SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
7/26/2007 05:46:00 PM
Gators' Meyer Could Use Help from Goodell
Urban Meyer's Gators have suffered a tumultuous offseason following their national title run.
HOOVER, Ala. -- NFL commissioner Roger Goodell may not be very popular right now with Chris Henry or Pacman Jones, but he’s got at least one admitted fan: Urban Meyer.
The Florida coach said Thursday that he called Goodell earlier this summer to personally thank him for instituting his hard-line stance against player misbehavior.
“I think that’s one of the best things that could have happened to our program,” said the third-year Gators coach. “Because there’s going to be a trickle-down effect all the way down to junior high. Kids are going to see that. It’s going to have a great impact on our sport.
“What he did will ultimately have more effect on my 8-year old son than anything with the spread offense.”
In the meantime, Meyer probably wishes the commissioner could do something to help him with his own disciplinary issues, as a rash of player misbehavior has struck Florida’s program since winning the national championship last January.
Offensive lineman Ronnie Wilson was arrested in April and later suspended for the season after allegedly firing a semiautomatic weapon in the air following a dispute outside a club. In June, running back Brandon James was arrested on marijuana possession. Safety Dorian Munroe spent a night in jail after removing a police-issued boot from his car and placing it in his trunk. And misdemeanors have also been filed against cornerback Jacques Rickerson (marijuana possession), linebacker Dustin Doe (a brawl) and safety John Curtis (probation violation).
Asked Thursday whether this offseason’s incidents have been particularly troubling, Meyer said, “They’re all troubling. Every year you’re dealing with something. [This offseason] was maybe a few more than we’d like.”
Asked whether there might be a correlation between the players’ behavior and having just won a championship, Meyer initially replied “yes,” before hesitating. “I don’t know. There’ve been some teams that weren’t so good that had trouble, too.
“I attribute it to youth. Last year we had 22 seniors, this year we have 10. And if you look at the things that have happened, it’s been younger players. They were all freshmen and sophomores that need to grow up and grow up real fast.”
The aforementioned rap sheet does not even take into account the sad story of former cornerback Avery Atkins. A projected starter last season, Atkins was released from his scholarship following a domestic violence incident in the spring of 2006. Atkins was found dead in his car earlier this month just days after an arrest for possession of crack cocaine.
When a reporter asked Meyer on Thursday whether his experiences with Atkins have “changed you or the way you run your program,” the coach appeared to freeze behind the podium.
“That’s a tough question there. With due respect to everybody involved, I’m not sure I want to go there right now. That’s not something we take very lightly at Florida. Players’ lives and behavior, those types of issues, are something we take very, very seriously.”
But are they taking it seriously enough?
Criticism of Meyer’s program has been largely muted amidst the adulation surrounding last year’s title season and February’s top-rated recruiting class, but some critics have alleged hypocrisy on the part of Meyer, who, upon his December 2004 hiring, pledged a hard-line approach to discipline and said he’d recruit only “the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent.”
Florida also raised eyeballs last season when the school briefly allowed star defensive tackle Marcus Thomas to return to the team despite failing multiple drug tests. (Meyer later dismissed him.) Meyer also has a track record of giving troubled players second and third-chances dating back to his time at Utah.
“Discipline is not dismissal in our opinion,” said Meyer. “Discipline is education and correction, then do what you’ve got to do. We’re in the process of doing a lot of educating, a lot of correcting and putting a product on the field.”
Meyer spent much of his session Thursday discussing the challenges of fielding a young defense (nine new starters) this coming season and how important it will be to find new leaders. For his sake, he bettter hope it extends to off the field as well.
While a repeat national title is unlikely, the Gators still have more than enough talent to make a run at another SEC title, but as any coach will tell you, winning a championship also requires discipline. So far, the 2007 Gators haven’t been exhibiting too much of it.
Crimson Tide fans have treated Nick Saban like a rock star ever since he took the Alabama job.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Alabama fans are not generally known as a patient bunch, so give credit to the 150 or so diehards who waited in the lobby of the Wynfrey Hotel for upwards of four hours Thursday morning just for a glimpse (and, for a few really lucky ones, an autograph) of a certain, $4 million coach.
Thursday marked Nick Saban’s much-anticipated return (at least in this state) to SEC Media Days, this time as the coach of the home-state Crimson Tide. And while the scene in the lobby was every bit as chaotic as imagined, Saban’s 40-minute session with his favorite group of people -- the media -- was far more anticlimactic. No public dressdowns. No expletives. And barely any informative nuggets about his first Alabama team.
“I can't really answer all the questions about our team with the [lack of] exposure to and experience with our team," he said. "Some of you may know better than me."
The most enlightening moment came in response to the inevitable question, “What do you think is the biggest misconception about Nick Saban?” Over the minute or so that followed, Saban offered a rare, somewhat candid window into Nick Saban the person (as opposed to Nick Saban, the football coach).
“I’ve never adapted very well to the position that I’m in. I’m a country boy who grew up in [Fairmont], West Virginia and pumped gas from the time he was 10 years old until he graduated from high school. Made a dollar an hour providing service to other people, cleaning windows, checking oil, changing tires.
“To me, I’m still that way, but maybe sometimes I don’t realize that. Sometimes the things I say mean a lot more than what I would intend them to be. Sometimes, because I’m a little bit shy, maybe that’s misinterpreted.”
So that’s what this is all about? Saban’s gruff demeanor, his infamous temper, his often condescending attitude to those around him -- it’s all just because at heart he’s still a small-town country boy uncomfortable with the spotlight that tends to follow someone who makes $4 million a year?
As a fellow writer noted during Thursday’s session, Saban, for all his bluster, gets visibly nervous at times when discussing certain topics. For instance, when a reporter asked him why Alabama’s 2007 media guide features pictures of him but no players on the front and back cover (Saban claimed he “didn’t make that decision,” but it’s hard to believe such a well-noted control freak wouldn’t have signed off on a media guide cover), Saban dug his hands into his pockets and began rocking a little like a high school kid forced to speak in front of the class. At other times he began tapping his fingers on the podium.
But when the questions were more mundane -- like when reporters asked him to discuss his football philosophy or his proclaimed love of college football -- the hands came out, and in fact he often gestured with the confidence of a guy who ... well, a guy who’s won a national title and makes $4 million.
If that last paragraph seems like I’m way over-analyzing the guy, it's because I am. But that’s nothing compared to the extreme level of curiosity that surrounds Saban in this state. Rarely has a coach ever generated so much publicity before even coaching his first game.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” one reporter said to him half-jokingly, “but pretty much everything you’ve done this offseason has been in the news.”
Saban better get used to it. He’s a long, long ways from that gas station in West Virginia. And while he certainly dealt with plenty of scrutiny at LSU and with the Dolphins, Alabama football is a beast unto itself (as evidenced by the 90,000-plus turnout at the spring game).
Make no mistake, whether this state ultimately embraces him will depend almost entirely on wins and losses. But this is also a state that grew up on the iconic Bear Bryant, a mythical figure whose stern but down-home personality was on full display for all to see.
Once the initial honeymoon wears off, you have to figure most Tide fans will eventually want to feel some sort of connection with their coach. Whether that ever happens may depend on whether Saban finally finds a way to be comfortable in his own skin.
In his third season at South Carolina, Steve Spurrier believes he has a team that can contend for the SEC title.
HOOVER, Ala. -- To truly appreciate the depth of passion surrounding SEC football, you really need to spend a fall Saturday at a place like Jordan-Hare or Sanford Stadium. Attending SEC Media Days, however, will give you a pretty good taste.
Only here, at the Wynfrey Hotel just outside Birmingham, can you watch 800 sportswriters pack into a ballroom to hear Tommy Tuberville’s thoughts on the upcoming season. Only hear can you watch a pack of backpedaling cameramen follow Houston Nutt from room to room like the paparazzi stalk Paris Hilton. Only here can you walk through a hallway lined with radio stations from around the South doing live remote broadcasts of the festivities. And only here can you see the disappointed look on the faces of the football-touting autograph seekers in the lobby who would have preferred to see Darren McFadden descending the escalator, not you.
The SEC’s annual preseason media event has long been known for its circus-like atmosphere, and this year’s, not surprisingly, is the biggest zoo yet. Anytime you place such coaches as Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, Mark Richt and Les Miles under the same roof, there’s going to be more than a few flash bulbs going off.
In fact, it says something about just how star-studded this league has become that South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier’s session Wednesday afternoon seemed no more or less anticipated than the one before or after it. Back in the ‘90s, when he and his Florida program towered over this conference, the always-quotable Spurrier was the main attraction here. Now, as a coach of the defending Liberty Bowl champions, he’s in the rare position of lurking in the shadows.
And that’s just the way he likes it.
In his first two seasons with the tradition-starved Gamecocks, Spurrier went out of his way to temper expectations. “The first couple of years, our goal was to win more than we lose, and to win the bowl game would be a pretty good year for us,” said Spurrier, who went 15-10 in those first two seasons. Now, coming off a season-ending three-game winning streak in which QB Blake Mitchell finally put up the kind of numbers one might expect of a Spurrier-coached quarterback (including a 323-yard, four-touchdown performance against Houston in the bowl game) and having hauled in three straight highly regarded recruiting classes, the Ball Coach is changing his tune.
“This year, our goal is to win the conference,” said Spurrier. “We feel like we've really increased our talent level at South Carolina. We've added a lot of players that we think are at a pretty close level with Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. Obviously, you need to be at their level to win the conference.”
Mind you, South Carolina has won just one conference championship in its history, the 1969 ACC title. And those three teams Spurrier mentioned -- Florida, Georgia and Tennessee -- have won all 15 East Division titles.
But if ever there was a year for the Gamecocks to sneak its way to Atlanta, this might be it. The defending champion Gators are still loaded with talent but may be vulnerable early with a new starting quarterback and 10 new starters on defense. The Dawgs were up and down on both sides of the ball last year and remain fairly young. The Vols have questions at receiver and on defense.
Spurrier’s team, meanwhile, returns all but one starter on defense, and if Mitchell -- who looked like a different QB upon returning from one of Spurrier’s patented six-game benchings -- has a big senior season, South Carolina figures to improve on last season’s 8-5 record.
But will it be enough to overtake the conference’s traditional hierarchy? Not to mention Kentucky had the same 8-5 record as the Gamecocks last season and the Vanderbilt game is no longer a gimme for anyone.
“It will be a huge assignment,” he conceded. “We need to come to the ballpark feeling like we’re just as good as Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, that we can play with those guys, and we’ll see what happens.”
Bobby Bowden's Florida State team hasn't finished in the Top 10 since 2000.
The ACC's coaches and players gathered in Pinehurst, N.C., Sunday and Monday for ACC Media Days, and one can only wonder how many of the writers who attended were there solely for the golf outing.
The nation's grandest basketball-conference-charading-as- a-football-power has hit a pretty indisputable rough patch. Check out these damning statistics from Bob Lipper's column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch:
∙ Last season, the ACC went 6-16 against opponents from other BCS conferences.
∙ The conference is 3-31 against top-10 opponents since 2000.
∙ Its league champion has lost in its bowl game seven straight years.
It's no coincidence that those unflattering statistics coincide with the recent demise of longtime league dynasty Florida State, whose last AP top-10 finish came in 2000. The question is, why have none of the league's other pre-expansion members been able to take advantage of the Seminoles' struggles?
At the beginning of this decade, nearly every school in the league either changed coaches, significantly upgraded their facilities or both. In 2000, N.C. State hired Chuck Amato. The next year, Maryland hired Ralph Friedgen, Virginia hired Al Groh, Wake Forest hired Jim Grobe, UNC hired John Bunting and Georgia Tech hired Chan Gailey. Nearly all of them generated significant buzz early (particularly Friedgen and Amato) but have failed to maintain the momentum (and in Amato and Bunting's cases, got fired). Only Grobe and Gailey's programs could currently be classified as "on the rise."
This is why it's no coincidence that my annual worst-coaches list has had a heavy ACC slant every year. You can't tell me there isn't talent in the ACC. Just two years ago, the league had more players selected in the NFL's first round (12) than any other conference. But with the exception of newcomer Virginia Tech, no one has been able to produce a consistent, national power.
Not surprisingly, then, most of the popular themes at Pinehurst this week involved ... improvement. As in, will Florida State return to prominence with its new coaching staff? Ditto Miami with new head coach Randy Shannon. Will new coaches Tom O'Brien and Butch Davis restore credibility at N.C. State and North Carolina? Will perennial underachiever Clemson finally turn the corner?
Or will the ACC remain largely irrelevant nationally for at least another season? What do you think?