Whether we like it or not, and whether they like it or not, everyone associated with big-time college football is now as scrutinized as people like the president of the United States. Long gone are the days where Franklin Delano Roosevelt could hide the fact that he could not walk without his wheelchair. Also gone are the days where a college football coach can do anything without everyone with access to a computer knowing about it and voicing their thoughts about it. From ESPN on down, every move any coach or player makes will eventually become public knowledge and every media outlet will have its own biases and agendas in how they present the facts and their opinions on it.
Because of this, it is more imperative than ever that every college football program not only runs a clean ship but does it in a way that will favorably affect public opinion. Look at something like the Cam Newton situation at Auburn or Tresselgate at Ohio State, we see how little reality matters. Even if we say that Cam Newton never knew anything about his father’s pay-for-play scheme and that he really went to Auburn because he thought it was the best place for him as a football player and a person, because of the daily and up-to-the-minute media coverage the school and Cam still came out looking worse for it. In the minds of many Auburn’s national championship will be tainted even if we never find a shred of evidence that Cam knew anything. Of course, if Cam knew anything then the bad rap for the school would be more than well-deserved, but the fact is that that bad rap is there whether or not Auburn or anyone associated with the Tigers did anything wrong.
The Ohio State situation is very similar, though in this case it cannot be denied that Jim Tressel broke the rules. But even if we believe Tressel that everything he did was only because he had his players’ best interests at heart and even if we believe that he really was worried that maybe some of his players were involved in drug-dealing and that is why he only told those close to the players until it was made sure that they were still on the straight-and-narrow, the damage has been done. Once again, because of the constant attention in the media and the blogosphere, Jim Tressel’s reputation will be forever tarnished. How tarnished, like always, will be in the eyes of the beholder. Ohio State fans still love Woody Hayes, even after the way his career ended. Tressel and Ohio State will be forgiven by many, but even in the eyes of true fans this situation still stings.
Which is why it is so refreshing to finally see someone getting media attention for doing a good thing. Of course it won’t last-controversy is always juicier than laudable acts-but we still owe it to those who do things the right way to recognize it. So when Will Muschamp, the head coach at Florida who has yet to coach a single game, kicked star cornerback Janoris Jenkins off the team following his third arrest (possession of marijuana), he sent a message that he is going to do things at Florida the right way.
This is not to say that his predecessor, Urban Meyer, did things that were wrong. Depending on who you ask, Meyer was either slimier than a snake doused in oil or an upstanding beacon of morality in a turbulent college football world. But either way, in the world of media- and blogosphere-driven public opinion, Meyer absolutely did things the wrong way. Once again, no matter what his reasons were, and even if we assume that everything that Urban Meyer did was for the sake of his student-athletes and the University of Florida, he still lost the war against the media.
Less well-publicized was the way in which Meyer left Bowling Green and Utah, running off to a better job mere weeks after promising to stay at both schools, respectively. Such actions are almost expected from today’s coaches. Many people think coaches like Chris Petersen, Gary Patterson, or Brad Stevens (on the basketball side) are fools for turning down huge money at bigger schools while staying at programs that they are trying to help build up. No, what got Meyer in trouble with the media was the startling number of arrests and run-ins with police by Florida football players during his tenure.
Trouble with the law is always something that looks bad on a program. Even respected all-around good guy coach Mark Richt has to deal with the fact that so many of his players have legal issues. And, regardless of the fact that very few were for violent crimes (though this is not to downplay DUIs at all, as driving under the influence kills tens of thousands of people every year), Urban Meyer earned the reputation of someone who would let his players get away with anything as long as it helped him win. Once again, it does not matter whether or not this is true.
Take the Chris Rainey incident, for example. He sent a very threatening text message to a girlfriend, was suspended indefinitely, and then returned to the team three weeks later. It does not matter whether Urban just wanted to win or whether he really believed that Rainey was fixing that aspect of his life and that a return to the football team was deserved and would ultimately help him. It also doesn’t matter what the exact circumstances of sending the text message were and why exactly the girl did not press charges. The court of public opinion had reached its verdict. Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators were guilty.
Which brings us to new coach Will Muschamp. He saw a Florida player arrested. He knows what public opinion is right now and what the attitude is towards Gators getting on the wrong side of the law. So what did he do? He kicked Jenkins off the team. It doesn’t matter that he is an All-American and probable first-round draft pick. Muschamp did the right thing. And he sent a very strong message with it, both to his own team and to fans everywhere. And once again, it doesn’t matter why he did it. He could be slicker than even the worst detractors thought Meyer was and is only doing this to get on the good side of the media. It doesn’t matter. Because at the end of the day, he showed what won’t be tolerated while he is at the helm in Gainesville. He could change that later in his career. But right now, Muschamp is doing the right thing in the court of public opinion and is thereby earning respect for both himself and the entire Florida Gators program.