By Ralph D. Russo
Aaron Hernandez’s troubles have become Urban Meyer’s problem.
A murder charge against Hernandez, who played for Meyer at Florida from 2007-09, has led to greater scrutiny of Meyer’s time as Gators coach — a six-year run highlighted by two national championships and Tim Tebow’s Heisman Trophy, but also marked by about two-dozen players making the police blotter.
Hernandez was not one of the 25 players who accounted for 31 arrests during Meyer’s tenure, but he had issues — “relatively speaking ... very minor stuff” — Meyer said in a recent interview with the Columbus Dispatch.
Those issues included Hernandez’s one-game suspension for failing a marijuana test; involvement in a bar fight that police records say left a man injured (no charges were filed); and being questioned as a witness in a shooting.
Meyer, who turned 49 Wednesday, answered critics of his oversight while at the school, saying in a recent statement to the Dispatch and the Gainesville Sun: “Relating or blaming these serious charges to the University of Florida, myself or our staff is wrong and irresponsible.”
Yet when Meyer was there, he often spoke out about the virtues of his players.
“I want to make sure that our players, this team goes down as one of the great teams in Florida football history,” he said the morning after Tebow and the Gators beat Oklahoma 24-14 in south Florida to win the 2008 national title. “It’s one of the greatest groups of young people I’ve ever been around, and I’m starting to get a little bit of experience behind me now, 20-something years, and that’s saying a lot because I’ve been around some great young guys.”
Later in the news conference, Meyer was asked what he had learned about running a program like Florida after stops at Bowling Green and Utah.
“It still comes down to getting guys to go as hard as they can, it all comes down to getting guys to graduate, to live right. 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. 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.”
Meyer set the bar high for his players and his program. When it failed to meet those standards, he became an easy target for his critics — of which there are now many.
“When a coach starts talking about how strong he is on discipline, and then things go wrong, people get all over him — when actually he’s no different from anybody else,” said former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, who went 0-5 against Meyer’s Gators and considers his old rival a friend.
Meyer certainly didn’t pick up many fans at rival schools during his time at Florida. His Gators feasted on most of the Southeastern Conference and dominated the school’s fiercest rivals. Against Georgia, Tennessee and Florida State, Meyer went 16-2 and showed no mercy in doing so.
When Meyer resigned for a second time as Gators coach — but this time for good — after an 8-5 2010 season to address health issues and spend more time with his family, many Florida fans felt abandoned and betrayed by him.
He left Gainesville with the program trending down, went to work for ESPN during his season away from coaching, and was introduced as coach of the Buckeyes in his home state of Ohio less than a year after he quit at Florida.
“That comes with the territory,” Bowden told the AP in a phone interview Tuesday. “How many times can you think of a successful coach leaving a school and that school not feeling some animosity toward him?”
The Hernandez case has provided an opportunity to revisit Meyer’s record, and also to note that despite his proclamations, not all was right with the Gators. A case can be made that Meyer was lax when it came to discipline and willing to take on players of questionable character.
“Every coach has some skeletons in his closet somewhere,” Bowden said.
And right now, Meyer’s is being inspected.