The talking point — actually the giggling point — of the college football summer is that Urban Meyer’s Florida Gators have been charged with a total of 24 felonies and misdemeanors in the four-plus years of his stewardship. (The Orlando Sentinel provides the handy linked rundown.) And now you’re expecting me to laugh and slap my thigh and advise the Urban Crier, with whom we’ve had some fun over the months, to save his alligator tears for the judge. But I won’t.
Because I have some sympathy for the man.
Last summer Mark Richt met the press on Georgia’s media day, and 16 of the first 20 questions concerned not football — the Bulldogs had been voted preseason No. 1 for the first time in school history — but lawlessness. Eight of Richt’s players had been arrested in 2008. “Embarrassing,” Richt called it. Also “sad.” Also “a distraction.”
When Richt’s massively gifted team finished 116th in penalties among 119 Bowl Subdivision teams, the leap was made — undisciplined off the field, undisciplined on it. (In November Richt would deny any correlation, saying it was “coincidental.”) And rival fans made hay of Georgia’s discomfort, laughing and calling Richt, a man of deep convictions, a bald-faced hypocrite.
But now Georgia backers get to chuckle over Florida’s misdeeds and the public airing thereof. And we in the media have done our usual tut-tutting. (Here’s a column from Andrea Adelson of the Sentinel. Although Dennis Dodd of CBSsports.com defended the Gators, sort of.) But the cold truth is that, just as last year’s Georgia is this year’s Florida, this year’s Florida could well be next year’s … anybody.
No school holds the patent on decency. No school is impervious to the choices made by 85 or so young men who are lionized on campus and around town in a way that would make rock stars blush. No school does it completely “right” because no group of 85 can bat 1.000 when it comes to individual behavior.
Yes, it looks awful when such arrests take the form of clusters, but that didn’t mean Richt aided and abetted criminal behavior last summer or that Meyer does so now. (Urban Meyer, as we know, is named after a Pope.) Sometimes a coach’s shape-up message needs to be toughened, but messages go only so far. And if you’re going to be ranked No. 1 in the land, you won’t get there by signing guys away from the seminary.
As Dodd writes, a coach can get pushed out when the embarrassment becomes too great. But Dodd also notes Oklahoma was coming off a pedestrian-by-its-standards 9-3 season when Barry Switzer was deemed more trouble than he was worth. Meyer just won his second BCS title in three seasons. His program could be hit by 24 more charges and he’d be OK so long as the L’s don’t number more than one.
We who follow college football suffer a disconnect. We want to cheer on Saturdays without much caring what happens the other six days of the week. We hire our coaches to win. If they happen to mold character in the process, so much the better, but that’s not why they make their millions. They’re paid to win on Saturdays.
When it’s someone else’s players getting in trouble, we take it as a sign of the enemy’s inherent immorality. But at the highest level of college football, there are no saints. (Even the haloed Tim Tebow was penalized for taunting in the BCS title game.) What happened at Georgia and what’s happening at Florida can happen anywhere. So don’t laugh too hard at Urban Meyer. Your coach could be next.