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College Football

Contrite Urban Meyer discusses assault on reputation

Photo: M. Spencer Green/AP

Player discipline was the most prominent subject during Urban Meyer's Big Ten media days presser.

CHICAGO -- Four hours after he first began a dizzying circuit of interviews here Wednesday at Big Ten Media Day, Urban Meyer sat down at a quiet table on a high floor of the Chicago Hilton and reflected on the day's events.

Despite coming off of an undefeated season, despite being the coach of a national championship contender and a Heisman-contending quarterback, he knew he'd be asked very few questions about actual football. Not after barely addressing his former Florida star Aaron Hernandez's murder charge over the past month. And certainly not after a weekend that ended with four of his current Ohio State players -- including stars Carlos Hyde and Brady Roby -- either suspended or dismissed for various transgressions.

Sure enough, in a main ballroom filled with hundreds of reporters, Meyer fielded 12 questions in 15 minutes. Nine of them were about player discipline and off-field issues.

"I was expecting it. I gave it some thought," Meyer said afterward. "The older you get, I don't want to be so defensive. There were some mistakes, and there were some things you would have done better. And you're talking about some serious stuff. I just wanted to make sure and take a very humanistic approach to the whole situation."

At one point Wednesday someone asked, "When it comes to off-the-field issues and player discipline, how do you view your own reputation?"

"How do I view my own reputation? " said Meyer. "I don't view my own reputation. I guess a reputation is what others think of you."

Well, we know what others think of him. They've made it abundantly clear these past few weeks. He is, according to various voices, "all that is wrong with college football," and "the 'fakest' major coach in college football" with a "shameful disciplinary record." The reported 31 player arrests during his six seasons at Florida were no secret at the time, but were dredged back up when the Hernandez scandal broke. And now that a few members of his current team are in trouble ...

"I'm disappointed," Meyer said of last weekend's developments. "... To have a couple of knuckleheads make some decisions that reflect the entire program, that's not ‑‑ I guess it's part of the deal. It's something that bothers me, bothers our staff, and we work very hard to avoid with our players."

Meyer is hardly the only college coach to have players get in trouble, but he's certainly become the most criticized. Why is that exactly?

"I have no idea," he said later. "I've been asked that many times. People say its because we won a lot of games. They say it's because I'm very standoffish with the media. But I'm not sure."

Those theories are probably correct, though not the full answer. If anything, much of Meyer's negative persona dates to statements from the past that came back to haunt him. One is the infamous booster-club claim circa 2005 or '06 that he would only pursue "the top one percent of the top one percent" of recruits at Florida. Though Meyer claims now he was referring to a mix of football talent, academics and characters, over the years it's been construed to mean he would only let choirboys play for him. That obviously was not the case. And now every subsequent arrest or suspension only embellishes his perceived hypocrisy.

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On Wednesday, though, Meyer told the media that: "A head coach needs a set of standard, needs to direct, guide, mentor, push and direct these guys." He said that, "sometimes I sit back and evaluate [whether] we give too many second chances. That seems to be a big key, and that's something I'm going to continue to evaluate." He said he has a staff member who monitors off-field headlines around the country because "I want to make sure our punishment is as hard or harder than any discipline that's out there.

"That's maybe where I've changed over the years. Even as a first‑time offense from a freshman, I want to make sure we're setting the tone."

The discipline questions then followed him out of the room and up a flight of stairs to another podium, surrounded by a throng of cameras and reporters, where, after yet another question about his reputation, Meyer finally, quietly said: "I'm gonna move on. I want to talk about football. But I appreciate you doing your job."

The scrutiny is expected. There's no avoiding it when you've won two national titles. But it sure seems he's being held to a harsher standard than some of his peers.

Last week, LSU coach Les Miles held his own conference media day press conference. Miles has a player, running back Jeremy Hill, who's currently suspended after clocking a man in the back of a head outside of a bar and in doing so violating terms of his probation for an arrest in high school. Previously, you may recall, Miles reinstated former quarterback Jordan Jefferson after he allegedly kicked a person in the face during a bar fight.

But other than a brief update on Hill's status, Miles fielded no questions about his disciplinary manners. He gets more criticism for his clock management than his players' behavior.

Georgia coach Mark Richt's program has had rashes of offseason arrests and suspensions, though less so this year. He and the Bulldogs have taken heat for it. But Richt, widely regarded as one of the classiest coaches in the profession, is largely praised -- rightfully so -- for his firm disciplinary stances (some of it mandated by a rigid school drug-testing policy).

Meyer, rightly or wrongly, is now perceived as a renegade, win-at-all-costs coach.

"What's ironic is I was raised in a very tough, very disciplined home. No gray area whatsoever," he said late Wednesday afternoon. "I became a head coach at 36, went to Bowling Green, absolutely no gray area. If there was any issue, I kicked him off the team. I go to Utah, same thing, very hardline. Then something happened.

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That something was he and his wife, Shelley, became close with Utes running back Marty Johnson, who'd had a DUI arrest prior to his arrival and who Meyer dismissed following a second arrest. They visited him in jail. "His mom was killed. He became part of our family. ... Shelley came to me and said, I don't know if we're doing the right thing. If he leaves football, he's done.' That's when it starts tugging on you." After a year away, Johnson was allowed back for Utah's undefeated 2004 season.

Then, at Florida, came the tragedy of Avery Atkins, a highly rated recruit seemingly destined to star for the Gators. "Bright smile, loved life," said Meyer. "But he started getting into some bad situations. Eventually he pushed a girl. I kicked him off the team." Atkins subsequently committed suicide. "That really impacted our staff, not just me," said Meyer. "It was a staggering blow, because you just kept thinking what more could you have done?

"So I remember taking the approach after that -- especially ones from tough background -- we're going to get counseling, we're going to do as much as we possibly can do to not just throw them back on the street if there's an issue. We had some great success stories, we had some failures.

"It's unfortunate, I look back at the great coaches and great players we had. That was six years of incredible players, incredible people. And all anyone wants to talk about is these incidents. That's disappointing. But if you have to lay blame, lay blame. I was in charge of the team and we had too many issues."

Prior to last week Meyer had actually experienced relatively few off-field issues in Columbus. Save for a player from last year's team, David Perkins, was arrested on a visit to Bowling Green after having previously decided to transfer, Roby's and the two freshmen's arrests were Ohio State's first in at least a year. That's not something to get a medal for, but it also doesn't fit the pervading narrative.

Hyde, meanwhile, has yet to be charged with a crime after being listed by police as a person of interest in an alleged assault on a woman outside a bar last weekend. An initial report Monday said he'd been dismissed; it turned out he'd been suspended pending ongoing investigations. And Yahoo! Sports reported Tuesday that video surveillance footage may clear Hyde of wrongdoing altogether.

But not before his name was splashed all over the ESPN ticker for 24 hours, and Internet critics got a new round of fodder for their latest Meyer diatribes. So he convened a team meeting Monday morning and told his players, "Enough's enough."

"I don't know that you can blame a guy going out and making a poor choice on Coach Meyer -- because of free will," said Buckeyes tackle Jack Mewhort. "He has a set of values. We hear them every day. He's got a system in place he expects us to follow.

Time will tell whether Meyer's "humanistic" media strategy Wednesday will quiet the storm; USA Today described Meyer as "wistful," CBS Sports claimed Meyer operated with a "dose of humility and respect." Thursday morning brings another two hours of roundtable interviews. The questions figure to turn to Miller's passing development or the Buckeyes' young defensive line. And soon enough the season will be here to overshadow everything.

But at some point, another player will get in trouble, and when he does, the arrest numbers and the outcry will likely start all over again. Every coach has a reputation. Meyer knows he can't control his.

"I coach for the players. I always have, I always will," he said. "I really worry about distractions for the team, and when I'm the distraction, it really bothers me. ... At some point I just want to talk about my guys."

Wednesday was not that time. He knew that. So he answered the questions.

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