COLUMBUS, Ohio — In his first speaking engagement with his Big Ten coaching peers, new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer had to defend what he did in his last coaching job.
Meyer said he was disappointed by a story this week in the Sporting News which said he showed favoritism to star players during his six-year tenure at Florida and that his Gators program winked at disciplinary problems.
“When you start saying preferential treatment to players, that’s probably a correct statement. We did do that. We do that here. We did it at Bowling Green and Utah,” said Meyer, mentioning his previous coaching stops while speaking Wednesday on the Big Ten coaches spring teleconference. “If you go to class, you’re a warrior, you do things the right way off and on the field, and you’re completely committed to helping us win, you’re going to get treated really good.”
Meyer bristled at the inference by former players, some identified and some not, who said that there was a different set of rules for star players such as wide receiver Percy Harvin.
“I’m extremely proud of what we did down there. And throwing great players — not good players, great players — under the bus like that, I don’t get the intent,” he said. “I’ll fight for those guys, man. Those guys did a lot of great things for the University of Florida. And to sit there and call them out four or five years later, I’m not sure of the intent, once again.
“But I’ll always fight for those guys.”
Meyer won two national championships at Florida but twice left the program, each time citing health issues. He retired after the 2010 season, then later took a job as a college football analyst with ESPN for a year. He was hired last November to pick up the pieces of an Ohio State program which has suffered through player suspensions and departures, NCAA sanctions and the forced resignation of coach Jim Tressel due to a memorabilia-for-money scandal.
The Buckeyes, who were 6-7 a year ago and lost their last four games including, ironically, the Gator Bowl to Florida, are on NCAA probation and have been banned from playing in a bowl game after the 2012 season.
Meyer said he had talked to several former Florida players and coaches who were upset by the Sporting News story.
The story cited multiple sources who confirmed that during the 2008 season Harvin, now a member of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, physically attacked Florida wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales, grabbing him by the neck and throwing him to the ground. It said that after Harvin was pulled off Gonzales by two assistant coaches, he was never disciplined.
Gonzales, now an offensive coordinator at Illinois, issued a statement earlier on Wednesday.
“In response to a recent story alleging an incident between Percy Harvin and me and while at Florida, the story is inaccurate,” he said in the statement. “It didn’t happen.”
Meyer said he and his staff met or exceeded all standards in terms of graduation rate, wins, abiding by NCAA rules and recruiting quality players.
The story had said there was a “circle of trust” which enabled and pandered to elite players. Meyer denied it on Wednesday.
Asked if he disagreed in particular with a certain contention in the story, Meyer said, “Oh, more than one.”
He seemed particularly upset by the inference that he and his staff had flaunted NCAA bylaws.
“I want to say this real clear: There is no violation that we had as far as that whole conversation,” Meyer said. “I’m not sure why that keeps coming up. So, if you would bold that for me, underline it — there is not an NCAA violation.”
Since taking the Ohio State job, Meyer has bumped heads with several Big Ten coaches — principally Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema — over the recruiting of players who have already verbally committed to other Division I programs. But Bielema has said that was a misunderstanding which has been corrected.