Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tonight’s draft confirms Sporting News’ report on Gator football

image In today’s Gainesville Sun, reporter Robbie Andreu explores the gap between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Florida Gators, using this weekend’s NFL Draft as a measuring stick to show how the two programs have diverged over the last two years. The Tide could have as many as five former players taken in the first round. The Gators may get two overall.

Yet these are the two programs that in 2008 and 2009 played for everything twice, with each winning a berth in the BCS Championship and bringing home the crystal.

What happened?

Matt Hayes of Sporting News took a stab at the root cause. Not surprisingly, Hayes took a lot of heat from Buckeye fans for his indictment of former Gator coach Urban Meyer, now leading the Ohio State program. Hayes outlined a precipitous decline in team discipline and program control, noting that Meyer himself said that Florida football was “broken.”

In 2007, Florida had nine players taken in the draft with two first rounders. Every one of those were Ron Zook’s recruits. In 2010, another nine players were selected by the NFL. Heisman Trophy winning sensation Tim Tebow was the third player selected from the team. Three first rounders and three second rounders, with none taken lower than the fifth round.

“Over the last two years he was there, the players had taken complete control of the team,” one former player told Hayes.

When Meyer joined the fraternity of Southeastern Conference football coaches, a lot of rival fans wagged their heads and predicted that his quirky, trick-play offense would never work in the country’s best college football conference. Two BCS Championships later, most of those critics were silenced.

Meyer’s offense wasn’t the downfall of Florida football. It was recruiting, character evaluation and player development. Since Steve Spurrier  woke the sleeping giant of Florida football in 1990, the Gators have always recruited well. The state has a rich population of quality athletes and an equally rich high school football program that annually turns out high quality prospects.

Spurrier lassoed that talent and rode it to SEC Championships and a national title in 1996. Ron Zook followed him and recruited lights out, but failed to convert the raw talent to execution on the field. Meyer took over in 2005 and immediately vied for the SEC Championship, losing a spot in Atlanta in the SEC finale against a Spurrier led South Carolina team.

He then won everything in 2006 and did it again in 2008.

In 2009, Alabama broke Florida’s stranglehold on the SEC, beating the Gators in Atlanta and winning the BCS Championship in Pasadena. Meyer seemed to come apart, and so did the Gator program. However, it’s worth pointing out that the signs of the impending implosion were already there. No fewer than 30 players were arrested while Meyer led the program. Hayes’s report indicates that marijuana use was rampant in Gainesville, with several key players having failed drug tests.

Ohio State President derided Hayes’ report as “bad journalism.” He can call it whatever he wants, but any objective observation of Florida football since the 2009 SEC Championship loss to Alabama must reach the conclusion that Hayes did. Meyer broke the Florida football program and current head coach Will Muschamp is struggling mightily to reassemble the pieces and mold the program back into a perennial conference and national title contender.

At small schools with small recruiting bases—like Bowling Green and Utah—a coach can get away with paying less attention to the Jimmy’s and the Joe’s while he works on perfecting the X’s and the O’s.

That’s not the case in Big Boy football schools like Florida.

And, Ohio State.

Tonight’s first round of the NFL Draft will mark the end of a five-year streak of at least one Gator being taken in the first round. The only two players with legitimate draft prospects are Chris Rainey and Jaye Howard. Both are projected to be taken somewhere south of the second round.

That’s Urban Meyer’s fault.

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