JACKSONVILLE FL - OCTOBER 30: (FILE PHOTO) Head coach Urban Meyer of the Florida Gators watches the action during the game against the Georgia Bulldogs at EverBank Field on October 30 2010 in Jacksonville Florida. Urban Meyer announced December 8 2010 that he would be stepping down as head coach of the Florida Gators. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
The fall of Florida football late in the Urban Meyer era fascinates me for reasons beyond just the fact that I was born and raised a Gator fan. The question of how a team could go from being so good to so mediocre that quickly is one that I wonder if we'll ever get a complete answer to, but today's exposé from Matt Hayes of the Sporting News helps fill in some of the details.
In some ways, the article actually doesn't tell us too much that is new. It was quite apparent in 2010 that the team had no leadership to speak of. It only makes sense that the leadership structure had begun to crumble before then. According to the former players who contributed to the report, of whom only former safety Bryan Thomas was willing to be named, the program lost its way thanks to star players getting star treatment.
The players describe Meyer as having a "Circle of Trust", something Meyer claims he's never heard of, within which players were largely untouchable. I know Meyer did have some sort of player leadership team/council, so maybe that's what they're talking about. Anyway, the former players say the breakdown began on Week 1 of 2008. Brandon Spikes, Percy Harvin, and Aaron Hernandez missed that game due to what was at the time billed as injuries—as far as I can find, it was a bum heel for Harvin and a bad toe for Spikes. Meyer said those two were unlikely to play due to injuries earlier in the week. Hayes' sources say they were actually sitting out a game due to failing a drug test for marijuana. The unnamed sources said that's when they realized that different players had different rules.
I'm not going to reprint any of the other stuff; go to the source link to see the rest. It paints an unflattering picture of Meyer to say the least.
It felt to me like after 2009 the program was bereft of any kind of strong leadership, and perhaps this article helps explain why. Meyer's personal life was also spiraling out of control across 2008-09, leading to the infamous post-SEC title game 911 call in '09 and his first resignation. Not only was his coming and going with Steve Addazio sometimes in charge and sometimes not in charge probably not conducive to forming a good team, but the senior players weren't that great of leaders either. The veteran offensive line famously tried to put the star 2010 defensive line recruits in their place in fall camp, leading to a rift between the old and young players that was still around through 2011.
The thing to remember with any article like this one is that the only former players who will give juicy stories like these are the disgruntled ones. They are going to put the coach in a negative light and not focus on the good things.
When it comes to Meyer, I know his stance on discipline is largely formed by two cases: those of Marty Johnson at Utah and Avery Atkins at Florida. Johnson was a very troubled player that Meyer kicked off the team who even spent time in prison, but Meyer helped rehab him and got his life straightened out. He also kicked Atkins off the Florida team, but he wasn't able to help him afterwards. Atkins ended up dead of a drug overdose the following summer. We don't know what Meyer tried to do for the players called out for bad behavior in Hayes' piece behind closed doors where Thomas and the other sources couldn't see, but based on the Johnson and Atkins stories, I'm fairly certain he tried to steer them straight. Particularly after Atkins' death, he was wary of driving players too far away.
That said, there has to be some kind of discipline for star players who get in trouble that is visible to teammates if not necessarily to the public. After all, star players somehow get star treatment everywhere without it tearing teams apart.
Hayes' article makes it sound like some star players abused Meyer's trust without getting called out for it where other players could see. Spikes and Harvin get singled out a bit there, but even Tim Tebow abused Meyer's trust. He lied about concussion symptoms in order to play earlier than he should have. I could add additional reports of star players getting away with things if I felt my sourcing was better, and the Gainesville Sun's Pat Dooley called Harvin "the most coddled athlete in the history of Florida football" based on what he's heard. All of that led to a toxic rift at least among a few players, and that helped lead to the program falling apart. Once the leaders like Tebow and Spikes left following 2009, there were few if any good leaders ready to step up and take their places. With Meyer in and out, the team didn't have a chance.
With all that said, Meyer did plenty of other things to sink the program besides ruin team chemistry. His recruiting fell off a cliff when it came to actually finding players who can play. The epitome to me is senior Omarius Hines. He looks sculpted like a Greek god and is very fast for his size. He appears to be everything you'd want in a football player. This spring he got moved to running back, his third position of his career after coming in as a receiver and playing some tight end. In three seasons, he has 41 receptions and 13 rushing attempts. He's an amazing athlete but apparently is just not that good a football player. Meyer also called DT Omar Hunter "the Tim Tebow of his recruiting class", but since then Hunter has merely been a good rotation guy. Meyer's eye for talent failed him after 2007 with the exception of the 2010 class.
Meyer also made questionable coaching staff decisions. The most glaring one was replacing Dan Mullen with Addazio, as Addazio just wasn't up for juggling the twin responsibilities of offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. He hired Scot Loeffler in 2009 to help get Tebow NFL ready and develop John Brantley into a real SEC starter, and Loeffler largely failed on both accounts. How much of it was due to meddling from Meyer (highly likely in Tebow's case) or his own fault I don't know, but it wasn't a good fit overall. His first choice to replace Charlie Strong was George Edwards, who bailed almost immediately to take an NFL job. Meyer's original staff was phenomenal, but he sometimes struggled to find equally good replacements as those guys left to go elsewhere.
Meyer himself called the program "broken" after leaving. That implies that either he broke it or, through his inaction, allowed it to become broken. No one disputes that the poor shape of the program when he left was Meyer's fault; airing dirty laundry does little to make the situation better. It will help those who recruit negatively against him at Ohio State, and it might give some of the more impatient Gator fans cause to cut Will Muschamp some extra slack. That's about it.
To me, one of the most telling lines in the whole thing was this one from Meyer himself:
"My motives were pure as gold when I left. We left Florida because I was dealing with health issues that I’ve since learned how to control."
Oh really, coach? You said two years ago that family was the primary motivation for stepping away. Here finally is official confirmation from the horse's mouth of what I hope everyone had figured out long ago: his health problems were the only reasons he stepped down at Florida.
And as for Meyer allegedly telling recruit Stephon Diggs not to go to Florida because of character issues in the locker room he left behind? This is the guy who (allegedly) told Jevan Snead that he was recruiting Tebow as a linebacker. He will say anything to a recruit to get him to come aboard. I almost can't be upset at that one because I'm impressed with its audacity.
What that anecdote tells me is that he's back into coaching about as deep as he was at Florida. I said it in November, and I'll say it again now: I seriously doubt he makes it much longer in Columbus than he did in Gainesville. I can only hope for his sake that the postmortems on that phase of his career are a bit more flattering than this one from his time at UF.