Are the Gators getting a bad rap on crime?
Published: Sunday, June 14, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, June 14, 2009 at 12:02 a.m.
On the field, Florida football is in the midst of a golden age.
The Gators have won two BCS national titles since Urban Meyer was hired as coach in 2005. Considering UF had won just one national championship in its previous 98 years before Meyer's arrival, these are heady days to wear the orange and blue.
With senior quarterback Tim Tebow returning to lead the offense and senior linebacker Brandon Spikes back to lead the defense, Florida is a preseason favorite to repeat as national champions.
Yet lately, more focus from sports talk radio and rival fans has shifted to Florida's arrest record than its chase for a perfect record.
When Gainesville police arrested Florida starting cornerback Janoris Jenkins earlier this month, it added to a number of brushes with the law involving the football program during Meyer's tenure.
Jenkins was charged with misdemeanor affray and resisting arrest without violence after his alleged involvement in a brawl outside a Gainesville nightclub.
According to the GPD report, an officer shot Jenkins with a Taser stun gun after Jenkins threw another punch when officers told him and others to stop fighting. Jenkins, the report said, attempted to run from officers before being arrested 1 1/2 blocks away.
After the Jenkins arrest, fans on Web message boards from rival schools had a field day. References were made to Florida as "The University of Felons," just as references were made to Florida State as "Free Shoes University" in the 1990s and Miami as "The Bad Boys" in the 1980s following the Hurricanes' repeated disciplinary problems.
This time there was a similar outcry from national news outlets for the reigning champion Gators to clean up their act.
But is the recent controversy justified?
A survey of court records from The Sun has revealed:
* Florida players have been charged with crimes in 24 cases during Meyer's four years as coach.
* There have been 21 arrests, with three more players issued citations and later booked on charges.
* Of the 24 cases in which players have been charged, nine of those charges were for felonies.
* Charges involving eight of the 24 cases either were dropped or not pursued.
* The arrest rate for Florida players is comparable to the rate for the entire student body.
The Sun's survey also revealed UF's arrests are in line with those of its traditional rivals. Georgia football players have accumulated 30 arrests during the same four-year period. Tennessee has tallied 21 arrests, while Florida State has totaled 13 arrests.
Miami, a school that experienced somewhat of a renegade status throughout the '80s and early '90s, has had two players arrested since 2005.
Meyer did not agree to an interview request with The Sun on the topic. In a statement released through UF sports information, Meyer said he has tried to make players aware of the consequences of their actions.
"It is a continual part of our program to mentor and guide our players and it is not an exact process," Meyer said. "Although we have been very successful with most, we are by no means perfect. We are disappointed when we encounter some issues along the way, but we are going to continue to educate and teach our players."
Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said he has supported and will continue to support Meyer's off-the-field approach to discipline and mentoring.
"No one works harder in this area than Urban," Foley said in a statement. "I see it every day. Anyone who can't see his desire to influence young men positively and make them better citizens has no idea who he is as a coach and a human being.
"It is really easy to focus on negative issues and negative press. This is part of the world we live in and we understand this. No one here condones our players stepping out of line and everyone here wants to get better. However, Urban Meyer and his staff are the best that I've seen in modifying behavior, and at the end of the day, the majority of the players who come through this program will make us all proud and not just because they are good football players."
Meyer vowed to recruit "the top 1 percent of 1 percent" when he first arrived at Florida. While players Meyers has recruited have led Florida to championships on the field, they also have been involved in the majority of UF football players' brushes with the law.
Of the 21 arrests during Meyer's tenure, 15 have involved players he recruited. Nine of the arrests involved players from Meyer's first recruiting class in 2005.
Meyer had just one month to put that class together and has since acknowledged he didn't do a good job evaluating players both on and off the field.
Four of the arrests involved players from Meyer's 2006 class.
Jenkins was the second Florida player arrested from Meyer's last three recruiting classes.
"This group of players we have now are by and large a pretty good group," Meyer said. "They are 18 to 22 years old and like most people are trying to find their way."
Mike Farrell, a national recruiting analyst from Rivals.com, said coaches have started to take character more into account during the recruiting process.
"I first noticed in 2005, that was the year that Fred Rouse got arrested at Florida State and several other members of the top 20 in that class had disciplinary and legal issues," Farrell said. "Since then, coaches have been more careful.
"Obviously, Florida has taken some kids with checkered backgrounds. Every big-time program is going to take some risks in that area. A prime example for Florida was Percy Harvin. He was way too talented a kid to pass up, even though he had some issues in high school in Virginia. I think every coach tries to balance the risk against the reward."
Harvin, a football, basketball and track star in high school, was suspended for a handful of events for mostly in-game incidents but saw no similar incidents at Florida and was key in both of the Gators' recent BCS titles.
Farrell also said gauging character while recruiting a player can be tricky, given the limited amount of time coaches have to spend with prospects because of NCAA rules.
"You are always getting players who are putting their best foot forward," Farrell said. "Often you see them with their family, they are trying to make a good impression. You are finding coaches more talking not just with their high school coaches but with rival high school coaches, teachers, classmates, trying to get a sense of behavior."
Of the 21 Florida arrests, 14 involved players who grew up in and around major metropolitan areas.
"I see how people can perceive that as an issue, but I've found just as many players from inner cities that go on to become model students and model citizens off the field," Farrell said. "And then you get a suburban kid that appears on the straight and narrow who, first time away from home, all of a sudden goes crazy. Those are the kinds of cases you can't really do anything about."
Can a major college program win with character players? Farrell said he believes so, providing Boston College as an example.
"With Tom O'Brien as coach, a former Marine drill sergeant, and then Jeff Jagodzinski, they have been content to go after the two- and three-star guys and have had minimal problems off the field," Farrell said. "They've been a bowl team consistently throughout this decade."
Florida scholarship athletes are asked to adhere to a higher standard than the general student body. Most, though, are still 18- to 21-year-olds living in a college town. That celebrity status leads to a fishbowl existence for UF athletes that has some positive and negative elements.
"If you think about it, Gainesville in and of itself is a pretty rural town," said Gainesville Police Lt. Keith Kameg, who has spent 24 years at GPD. "What makes it so different is that you have a state university that brings in close to 100,000 people in the middle of it. That makes policing the area challenging."
Kameg estimated that Gainesville police arrest 25 to 30 students each weekend. Based on the GPD sample, between 3.7 percent and 4.4 percent of Florida undergraduate students are arrested each year. Given a Florida roster that with walk-ons can range from 100 to 120 players per season, the average number of UF football players arrested per year is 4.2 percent.
Kameg said the majority of arrests are alcohol-related. Given the mix of alcohol and testosterone, Kameg said fights often occur at clubs and bars.
"You do get fights, and that's why we put the majority of our money and manpower in the downtown area," Kameg said.
Jenkins was the third UF player during Meyer's tenure to be arrested in connection with a fight downtown.
"One of the things we have to deal with is if we don't make an arrest, we are charged with favoritism, and when we do get an arrest we get accused of targeting," Kameg said. "Our officers are trained to look not at the faces involved, but at the crime."
Drug arrests, Kameg said, also are common among students in general. Of the Florida football arrests, four involved either the possession or purchase of marijuana.
"Marijuana is the drug of choice," Kameg said. "A large portion of the student population that get charged with possession don't even realize that it's illegal. And that flies in the face of law enforcement."
Kameg said based on his experiences with Meyer, he believes the UF coach is doing all he can to keep his players from breaking the law. Kameg said last year Meyer had GPD head of detectives Capt. Lynne Benck speak to the team.
"I think by the most part, you see incidents in line with the student body, where you have 18- to 21-year-olds living away from home for the first time, using poor judgment," Kameg said. "I don't think you are seeing behavior that involved malicious intent."
The legal process
While Florida players have dealt with legal issues during Meyer's tenure, none have resulted in cases that have gone to trial. On Friday, walk-on running back Marquis Hannah was the eighth Florida football player initially arrested to have his charges dropped. Plea deals were reached in three more cases.
"I think quite often, the kids have been overcharged based on their status," said Huntley Johnson, a defense attorney who has represented the majority of football players arrested during Meyer's tenure. "I call it the little-man syndrome. Nothing brings out the little-man syndrome more than someone who has the aura of celebrity and the aura of fame. You throw alcohol into the mix, as has happened in a number of the cases, and then you are going to have incidents where players become targets."
Other critics contend the State Attorney's Office in Gainesville has been too lenient on football players, pointing to a 2006 incident as an example.
In that case, according to police investigations, Florida football players Demetrice Webb, Andre Caldwell, Kenneth Tookes and Reggie Lewis were involved in an incident in which a bullet from an automatic weapon was fired into an adjoining off-campus apartment.
No arrests were made nor were charges filed after an investigation revealed the gun was fired by accident. Tookes later admitted to firing the gun and was suspended for the season opener against Southern Mississippi.
"Every case is different," said Spencer Mann, a State Attorney's Office investigator. "Each one is unique in and of itself. You have to take into account witness testimony, forensics - there are a multitude of factors that come into play."
The State Attorney's Office was vigorous in pursuing two high-profile cases involving Florida athletics. In one, former agent Tank Black was found guilty of fraud and obstruction of justice and later pleaded guilty for providing loans to college players at Florida. In another, the office thoroughly investigated gambling allegations surrounding former Florida basketball guard Teddy Dupay.
Though charges never were filed, State Attorney Bill Cervone has said there was "no doubt" that Dupay bet on sports. Dupay left Florida before Cervone's report was released, insisting he never gambled on sports.
"When the case is warranted, the State Attorney's Office has been very aggressive in prosecuting and investigating charges," Johnson said.
Meyer said he will not decide any discipline against Jenkins until the legal process is complete. Johnson, Jenkins' attorney, said he is confident the case will be resolved in a favorable manner.
"It was completely overblown," Johnson said. "I feel very certain of that. He shouldn't have been Tasered. And then he gets hit with the Taser, runs a block and a half and stops. Trust me, if he was still running, he'd be to Cordele, Ga., by now."
If charges are dropped, there is a good chance Jenkins will not miss significant playing time. In six previous cases, players were not suspended after charges were dropped against them.
Former UF cornerback Jacques Rickerson, however, received a one-game suspension after charges were dropped against him in a plea deal on a drug possession charge.
Whether or not any other discipline will take place against Jenkins is unclear because Meyer chooses not to publicize player suspensions or any player disciplinary matters.
To Meyer, if the players within the program know that discipline has taken place, it still can serve as a deterrent to future behavior. Sources within the program have said Meyer has been known to pull scholarships from players who run afoul of the law but would never choose to make it public.
Meyer also has a history of giving second chances when warranted. In some cases, it has been rewarding.
When Meyer coached at Utah, he was close to dismissing running back Marty Johnson from the team after his second DUI arrest.
Meyer's wife, Shelley, persuaded him to give Johnson a third chance. After being suspended indefinitely with a curfew and strict academic conditions, Johnson returned to the team in 2004 and earned his degree.
On the field, Johnson scored 14 touchdowns, helping lead Utah to a perfect season.
At Florida, Meyer's second and third chances have been less successful. It worked in the case of Louis Murphy, who after being suspended for three games following his arrest on drug charges in 2006 went on to earn his degree and become a key receiver during last season's BCS title run.
But it didn't work for Rickerson, who was kicked off the team in October after his second arrest on felony battery charges.
It also didn't work for lineman Ronnie Wilson, who was arrested three times before being kicked off the team for good in October 2008.
Could Meyer do more? During a recent speaking engagement, he suggested he won't serve as a baby sitter for 18- to 21-year-old athletes.
"You trust your team, and I do, but these are 18-, 19-, 21-year-olds on a college campus," Meyer said. "That's a tough job."
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