HOOVER, Ala. – The first verbal shot came even before the first news conference.
Florida Gators coach Will Muschamp met with a few reporters in a hotel room here in the moments before the start of SEC Media Days, and he wasted no time in firing a salvo at the man who used to sit in his chair: Urban Meyer.
It’s been reported that Meyer, now at Ohio State, turned in his old school for two secondary recruiting violations. Meyer denied it; Muschamp confirmed it:
"In both situations we were turned in by Ohio," he said. "We didn't do anything wrong. The University of Florida didn't do anything wrong. And so we appreciated our friends from Ohio making sure we're compliant with NCAA rules. They certainly know a little bit about that subject."
Ouch. Ohio State, as any college football fan knows, is under NCAA probation for violations that took place under former coach Jim Tressel.
The alleged violations are a tempest in a teapot; Florida’s been cleared of wrongdoing. But the undercurrent of resentment is real. About 30 minutes after that comment, Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi was asking Gators center Jon Halapio if there was a “growing rivalry” between Muschamp and Meyer. Halapio didn’t bite, but make no mistake: the rivalry is not growing – it’s full-grown.
It’s somewhat remarkable how much distance the Gators have covered in running from a triumphant past. Meyer won two national titles in Gainesville, and coached the most popular player ever to wear the Orange and Blue (sorry, Coach Spurrier). And now, three years later, it almost feels like “Ohio” is as big a villain in Gainesville as Georgia or Tennessee. One player told Yahoo! Sports last year that he “really wants” to face Meyer in a bowl game. That was a player, by the way, whom Meyer recruited to Florida.
Muschamp’s recruiting dig will get most of the buzz, but he had a more subtle comment that was even more significant. He was asked how much responsibility a head coach must take for the off-the-field actions of a player on his team. That was clearly a reference not only to former Gator Aaron Hernandez, who has been charged with murdering Odin Lloyd in Massachusetts, but to the dozens of arrests during the Meyer era.
“It’s my job to be an extension of what’s happened at home,” Muschamp said. “You’re 100 percent responsible for the young man.”
[Y! Sports Radio: Will Muschamp clearly gunning for Urban Meyer]
Meyer seemed to flee responsibility earlier this month when he was asked about Hernandez. “I’m not going to talk about that,” he said. Meyer later spoke more about Hernandez and his efforts to help him (which were not insignificant), but by then the list of scofflaws he coached in Gainesville had been pinged around social media for days. Nobody in Gator Country has rushed to Meyer’s defense.
“You can’t stick your head in the sand and pretend everything’s OK,” Muschamp said Tuesday. He didn’t say Meyer stuck his head in the sand, but the insinuation is clear: the spiral of misbehavior only got worse until Muschamp showed up and altered the culture.
Halapio said Tuesday that team rules are more or less the same under “Coach Boom.” He listed “no stealing,” “no hitting girls,” and “being respectful to everybody” as themes Muschamp has reinforced. He even said Muschamp tells players to look everyone in the eye when shaking their hand. It’s not fair or appropriate to say Meyer paid no attention to off-the-field behavior, yet more than one Gator commented to Yahoo! Sports last year about how things started to slide during the waning months of Meyer’s tenure at Florida.
"Toward the end of Coach Meyer's time here, a lot of guys were out for themselves,” defensive lineman Omar Hunter said. “Not buying into the team concept. He was out for himself, so they thought the same thing.
"A lot of things were sliding. Guys were showing up late to practice and workouts. Guys were supposed to be back on Sunday and didn't get back until Monday. There was no discipline."
Has discipline been restored? There is progress, but the arrests didn’t disappear under Muschamp: there were nine arrests in the 13 months after he took over. Still, there is a sense of pride in the new way, and little if any longing for what was arguably the greatest on-the-field era in Florida Gators history. It’s possible, and a little bit incredible, that the Urban Meyer era may never be missed in Gainesville.
Related coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
• Will Muschamp takes dig at Ohio State over NCAA violations
• Eric Adelson: Expect chaos at SEC Media Days
• Senator takes a shot at USC football team