2013 Best Enterprise, by Matt Hayes

Comment by the judge, Alan Abrahamson: In this era of 24/7, instant-access, always-on journalism, the enterprise story offers something different. It takes us behind the curtain — tells us something we didn’t already know, couldn’t possibly have known without the diligence and the purpose of the reporters’ craft. Often, these stories rely on years of experience or a network of sources. When you finish reading such a story, a complex subject has been made simple or what was once hidden has been revealed. Even when, as was the case with Florida’s championship football team during the Urban Meyer years, it was hiding in plain sight. As the years go by, and the headlines about who was on that team continue to vie for attention, this story may prove to be even all the more illuminating.

By Matt Hayes

Sporting News

Matt Hayes

Matt Hayes

The uproar and controversy of Urban Meyer’s stunning recruiting coup at Ohio State settled in and Stefon Diggs, still on the Buckeyes’ wish list, was debating his future.

Diggs, the second-highest rated wide receiver in the country, had narrowed his list of potential schools to Maryland, Florida and Ohio State. For more than a week following National Signing Day on Feb. 1, and before Diggs eventually signed with Maryland, Meyer relentlessly pursued Diggs.

Multiple sources told Sporting News that Meyer—who won two national championships in six years at Florida and cemented his legacy as one of the game’s greatest coaches—told the Diggs family that he wouldn’t let his son go to Florida because of significant character issues in the locker room.

Character issues that we now know were fueled by a culture Meyer created. Character issues that gutted what was four years earlier the most powerful program in college football.

It was Meyer who declared the Florida program “broken” at the end of his last regular season game in Gainesville in November of 2010. But why was it broken?

“Over the last two years he was there,” one former player said, “the players had taken complete control of the team.”

Only now, through interviews with multiple sources during a three-month Sporting News investigation, do we see just how damaged the infrastructure really was and how much repair work second-year coach Will Muschamp has had to undertake in replacing Meyer—who has moved on to Ohio State less than a year after resigning from Florida for health reasons.

Meyer denies allegations that he cast Florida and its players in a dark light when he spoke to the Diggs family, and said, “I love Florida; I’ll always be a Gator. My motives were pure as gold when I left. We left Florida because I was dealing with health issues that I’ve since learned how to control.”

But multiple former players and others close to the program say the timing of his departure was also tied to the roster he left behind. Remember it was Meyer who hinted the program that won 13 games in 2006, 2008 and 2009—and lost only 10 games from 2005-09—was flawed beyond the unsuspecting eye.

Now those issues have surfaced for all to see. Left in the wake of Meyer’s resignation were problems that can destroy a coaching career: drug use among players, a philosophy of preferential treatment for certain players, a sense of entitlement among all players and roster management by scholarship manipulation.

The coach who holds himself above the seedy underbelly of the game, who as an ESPN television analyst in 2011 publicly berated the ills of college football, left a program mired in the very things he has criticized.

“The program,” former Florida safety Bryan Thomas said, “was out of control.”

Circle game

Ironically, Florida’s downfall began at the height of Meyer’s success—the 2008 national championship season. Three seasons of enabling and pandering to elite players—what Meyer’s players called his “Circle of Trust”—began to tear away at what he’d put together.

“I’ve never heard of Circle of Trust before in my life,” Meyer said.

Former players, though, contend it was the foundation of Florida’s culture under Meyer. In the season opener against Hawaii, Meyer said a few elite players (including wideout Percy Harvin, linebacker Brandon Spikes and tight end Aaron Hernandez) would miss the game with injuries. According to multiple sources, the three players—all critical factors in Florida’s rise under Meyer—failed drug tests for marijuana and were sitting out as part of standard university punishment.

By publicly stating the three were injured and not being disciplined, former players say, Meyer was creating a divide between the haves and have-nots on the team.

“They were running with us on the first team all week in practice,” one former player said. “The next thing you know, they’re on the sidelines with a (walking) boot for the season opener like they were injured. Of course players see that and respond to it.”

It was Harvin, more than anyone, who epitomized the climate Meyer created. While former players say Harvin always was treated differently as a member of Meyer’s Circle of Trust, it was the beginning of his sophomore season—after he helped lead the Gators to the 2006 national title—that it became blatant. That’s also when it began to contribute negatively toward team chemistry.

During offseason conditioning before the 2007 season, the team was running stadium steps and at one point, Harvin, according to sources, sat down and refused to run. When confronted by strength and conditioning coaches, Harvin—who failed to return calls and texts to his cell phone to comment on this story—said, “This (expletive) ends now.”

“The next day,” a former player said, “we were playing basketball as conditioning.”

It only got worse as Harvin’s career progressed. At one point during the 2008 season, multiple sources confirmed that Harvin, now a prominent member of the Minnesota Vikings, physically attacked wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales, grabbing him by the neck and throwing him to the ground. Harvin had to be pulled off Gonzales by two assistant coaches—but was never disciplined.

When asked about the Harvin incident, Gonzales—now offensive coordinator at Illinois—said, “I think it’s a little overblown. I mean, every great player wants his voice to be heard.”

Said Meyer: “Something did happen and something was handled. I don’t think it’s fair to Percy Harvin or Billy Gonzales to talk about it.”

Gonzales left Florida for LSU—a lateral move—after the 2009 season, and did so by placing his keys, cell phone and resignation letter on Meyer’s desk. There were rumors that Gonzales resigned with a Post-it note on Meyer’s desk.

“I never left a Post-it note,” Gonzales said. “Urban and I have talked since. He’ll do great things at Ohio State.”

That is, unless he hasn’t learned from his time at Florida.

Maelstrom in Gainesville

Even as the unprecedented success at Florida continued, a mounting number of players were dragging the Gators’ name down a path of drugs and destruction. At least 30 players were arrested in Meyer’s six seasons. Instances of substance abuse were often linked to his most prized athletes. NFL teams took notice.

Hernandez admitted to failing a drug test at Florida, a problem that cut his draft stock from first-round grade to fourth-round selection by the New England Patriots. Harvin, according to multiple reports, failed a drug test at the NFL Scouting Combine and slipped from a top-10 pick to the latter half of the first round.

Spikes, sources said, failed a drug test at Florida and was suspended four games during his rookie season with the Patriots for using performance enhancing drugs. Offensive lineman Maurice Hurt, according to multiple reports, last year tested positive for marijuana at the Combine. He fell to the Washington Redskins in the seventh round—and later developed into a starting guard in his rookie season.

Just how prevalent was the drug use among Meyer’s players? A source told Sporting News that Patriots coach Bill Belichick spoke to the current Florida team this offseason, and addressed the issue and how it impacts NFL careers.

“His message was, in essence, don’t be like those guys,” a source said.

But none of those aforementioned drug problems was as prominent as All-American cornerback Janoris Jenkins’, who, like Harvin, former players say, was protected by Meyer’s Circle of Trust. Jenkins failed a drug test at Florida under Meyer and was arrested for his part in a bar fight. He was later arrested twice for possession of marijuana within the first few months Muschamp was on the job.

In fact, in the first month of Muschamp’s tenure, three players—Jenkins, linebacker Chris Martin and defensive end Kedric Johnson—were arrested in separate incidents for possession of marijuana.

When he was dismissed from the team by Muschamp, Jenkins told the Orlando Sentinel: “If (Meyer) was still the coach at Florida, I’d still be there.”

This is the same Jenkins who, according to sources, walked out on Meyer’s postgame speech after the 2008 season opener and threatened to quit. Meyer not only

brought Jenkins back without punishment, Jenkins eventually developed into a freshman All-American and played a big role in the team’s championship run.

Meyer says Jenkins “is a good kid who made a bad mistake,” and contends he was dealing with issues at Florida that occur at “every program in the country.” Every coach, he says, has his own way of dealing with them.

“I am very proud of our guys that played at Florida,” Meyer said. “Are there issues? Yes there are with 18-22-year-olds. I have been criticized that I have been too lenient on players; that doesn’t concern me. We are going to go out of our way to mentor, educate and discipline guys the way we see fit to make sure they’re headed in the right direction. Are we perfect? I never said that. We do the best we can and I think our record has been really positive in the impact we’ve made on those people.”

The biggest impact, former players say, was for those in the Circle of Trust. It wasn’t so much a focus on trust as it was a revelation of talent. If you could play and contribute, you were part of the chosen few.

“(Meyer) lost the team’s respect,” Thomas said. “That kind of stuff spreads through the players. They see what they can get away with, and they push it. Even the star players; they liked him because they were in the Circle of Trust. But it backfired on him. They didn’t respect him.”

Said Meyer: “Was I dealing with entitlement issues? Yes. But they were great kids. If they weren’t, I would’ve gotten rid of them.”

Recruiting and reaction

One way of ridding a program of undesirables is roster management. Recruiting is the lifeblood of all programs. A direct correlation exists between winning at recruiting and winning on fall Saturdays.

Few do it better than Meyer. Few are as ruthless when it comes to recruiting—and when it comes to making room for recruits. Thomas was a four-star recruit from Zephyrhills, Fla., and had a series of knee injuries hinder his development.

After the 2008 season, Thomas says he was told he had to “move on” because he wasn’t in the team’s plans for 2009.

“I told (Meyer) I was on track to graduate, I wasn’t a problem and I did everything I was supposed to do—I just had a knee injury,” Thomas said. “I told them I wasn’t leaving, and if they tried to force me to leave, I was going to tell everyone everything.”

The next day, Thomas says he was given a medical hardship letter by position coach Chuck Heater stating Thomas had an injury that would prohibit him from playing football. The medical hardship scholarship doesn’t count against the NCAA limit of 85, and allows the affected player to stay on academic scholarship.

It also made room for another recruit. Meyer denied this tactic of roster management.

“As a coach, I don’t have any say in the medical decisions,” Meyer said. “If the doctors say a player can’t play any longer, he can’t play.”

Thomas signed the medical hardship, stayed at Florida for the 2009 season and graduated before transferring to then-Division II North Alabama. With eligibility remaining, he played in 23 games over the next two seasons and was an All-Gulf South Conference selection. He recently worked out for NFL scouts at North Alabama’s Pro Day, and was in Gainesville for Florida’s Pro Day.

Thomas may be the only player who will publicly speak out against Meyer. Many others are fearful of Meyer’s ability to hurt their NFL prospects. Every other player contacted for this story asked to be unidentified.

“As far as coaching, there’s no one else like (Meyer); he’s a great coach,” Thomas said. “He gets players to do things you never thought you could do. But he’s a bad person. He’ll win at Ohio State. But if he doesn’t change, they’re going to have the same problems.”

Will Columbus discover trouble?

Before he walked on the field this spring to coach his first practice at Ohio State, Meyer ran into two more significant problems.

According to sources, Wisconsin accused Meyer and his staff of using former Ohio State NFL players to call high school recruits. Wisconsin also accused Meyer and his staff of bumping into offensive lineman Kyle Dodson, who was committed to the Badgers but eventually flipped and signed with the Buckeyes. The practice of “bumping” occurs when coaches accidentally “bump” into players during recruiting dead periods.

Both the alleged phone calls and bumping are NCAA violations.

When asked about the specific charges, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema declined comment but told Sporting News a day after National Signing Day that, “I wasn’t upset with Urban because of a gentlemen’s agreement. It was something else that I don’t want to get into. I told him what I knew, and he said he would take care of it and he did.”

Meyer said the alleged incidents happened “before I was hired—in December, but I can’t remember the exact timeline.” Meyer was hired at Ohio State on Nov. 28, 2011.

He said when he heard of the allegations, he asked the coaches involved and they denied any wrongdoing. Meyer said Ohio State hasn’t self-reported anything to the NCAA regarding those allegations, “because they’re not true.”

“Let me make one thing very clear,” Meyer said. “There are no issues with Urban Meyer and the NCAA.”

Ohio State is serving the first of two years of NCAA probation for several violations committed under former coach Jim Tressel, including multiple players receiving impermissible benefits. The football program could be a repeat violator if charged with an NCAA violation over the next two years, where additional severe penalties could be handed down.

During the heat of recruiting season, another dust-up arose in Columbus. It was the “gentlemen’s agreement”—a loosely held ideal among Big Ten coaches about backing off verbally committed high school players—that got Meyer into a dicey moment.

Meyer and his staff got eight players to back off verbal commitments and sign with the Buckeyes, and a few Big Ten coaches—including Bielema and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio—spoke about the understanding among league coaches at press conferences.

A few days later, during a speech to the state of Ohio’s high school coaches clinic, Meyer scoffed at the notion of the “gentlemen’s agreement” proclaiming, “You’re pissed because we went after a committed guy? Guess what? We got nine (coaches) who better go do it again. Do it a little harder next time.”

But less than two weeks earlier, sources say Ohio State running backs coach Stan Drayton called a Florida assistant coach to discuss the recruitment of Lakeland, Fla., wideout Ricquan Southward, who was committed to Ohio State but was still being recruited by Florida. Drayton, sources say, told Gators wide receivers coach Aubrey Hill that Meyer and Muschamp had a “gentlemen’s agreement” about committed players—and that Hill should back off recruiting Southward.

Southward eventually signed with Ohio State.

“I did not tell Stan Drayton that we had a gentleman’s agreement with Will,” Meyer said. “Now, I don’t know what Stan said to (Hill) in their conversation.”

Hill declined comment. Muschamp also declined and said: “I’m focusing on our team getting better—not anyone or anything else.”

It’s a still fragile program demanding no less.

Coming off the bottom

By the end of Muschamp’s first season, Florida failed to have a first-team All-SEC selection for the first time in 40 years. For the first time since 2004, Florida failed to have an underclassman in the NFL Draft. The Gators had only two players at the NFL Combine, the lowest number since the event moved to Indianapolis in 1985. Fifteen true freshmen—players Muschamp recruited—played for the Gators in 2011.

By the time Florida beat Ohio State in the Gator Bowl (while Meyer was recruiting for the Buckeyes), Muschamp’s weeding out process of players who wouldn’t buy into his philosophy had whittled the roster to 72 scholarship players—13 under the NCAA limit.

The 6-6 regular season record was Florida’s worst since 1987. The “broken” program—Meyer’s words—had hit rock bottom.

“To put it all on a sense of entitlement or a few other things that happened, I disagree,” Meyer said. “It comes down to players.”

When asked how such a dysfunctional team won the national title in 2008, one former player said, “We had better players than everyone else. It’s that’s simple. We had (Tim) Tebow. We played without our next-best player (Harvin), who was injured for the SEC (Championship Game), and still beat an Alabama team that would’ve beaten Oklahoma, too.”

Meyer points to the loss of five juniors to the NFL after the 2009 season as the reason for Florida’s regression in 2010. There was also a new quarterback, a factor contributing to the loss of five games. While he says he left Florida with talent—the Gators had a top-10 defense in 2011—last year’s team also struggled to overcome quarterback injuries, among other problems.

Florida last month began Year 2 under Muschamp. Spring practice featured several young players battling for starting spots and a high-profile quarterback competition between sophomores Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett.

Meyer, having replaced the ousted and beloved Tressel a year after Luke Fickell served as interim, began his first spring in Columbus trying to install a new offense, and getting players “to do the right things and be good people on and off the field—like I have done everywhere I have coached.” Both coaches are rebuilding while dealing with significant baggage.

Only one is connected to both.

Muschamp declined to be interviewed for this story, but in an interview with Sporting News last month he hinted that things aren’t always what they seem.

“This team is 15-11 over the last two years,” Muschamp said. “I always look at the difference between reality and perception. Sometimes perception isn’t always what reality is.”


Sporting News

Age: 47

College: Florida

Hayes has covered college football for two decades, the last 13 years for Sporting News. And while awards and acknowledgment are nice, while they’re an affirmation of the process of finding and telling stories, nothing compares to his nephew’s explanation of sports writing: “Our dad says you don’t really go to work.” Funny how a 10-year-old can nail it with so much innocence. Matt lives in Orlando with his wife, three daughters and three dogs, and where his job title is simple: play free safety and keep everything in front of him.