When Florida's credit card fraud scandal was just beginning, coach Jim McElwain was asked (again) about the off-the-field problems of star receiver Antonio Callaway.
Callaway was in trouble for the third time in three years. A reporter asked McElwain if he had a limit to how many transgressions he would accept from his best offensive weapon.
"Absolutely," McElwain said last month.
We're about to find out exactly where that line is.
Callaway is among nine Gators facing multiple felony complaints on suspicion of using stolen credit cards to fund electronics purchases through debit accounts at the school's bookstore. No charges have been filed as the State Attorney's Office reviews the case, and all nine remain indefinitely suspended.
Things look particularly dim for two of Callaway's teammates, defensive lineman Jordan Smith and offensive lineman Kadeem Telfort (who has filed a written not guilty plea through his attorney). They could face a combined four dozen felony charges, making a pre-trial diversion program that would drop the cases highly unlikely.
If the allegations are proven beyond a reasonable doubt, it's hard to see either ever playing a snap for UF.
Callaway is different. He always has been.
Callaway almost single-handedly gave McElwain the first big win of his UF tenure — a 28-27 win over Tennessee during his freshman season. The junior from Miami was the first player in UF history to score touchdowns via rush, catch, pass, punt and kickoff returns. He showed up as a potential first-round pick this spring on too-early NFL mock drafts.
But he couldn't stay out of trouble. There was the sexual assault accusation that led UF to suspend him for spring ball in 2016; Callaway was cleared of any wrongdoing but admitted to being high on marijuana at the time of the encounter. In May, he received a citation on a complaint of marijuana possession.
While Callaway's checkered history doesn't disqualify him from a diversion program that could allow him to avoid deeper legal troubles, it should be enough to end his Gators career.
McElwain deflected a question about Callaway's future Monday as court records were beginning to pop up. UF insists McElwain didn't know about the complaints until he was asked about them during his weekly news conference, and he didn't want to comment before knowing all the details.
"Obviously, the university first and what that is," McElwain said of how the Gators will handle the potential charges. "Yet, at the end of the day I'll do everything I can to help these guys."
That doublespeak is the tone McElwain has to strike for now, because everything comes back to recruiting.
Recruits want to play for a coach who has their back. Not everyone agreed with how Florida State's Jimbo Fisher handled the sexual assault accusation against star quarterback Jameis Winston, who now starts for the Bucs. But blue-chip running back Jacques Patrick did; he cited Fisher's support for Winston as one reason he committed to FSU in 2014.
That doesn't mean McElwain and the Gators have to keep Callaway around if formal charges are brought against him.
"I mean, I'm not sure you'd be sitting here with a felony," McElwain told a reporter Monday.
McElwain might have the wiggle room to keep Callaway, if charges are reduced or dropped. As long as the case remains open, McElwain doesn't have to make a decision. He can stress the gravity of the accusations while still publicly backing his players.
But eventually the case will move forward, and McElwain and UF's administration will come to the obvious conclusion — the one that ends the UF career of one of the program's most controversial figures.
"As I said, the one thing I will do is continue to help," McElwain said last month. "I'll continue to be there. I'll continue to support.
"But obviously the consequences — you make your own bed, man."
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.