As the University of Florida dominated college football for the better half of a decade under coach Urban Meyer, the Gators accumulated numbers — of victories and accolades and championships — at dizzying rates. In six seasons, they won 65 games, two SEC championships and two national titles.
In recent years, though, another number has been affixed to the Meyer era. That number is 31, as in, at least 31 arrests of Florida's football players from 2005 to 2010.
Many of the charges were typical of college campuses: Underage drinking, disorderly conduct, violations of open-container laws. But other, more serious charges included aggravated stalking, domestic violence by strangulation, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and fraudulent use of credit cards, according to criminal record databases. Most of the cases never went to trial, the charges having been dropped or pleaded down.
The unsavory underbelly of the Gators' dominance was recently highlighted when Aaron Hernandez, a starting tight end on the 2008 national championship team who later played for the New England Patriots, was charged with committing an execution-style murder in Massachusetts. While at UF, Hernandez had run-ins with the police in Gainesville, who questioned him and three teammates after a 2007 shooting and arrested him as a juvenile earlier that year after a fight at a restaurant.
The 2008 team provides a window into Florida football during that period. Tim Tebow was the star, a full-fledged phenomenon as beloved for his strong faith and motivating personality as for his onfield dominance. But a number of players on the team did not live up to Tebow's ideal.
A roster on the university's website lists 121 players, 41 of whom were arrested — either in college or after, and sometimes both. That number included 16 players on that season's final two-deep roster, nine of whom were starters, as well as a kicker, punter and returner. Several of those players went on to the NFL and one, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, transferred and later won the Heisman Trophy at Auburn.
After Hernandez's arrest, Florida declined to comment. Meyer, about to start his second season as coach of Ohio State, initially declined to answer questions about Hernandez, who reportedly went to regular Bible study in Meyer's home.
But Meyer's wife, Shelley, posted on her Twitter page, "When will we start holding individuals accountable for their own decisions/actions and stop blaming any/everyone else?" She added the hashtag "liveyourliferight."
Meyer made a similar comment in a text message reported Saturday by a sportswriter for the Columbus Dispatch.
"Relating or blaming these serious charges to the University of Florida, myself or our staff is wrong and irresponsible," Meyer told the sportswriter, Tim May.
"Our staff, myself and our families worked very hard to mentor and guide him," he said of Hernandez.
For much of Meyer's tenure at Florida, Tebow was the focus, his personal fan base as large as any ever in college sports. His presence was so overwhelming that he overshadowed his teammates and their arrest records. But in 2009 the number of arrests was enough that the Orlando Sentinel, which covers the university, decided to maintain an online database to keep track of them.
Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene
Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Those charged included safety Jamar Hornsby, who was accused of ringing up 70 fraudulent charges in 2008 on a credit card that belonged to a woman who had died in a motorcycle crash. He had also been charged with property damage and criminal mischief a year earlier.
Ronnie Wilson, a lineman from Meyer's initial 2005 recruiting class, punched and spat on a man, then opened his trunk, grabbed an AK-47 and opened fire outside a nightclub in April 2007, a police report charged. He was later arrested on charges of marijuana possession and of battery and assault.
Safety Dorian Munroe was charged with felony theft, accused of removing a boot affixed to his car. Safety Tony Joiner was charged with breaking into an impound lot to retrieve his girlfriend's towed car. Defensive end Jermaine Cunningham was arrested after an altercation with an employee at a Jimmy John's sandwich shop.
The 2008 roster included Newton, who was charged with stealing a laptop from another Florida student. The authorities said Newton threw it from a window when the police arrived. The episode led to Newton's transfer.
Other arrests involved a starting defensive end, Carlos Dunlap, accused of driving under the influence before the conference championship game; a starting cornerback, Janoris Jenkins, charged with resisting arrest; and a key running back, Chris Rainey, accused of sending a text message to a former girlfriend that read, in part, "time to die." (Rainey was arrested in January in Gainesville on battery charges and released by the Pittsburgh Steelers.)
The penalties imposed on the players by Florida varied widely. Some faced little discipline, while others left the university. Dunlap was suspended for the SEC title game, won by Alabama 32-13.
In recent years, Meyer addressed the number of players charged with crimes during his time at Florida by noting the propensity of college students to get in trouble. He dismissed criticisms that he was too lenient and that his players were too undisciplined. He said he was proud of those teams. (Meyer took time off from coaching after he left the Gators, citing health concerns.)
Ben Tobias, a spokesman for the Gainesville Police Department, wrote in an email that it would be difficult to compare the arrest rate for football players in those years with the general arrest rate for Florida students. He noted that athletes' arrests generally garnered more attention. He cited a case that made news, though it involved only a stolen taco.
Tobias said Meyer visited the police department once to tell the officers not to give his players preferential treatment, which, Tobias added, was already the directive from police officials.
"Any time an athlete is arrested it makes the news," Tobias wrote. "We recognize that and understand that."
He added, "No perception of a pattern here for us."
After Hernandez's recent arrest, his time in Gainesville received renewed scrutiny, with reports that he ruptured a man's eardrum during the fight in 2007 and that he did not cooperate with the police after the shooting in 2007.
It has all left some wondering just what the culture at Florida was at the time. Was this a program filled with players of questionable character, or a program now receiving unfair scrutiny because of a heinous act attributed to one of its former players?
Jenkins eventually left for North Alabama after Meyer's successor, Will Muschamp, dismissed him from the team following marijuana arrests. Several months later, Jenkins spoke to the Sentinel about his dismissal.
"If Coach Meyer were still coaching, I'd still be playing for the Gators," he was quoted as saying. "Coach Meyer knows what it takes to win."