Meyer's reputation under attack
CHICAGO -- For 15 minutes on Wednesday, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer stood in front of a dais in a hotel ballroom and took every jab that was thrown his way on the opening day of Big Ten media days.
Over and over, reporters hammered him with questions about Aaron Hernandez, Meyer's star tight end at Florida, who has been charged with murdering a man in Massachusetts and is under investigation for an earlier double homicide in Boston.
Reporters asked Meyer about his Florida program's unsightly arrest record -- 31 arrests from 2005 to 2010, according to a recent report by The New York Times -- and his recent problems at Ohio State. Three Buckeyes players were arrested in separate incidents last weekend.
When Meyer moved to a third-floor ballroom to address more media, he was peppered with the same line of questions. Meyer answered each of them with a straight face and never raised his voice.
But near the end of the 25-minute session, after he was asked about Ohio State turning in Florida for alleged NCAA rules violations, Meyer's stoic demeanor finally cracked. You could tell he was getting frustrated.
"Everything is tied to me," Meyer said.
After pausing, Meyer said, "I shouldn't say that. I'm going to move on. I don't worry about it."
As Meyer prepares to begin his second season at Ohio State, he should be basking in the spotlight. In his first season at OSU, Meyer guided the Buckeyes to a 12-0 record in 2012. If OSU hadn't been on NCAA probation for violations committed under former coach Jim Tressel, it might have played Alabama or Notre Dame for a national championship.
With quarterback Braxton Miller coming back this coming season, the Buckeyes are favored to win the Big Ten and might even compete for a national title. Meyer is seeking his third national championship, after leading Florida to titles in 2006 and 2008. What much of the Big Ten feared when Meyer was lured out of retirement is already coming to fruition -- he's turned OSU back into a national powerhouse.
Meyer should be celebrating his return to the top of college football, after stress and health problems forced him into retirement (twice) at Florida.
Instead, it's open season on Meyer. No matter what he accomplishes at Ohio State, he'll ultimately be haunted by what happened off the field at Florida. His integrity and reputation are under attack, and some critics are questioning whether his blueprint for success has always been to win at any cost.
The Urban Meyer we knew at Florida -- the coach who boasted about recruiting the "top 1 percent of the top 1 percent" -- now seems like nothing more than an urban legend.
"I don't watch it," Meyer said of the criticism. "I'll hear it from someone, whether it be a relative or part of the family. I stay completely away from it. I learned several years ago that no matter how I feel, that's a battle you're not going to win. So I just stay completely away from it. One thing that bothers you is when you start stereotyping a group. There were incredible kids at the University of Florida and incredible kids at Ohio State, [along with] unbelievable coaches with great hearts."
But the Gators also had more than their share of not-so-great citizens. Not even the saintly Tim Tebow could keep everyone in line. According to The New York Times, 41 of the 121 players on the 2008 Florida roster have been arrested, either in college or afterward, and sometimes both. That number includes 16 players on the Gators' two-deep roster, including nine starters, as well as a kicker, punter and kick returner. It was a team effort.
"I'm human, and I think that is something that I'm constantly evaluating and making sure we are doing the right thing," Meyer said. "But in the end you've got to feel in your heart we're doing the right thing; that we're in the people business and we have to do what's right by those people. There's never been one time that I thought that we did wrong by that person. Now, sometimes I sit back and evaluate that we give too many second chances. That seems to be a big key, and that's something I'm going to continue to evaluate."
Because of his past, Meyer's current problems are only being magnified. Just this past weekend, three Ohio State players were involved in separate incidents involving police. Running back Carlos Hyde was identified by police as a person of interest in an alleged assault of a woman at a bar. Cornerback Bradley Roby was arrested in Bloomington, Ind., on charges of battery resulting in bodily injuries after a disturbance at a nightclub, and freshman offensive lineman Tim Gardner was arrested for obstruction of official business. On July 14, freshman tight end Marcus Baugh was arrested for underage possession of alcohol and having a fake ID.
Hyde, who hasn't been charged or arrested, has been indefinitely suspended from the team, pending the outcomes of police and school investigations. Roby was scheduled to attend Big Ten media days, but was left home after his arrest and might face further discipline. Baugh was suspended from the Aug. 31 opener against Buffalo and was stripped of his summer financial aid. Gardner was sent home and won't be part of the OSU team this coming season.
"It was very tough," Meyer said. "In the last 12 months we've had three legal issues, and it all happened in three or four days."
Ohio State isn't the only team in the country dealing with off-field issues. On Tuesday, Arizona safety Patrick Onwuasor was kicked off the team following his arrest on drugs and weapons charges. Florida linebacker Antonio Morrison was arrested twice in five weeks, although authorities dropped charges after he was detained for allegedly resisting arrest and barking at a police dog this past weekend.
But Meyer's team's discipline -- or lack thereof -- will be scrutinized more than any other coach in the country.
"I treat those players like they're my own children," Meyer said. "We have high expectations for them. If one of your children has an issue, you try to educate, correct, discipline, and push them in the right direction as hard as you possibly can. When I see some of the situations where some of these players are from, for me to walk away from that player has always been very, very difficult to do. That's where we're at."
That includes Hernandez, whom Meyer recruited to Florida from Bristol, Conn. While at Florida, Hernandez and two teammates were questioned by police after a 2007 shooting. Hernandez was also allegedly involved in a fight at a restaurant; authorities recommended a felony battery charge against him, but the case was not pursued.
After Hernandez was arrested in June following the death of Odin Lloyd, a 27-year-old semiprofessional football player, Meyer was criticized for not disciplining Hernandez more severely while he was at Florida. Fairly or not, Meyer has seemingly been criticized more than New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who coached Hernandez the past three seasons.
"I felt awful," Meyer said. "It's a sick feeling. Your thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims. Every player situation, every recruit situation, that'll always be in the back of my mind. That's all I can say."
Unfortunately, Meyer can't say much of anything to erase history.