A Team Of Players Meyer Can Believe In

It’s not exactly “My way or the highway” but Urban Meyer is trying to create a team atmosphere at the University of Florida that is not conducive to mid-year suspensions and players getting kicked off the team. He has shown he doesn’t want or have the time to deal with such nuisances so he has set out to bring in players that fit a new mold, players that want to win as a team.

In what some may have interpreted as a player-hating article, Dave Curtis of the Orlando Sentinel interviewed Marcus Thomas and his new agent Rich Burnoski about how Thomas has been treated and the perception of Thomas by his future employers, the 32 teams of the National Football League. Actually, Meyer should thank Burnoski and Thomas for giving him the perfect outline of what he is NOT looking for in a prospective Gator.

If you’ve followed Urban Meyer’s career at Florida, then you can see that he handled Marcus Thomas the same way he always handles difficulties. Meyer makes it a point to give players multiple chances to redeem themselves but he draws a line in the dirt and says this is where it all stops. Cross this line and you’re gone. Thomas himself pointed out that Meyer wants what is best for the players at the University of Florida when he told Curtis, “He’s a good person in general who wants nothing but the best for all his players.”

Thomas also intimated that Meyer did everything he could to ensure that Thomas walked the straight and narrow path but apparently the path Meyer suggested was a little too straight and much too narrow.

“But he’s the kind of guy who says, ‘If you do that, you’re a bad person,’ “Thomas said in the Sentinel article.”He says, ‘This is the way to go. This is how it is. And if you’re not doing that, you’re a bad guy.’ “

Given that Marcus Thomas had multiple chances to make the right choices and consistently broke the rules, it’s probably safe to say that Thomas is either a bad guy or just someone too immature to make the kind of choices adults have to make. Thomas had plenty of opportunities to get his life in order but when it became obvious that he wasn’t going to take advantage of the help that was offered, Meyer was left with only one choice which was to permanently suspend Thomas from the Florida football team.

Considering Thomas wasn’t a first time offender, Meyer should have put stringent conditions on reinstatement and Thomas should have been happy to have one more chance to prove himself. But, according to Thomas in a letter written to Florida fans dated November 6 and sent to Gator Country via his entourage, Thomas couldn’t handle the stipulations of his punishment (a drug rehab sentence) and that resulted in his dismissal from the team.

“At drug rehab, I felt like I didn’t belong,” Thomas wrote in a nice letter to the fans. “I knew my mistake was months behind me so I didn’t see the point. I realize now that I was wrong and I should have done everything the coaches asked me to do no matter what I thought.”

Thomas accepted part of the blame with that statement, but he also made it seem like he was a bit of a victim. According to the article by Dave Curtis, the reason for the dismissal was more than justified.

Curtis wrote: “But UF sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity because federal law prevents the release of specific information about students, say Thomas failed another drug test during the season — this one for Gamma Hydroxy Butyrate, or GHB — and that his dismissal was permanent.”

In the article, Thomas and Buronski (Thomas’ former high school coach) painted Meyer as vindictive and determined to ruin any chances of a pro football career for Thomas.

Curtis wrote: “He’d say, ‘I’m going to destroy you to the [pro] scouts,’ “Thomas said.

“How often would he give you that?” Thomas’ agent, Rich Burnoski, asked.

“All the time,” Thomas said. “On a regular basis.”

I can actually picture Meyer saying this in a last ditch attempt to get Thomas to shape up before it’s time to ship out. All the other warnings didn’t work so why not try something harsher, more dramatic? When all else fails, try hitting someone where it hurts the most and see if that gets their attention.

In many ways, the public airing of these comments serves as adequate warning to future recruits and their parents: if you aren’t willing to follow the rules and conform to team policies, then don’t even sign up.

Look where Marcus Thomas has landed because he couldn’t abide by school policies and team rules. His mistakes are going to cost him millions of dollars and the biggest mistake is that he walked out on the people trying to help him the most. Additionally, he will miss out on the chance to take the field in Glendale, Arizona and win a national championship with his teammates.

The conversation Thomas and Buronski had with a credible reporter that always double checks his facts will cost even more. Curtis confirmed the dismissal was due to a new positive drug test which proves Thomas and the agent are liars. When it comes to choosing people to give him good advice, Thomas might want to consider a new counselor.

Meanwhile, look what tough love has done for Thomas’ replacement at nose tackle on Florida’s nationally-ranked defensive unit. Given the chance to play, Steve Harris has become a solid, playmaking nose tackle. Harris is living proof that if you take advantage of the second chances Urban Meyer gives you, good things will happen.

Harris was kicked off the team himself over the spring and summer due to conduct unbecoming of a Florida Gator. He had to jump through more hoops than a circus poodle just to earn the right to start August practice at the very bottom of the depth chart. Once he had proven that he could take responsibility for his own life, Meyer reinstated him to the team. Now he’s starting and his play at the nose tackle position that Thomas used to occupy has caught the attention of the NFL scouts.

What Harris has done on the field is almost secondary to what happened last Saturday. On that day, Harris walked across the stage of the Stephen C. O’Connell Center with a diploma in hand. He has a college degree and a head start in life because he was willing to listen to the coach that had his best interests in mind.

It is a credit to Harris that he responded to Meyer’s tough love approach. It couldn’t have been easy for him because he missed all of spring practice and during the summer he wasn’t allowed to be around the team. Only when he had proven himself was he allowed to come back to the team. Now he has a college degree, a place in the starting lineup on a team playing for the national championship and a chance to get drafted in April. Ask Steve Harris if conforming to the rules was worth it and he’ll give you an emphatic yes.

Another example of Meyer’s tough love was when senior wide receiver Kenneth Tookes made an error in judgment by shooting a loaded weapon into an unoccupied dwelling last spring. The headlines were brutal at the time and the embarrassment to the school and the team was significant in a relatively quiet time.

Inevitably Tookes was cleared of any wrongdoing because it wasn’t his weapon and he had been told the weapon wasn’t loaded when he aimed it and pulled the trigger. Still, Meyer had to discipline Tookes. He didn’t boot him off the team but he did make Tookes earn his way back into the good graces of the team. Tookes lost his scholarship for the remainder of the spring and summer but he worked hard and did whatever was asked. When the fall practices began, he was reinstated to the team and back on scholarship.

Last Saturday, the wide receiver from Jacksonville crossed the O’Connell Center stage with his diploma from the University of Florida. He’s another example that good things happen when you follow the rules and do the right thing.

All of this should be a neon sign for recruits and their parents about what they can expect from Meyer and the Florida football staff. It’s not a regime of “Zero Tolerance” — these are, after all, 18-21 year olds and they are going to make mistakes — but the kids that want to be on this team have to realize that there are only so many chances and you have to make the most of the ones you get. Keep making mistakes and you’re gone. Right the ship and get back on the proper path and good things happen.

Meyer probably spends as much or more time than any other head coach in the country sizing up the character of the kids he recruits. He talks to their friends, their families, their teachers, their coaches and anyone that will take the time to tell him what’s in the kid’s heart. Meyer believes there is a real correlation to living right off the field and playing right on the field so he and his staff do their homework. Character does count with this staff.

So, when the word gets around to this staff that a big time high school football prospect is being transported to various football venues by an agent, the staff is most likely going to stay away from that prospect. When a prospect is associating with persons that are habitual drug users and listening to them and their clients for advice, they will probably stay away from that prospect.

Meyer has proven that he is fair-minded and willing to offer second chances to players with problems, but he goes to great lengths in recruiting to bring to Florida the kind of kids that are less likely to ever get in trouble. He wants a better person not just player to man his roster these days.

Let’s look at the current list of prospects committed to the University of Florida. The accolades could go on and on. There’s no doubt all of these kids can play with the best players in the nation. Now take a look at the fact that commitments Cameron Newton, Bryan Waggener, Bo Williams, Paul Wilson, Joe Haden, Aaron Hernandez, Michael Pouncey, Maurkice Pouncey, and Ahmad Black will all enroll at Florida in January because they finished their high school coursework ahead of time. Two more commitments, Jay Howard and Sidell Corley, have also finished their school work but will graduate with their classes. The Gators are also hot after Lorenzo Edwards, who will enroll early at the college he chooses.

Almost half the final class of prospects could come to school early because they are so strong in the classroom at their high schools. Again we have that correlation of good things off the field to good things on the field because Scout.com has Florida’s class rated second nationally.

The players that Meyer is bringing in are the antithesis of Marcus Thomas, who still can’t bring himself to admit that he’s totally to blame for his predicament. Live right, do the right thing types will thrive here. Those that can’t handle it should simply stay away. Maybe Meyer should consider sending Thomas a thank you note for being the perfect example of everything a Florida Gator shouldn’t be.