GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Before we get to the news of the day and its repercussions, let’s ponder a hypothetical.
What if someone had gone to Jim McElwain after the first few days of Florida’s spring practice—when the first-year coach began to fully understand how little experience and production he’d inherited on offense—and asked him the following question: “What would you say if I told you this team would win at least eight or nine games, but you’ll have to deal with some serious drama at the halfway point of the season?”
The most likely answer from McElwain at that point would have been, “Bring on the drama!”
That might not make anyone at Florida feel better after losing starting quarterback Will Grier to an NCAA suspension for the remainder of this season and the first six games of next season, but remember where the Gators were a few months ago. They had question marks at nearly every offensive position. They had one offensive lineman who had started in an SEC game, and he was hurt. No one would have been shocked if this had been a lost season—the inevitable debris of a second coaching change in five years. Bowl eligibility seemed a legitimate team goal.
Now the Gators are bowl eligible and aiming much higher, but they’re playing with house money. A month ago, no one would have expected them to win at LSU. They’ll enter Tiger Stadium on Saturday in the same place they would have been. Even without Grier, they still look better than upcoming opponents Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Florida Atlantic. The Gators will be favored in those games, and if they win them, that’s nine wins. If backup quarterback Treon Harris and a still-ferocious defense can somehow beat LSU or Georgia—Harris already has a win against the Bulldogs as a starter, but that game was won on the ground—Florida would stand a strong chance of winning the SEC East. Grier was spectacular in the fourth quarter of a comeback win against Tennessee and for the entirety of a 38–10 whipping of favored Ole Miss. There is no doubt he made Florida’s offense much better. But again, the Gators are playing with house money now. The loss of Grier represents the loss of a little of that house money—but not all of it.
Grier claims he took an over-the-counter product that contained something on the NCAA’s banned substance list. McElwain said the school would help Grier appeal. Asked Monday what the substance was, McElwain joked, “I can’t spell it.”
If you don’t speak Folksy Deflecting Coach, I’ll translate: “I know what it is, but I’m not telling you.” Later, a UF spokesman said he wasn’t sure the school was allowed to release the name of the substance because it is part of a medical record. So, too, is the fact that Grier received a positive drug test, but that was released. In these cases, the player involved does get a say about what is released and what is not.
Grier’s father, Chad, did not answer his phone or respond to a text message from SI.com asking what the substance was. There was a report that identified a product by brand name, but the same Florida spokesman said it wasn’t true. As of Monday night, no one in the Florida camp had offered up the name of the banned substance or the offending product. The logical question is this: If it’s just a simple mistake and a simple over-the-counter product, then what’s the harm in naming that product?
If Florida officials and Grier opt against providing that information, that’s their choice. They’ll do so knowing people simply make up their own minds in these cases. After all, pretty much every major leaguer and NFL player who has tested positive for some kind of performance-enhancing drug in the past five years has offered a similar story with similarly sparse details. The public has experience digesting these tales.
What isn’t in doubt is the sincerity of Grier’s apology Monday. He choked back tears, and he struggled to push the words past his lips. “I really hope that people can learn from my mistake,” Grier said, “and I’m really sorry to everyone.”
Grier didn’t have to do that. The redshirt freshman didn’t have to stand in front of a bunch of strangers with laptops and cameras and apologize to his fans through them. He could have had Florida issue a statement that used words that weren’t his own, or he could have waited and sent out a tweet. But he stood up and he apologized. That isn’t easy for anyone, much less a humiliated 20-year-old. And as hard as his apology to the fans was, his apology to his teammates must have been 100 times as hard. They, after all, were the ones counting on him most.
We also don’t need to know the identity of the substance to know that Grier did something foolish. An athlete at a school on Florida’s level should know the risk whether he gets a product over a supplement store counter, off the Internet or out of the back of a shady gym. At wealthy Power Five schools, dietitians track the calories athletes consume and adjust their diets accordingly. Supplements that don’t contain anything on the NCAA’s banned list are available and encouraged. Going outside for any supplement is inviting a positive test. Grier knew that, because all athletes at Florida are told that repeatedly.
That fact will likely harm Grier’s chances of winning his appeal, and even if he does, the earliest he’d likely be back is next season. Besides, the NCAA doesn’t have a history of flexibility on these issues. Georgia offensive tackle Kolton Houston tested positive in 2010 for the anabolic steroid Nandrolone. He took more than 100 more tests trying to clear his name. Houston provided extensive documentation proving the steroid had been injected by a doctor treating a shoulder injury when he was in high school.
A team of doctors tried to explain to the NCAA that the drug had remained in fatty tissue and seemed stuck in Houston’s body. Houston had fatty masses surgically removed, and still the NCAA refused to budge until the presence of the drug dropped below the minimum threshold. That took more than three years. When it finally did, Houston was allowed to play. He’s now Georgia’s starting right tackle. Even though NCAA officials believed Houston, they still wouldn’t offer leniency because they worried it might compromise the integrity of the drug-testing program. Given that history, Grier faces an uphill climb to win his appeal.
So Florida will move forward with Harris at quarterback. Last year, Harris was supposed to make his first collegiate start against LSU when he was suspended while police investigated a rape accusation that the accuser later retracted. Harris was neither charged nor arrested. He returned the following week in relief of Jeff Driskel in Florida’s loss to Missouri, and he made his first start the week after that in Florida’s upset win against Georgia. The Gators were 4–2 when Harris started.
With Harris, the offense could look considerably different. He is a better runner than Grier but lacks Grier’s arm strength. He’ll be challenged this week by a fast LSU defense led by McElwain’s former Alabama co-worker Kevin Steele. LSU is 26th in the country and third in the SEC (behind Alabama and Florida) in yards per play allowed at 4.65.
If Harris can help Florida beat the Tigers, it would further reinforce the notion that McElwain is the kind of wizard who can turn spare parts into a coherent offense. And if the Gators lose because their starting quarterback took something he shouldn’t have, that stack of house money will dwindle a bit, but it will still remain taller than anyone would have dreamed five months ago.