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Did Meyer Run A Dirty Program?

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Some have started to question Urban Meyer's sterling reputation while at Florida as information emerges about Aaron Hernandez' time in Gainesville. Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images.
Some have started to question Urban Meyer's sterling reputation while at Florida as information emerges about Aaron Hernandez' time in Gainesville. Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images.

When Urban Meyer coached the Gators from 2005-10, there were no major recruiting violations, no off-the-field incidents and no major scandals. Just a lot of winning. When he left for health reasons, then fled to Ohio State, fans were upset, but didn't feel like the program was in trouble.

Then rumors started spreading. There was a whisper across the Big Ten that maybe Meyer left for more than health reasons. NFL scouts started red-flagging Gator prospects, and Sporting News leaked a report that asserted Meyer and the coaches had lost all control in the locker room.

The common notion was disbelief. Meyer was clean, upstanding and always said the right things. Players never got in trouble. White knight Tim Tebow was the face of the program.

Now, with some more distance between Meyer's departure and today, critics and fans can see there may have been some truth to those "circle of trust" accusations.

Percy Harvin has always been a dynamic playmaker. He averaged nearly a first down per attempt at Florida. There were no reported incidents, arrests, fights or arguments with coaches. However, Sporting News claimed that Harvin practically ran the team. Harvin allegedly punched a coach and decided that running stadiums wasn’t fun and decided the team should play basketball for cardio instead.

The rumors of Harvin as a character problem surfaced during the NFL Combine. This was a shock to Florida fans that had heard nothing but good things about Harvin. The rumors were that he clashed with coaches and wasn’t a team player. Harvin proved to be a dynamic player in Minnesota, but eventually pushed his way out to Seattle. Now, Harvin's reputation has changed. He’s gone from hard-working playmaker to talented malcontent. People began to think that either Meyer kept Harvin on a short leash, or simply covered up his incidents.

Brandon Spikes was one of the few Gators players to be considered a dirty player. He gained notoriety during his time in Gainesville for gouging the eyes of an opposing player and served a suspension. He is the exception to the “circle of trust” pattern, an accused dirty player in college with no issues as a pro. The communist government-level of secrecy in New England might factor into the silence around Spikes since entering the NFL.

The flagship piece of evidence for Sporting News is Aaron Hernandez. Quietly tucked into the piece as part of the “circle of trust,” Hernandez since has become infamous for his involvement in the alleged murder of Odin Lloyd. Hernandez has been arrested and is the prime suspect in the case.

Apart from an allegedly covered-up drug test, there was nothing from Hernandez’s tenure at Florida to hint that he would be a character problem. He was simply a productive player for the Gators. He stayed out of the limelight and caught passes out of the motion option. During his tenure at Florida, no news stories came out about any of Hernandez’s indiscretions that have floated out since the murder. Many sources allege that Hernandez was involved in a fight in Gainesville, a fight in South Florida and a shooting in Gainesville. The allegations claim Meyer covered up all those incidents.

The confluence of these accusations and the evidence of poor character among Meyer’s previous players, currently in the NFL, have led some to blame Meyer for the actions of Hernandez. Meyer finally responded to these accusations when talking to the Columbus Dispatch.

“Relating or blaming these serious charges to the University of Florida, myself or our staff is wrong and irresponsible.” He also denied the cover-ups: “I just received an e-mail from a friend where there is an accusation of multiple failed drug tests by Hernandez covered up by University of Florida or the coaching staff. This is absolutely not true, Hernandez was held to the same drug testing policy as every other player.”

While it is unjust to blame a head coach for the possible murder of a former player, Meyer should shoulder some of the responsibility for running a program that may have gotten out of control. There is no way to know for sure if Sporting News’ accusations are true, but with every passing character issue, the report looks more and more credible.

The question every college football fan must ask: Is it worth it? Is it worth the black mark on the university, the possible NCAA ramifications and the sullied reputation to win football games? For many fans the answer is yes. Personally, I think football is simply a game, and sometimes coaches, players and fans take it all too seriously.

However, fans can’t have it both ways. They cannot demonize a coach for discipline problems when he’s losing or after he’s left, while overlooking suspensions and character questions as long as he is winning at their school. Furthermore, is it fair to criticize Meyer for the actions of Hernandez? To what extent is a coach responsible for the development of these young men? His contract says he is a football coach and he’s paid to win games. But he does promise fathers and mothers of recruits that he will take care of their boys and guide them toward their future in the NFL. So it’s on the fans again. Is winning all that matters? Or will fans give a losing coach a pass if his graduation rates are up and he runs a clean program?

Meyer is the product of a system that rewards winning above all else. He took chances on talented players of questionable character to win football games. Meyer won championships and was treated like a king. One wonders if Gators fans would be so upset about Meyer’s problems if he was still wearing orange and blue.