that rapper/agent Jay-Z was “this generation’s Babe Ruth and Beyonce (his wife) is Marilyn Monroe.” He suggested that those so-inclined athletes favor the image of Soprano’s loose-cannon nephew Christopher Moltisanti over LeBron James.
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In his first season at Ohio State, Meyer led the Buckeyes to a 12-0 season although they were ineligible for the post-season. His OSU team is already ranked as one of the favorites to win everything this fall.
Meanwhile, some people seem to want to portray Meyer as the villain — and I don’t mean the fans at Michigan or Alabama. His biggest battle seems to be not against the Big Ten rivals, but against the perception that he fostered an environment that bred the likes of Aaron Hernandez.
In the end, as suggested by Whitlock, perhaps it is the glamorization of evil icons in a drug-idolizing American culture which has stacked the deck against the Meyers and the Tebows of the world.