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 Southeastern Conference 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’ football 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 accused by authorities of committing an execution-style murder in Massachusetts. While at Florida, Hernandez had run-ins with the police in Gainesville, who questioned him and three teammates after a 2007 shooting and recommended a felony battery charge against him after a fight at a restaurant (the case was not pursued).
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 on-field 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 have been arrested, either in college or afterward, 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, later won the Heisman Trophy playing for 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 that was 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 in college sports history. His presence was so overwhelming that he overshadowed his teammates and their arrest records.
But in 2009 the number of arrests was such that The Orlando Sentinel, which covers the university, decided to maintain an online database to keep track of them.
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, and 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.
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 substitute 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.
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.)
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 was it a program that is now receiving unfair scrutiny because of a heinous act attributed to one of its former players?
Jenkins, the cornerback, eventually left Florida for North Alabama after Meyer’s successor, Will Muschamp, dismissed him from the team after marijuana arrests. Several months later, Jenkins spoke to The Orlando 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.”