On leave at Ohio State, Urban Meyer had a mess as Gators coach, too

Then-Gators coach Urban Meyer talks with star tight end Aaron Hernandez (81), whose bad behavior at UF resulted in Bible counseling from Meyer. After his college career, Hernandez was convicted of murder and committed suicide in prison.[Times file, 2010]
Then-Gators coach Urban Meyer talks with star tight end Aaron Hernandez (81), whose bad behavior at UF resulted in Bible counseling from Meyer. After his college career, Hernandez was convicted of murder and committed suicide in prison.[Times file, 2010]
Published August 5 2018

GAINESVILLE — Is this where it began?

On Thursday, I was sitting at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Florida football citadel, attending media day. Like everyone else, I was focused on the news out of Columbus, Ohio. The Urban Meyer news.

Meyer, who hit the heights at Florida, might lose his job as Ohio State coach over revelations in the Zach and Courtney Smith case. Meyer's thousand-yard stare, winning at all costs, should cost him his job if he knew as much as he seems to have known about the domestic abuse allegations against now former Buckeyes receivers coach Smith.

Meyer now says he "failed" when dealing with questions from media at Big Ten media day. In other words: He lied. He is on paid administrative leave as Ohio State presumably ponders the exact cost of the cliff Meyer might be pushed off.

But did this all begin in Gainesville? Is this where Meyer, thrust on the national stage, first displayed the tunnel vision that consumed him, that excluded everything but winning, including two UF national championships?

After all, Gainesville is where Meyer first hired Smith as a graduate assistant, and where Smith was first accused of domestic abuse by his then-wife Courtney, and where Meyer stuck by him. Because he could.

I'm sure there are Gator fans in the Nation happy over Meyer's sudden fall. They still hold it against him for it ending badly in Gainesville: taking a leave of absence for health reasons after the 2009 season, returning to coach the Gators in 2010, leaving for good after the season finale at the Outback Bowl to spend more time with his family only to join ESPN about a month later, then nine months later landing the Ohio State job, where he is an absurd 73-8 with a national title.

But I don't know how much gloating can be done in Gainesville.

I mean, did it begin here?

Even though Meyer hasn't worked in Gainesville for eight years, these are bad optics for the Nation. And Florida already has a hot mess with players' off-field transgressions, now being monitored by new head coach and Meyer disciple Dan Mullen.

Media day wasn't Mullen's finest moment. Talking about Meyer's situation, Mullen mentioned texting Meyer, "just saying he and the family were in our prayers." What happened to prayers for Courtney Smith, the real victim in this case?

Mullen also explained his perplexing "no weapons" policy in light of recent events, including a player with an assault rifle stowed in his car: "Yeah, you know, one of the things we talk about … like, I have a no-weapons policy, but I think … it's not like you're not allowed to have a gun," Mullen said.

My eyes are still crossed.

But Urban Meyer isn't blood on Mullen's hands, or on the hands of all the good, decent Florida players and fans, who are legion. Okay, maybe there's some on the university.

Gainesville is the place where Meyer won so much that none of us seemed to care about the other stuff for the longest time, myself included. I owned a red flag, but never waved it.

Those championships, in 2006 and 2008, were Meyer's shield. And he always could hold up Tim Tebow, the resident real deal, St. Timothy, to ward off evil spirits, or, worse, bad press.

Gainesville is the place where Meyer allowed player misconduct to fester even as he won those national titles. Gainesville is the place of numerous arrests of Meyer's Florida players for a range of crimes, including alleged domestic abuse.

Gainesville is the place where Meyer maybe first perfected his god complex, that he knew best and that he could guide a football team to victory and virtue at once. Gainesville is the place where bad man Aaron Hernandez was harbored and even Bible counseled by Meyer, years before Hernandez was convicted of murder and committed suicide in prison.

And Gainesville is the place where graduate assistant Zach Smith was arrested in 2009 for allegedly jamming his pregnant wife into a wall.

All of this was recently and smartly catalogued by ESPN's Andrea Adelson, who wrote, "Urban Meyer today is the same Urban Meyer who walked the sideline at Florida, a head coach so driven to win, he was willing to tolerate misconduct among players and alleged misconduct among assistants as long as it meant competing for championships."

And now it could be over. If Joe Paterno can be taken down, Urban Meyer can be taken down. Maybe it will send a message (what, another message?) to coaches about the god complex. Do we really think Meyer needed Zach Smith in Gainesville or Columbus? Think there weren't a hundred guys like Smith? True, Smith was the grandson of former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce, a Meyer mentor and hero. But was that enough to risk it all? Why would Meyer do it?

Because he could. That's why.

Don't gloat, Florida fans. Back then, you were too busy waving orange and blue to raise red flags. Me? I was too busy chronicling the exploits of Meyer, Wonder Coach. Heck of a story. I remember Meyer in tears after a loss at LSU in 2005, his first season with the Gators. He made sure that didn't happen again. How he made sure of it is now an open question. We might have found our answer in current events in Columbus.

But Gainesville happened, too. Urban Meyer happened.

We were here for it. And I'm feeling a little guilty.

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029.

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