Would it be too much to say that winning feels like great sex? The rush of adrenaline, the euphoria, the permission to scream and yell and do whatever you want in the dark of night. The sense that you are invincible and, better yet, unique and special. The scientific term for feeling as if your team’s win is your own is basking in reflected glory. But that doesn’t quite do justice to how powerful it is. It’s the feeling that transforms stupid but rich owners into community leaders and idiot columnists into cultural touchstones And it turns men like Urban Meyer into something akin to gods, if god wore khakis and sported a Midwestern affect.
This probably sounds ridiculous, unless you’ve ever been a winner.
The Florida Gators were what I’d call minor winners when I was in college. I applied to Florida because it was the best school in my state for my major, I couldn’t afford anywhere else, and it had a football team. I couldn’t picture myself attending a university that didn’t have a football team that consistently ranked in the coaches and AP polls. What did people at those other universities even do with their weekends? Don’t even try to convince me that Harvard-Yale is a thing.
About halfway through my time at Florida, coach Steve Spurrier resigned. Spurrier could be a real asshole to reporters; every sportswriter at the Independent Florida Alligator carried a tape recorder for his press conferences because, they told me, if you misquoted him by even one word he would ream you out for it. But he was a Florida boy and a Heisman winner who turned his alma mater from an also-ran into a regular college football contender, and the visor throwing was amusing. Most importantly, he won. A lot. He left to become head coach of Washington’s NFL team, a decision that didn’t end well. In the interim, we (of course in college sports it’s a royal we) got Ron Zook. I don’t remember any scuttlebutt about how Zook treated reporters. What mattered was Zook lost to Mississippi State. Mississippi fucking State! Unacceptable! He was gone soon.
I had graduated recently enough that I still had connections on campus and closely followed every Gators detail. Florida recently had brought on a new president from the University of Utah, and everyone knew the football coach there had turned Utah (Utah?!?) into a winner. Imagine what he could do with real talent in a real football conference in a real football state. Everyone I knew was thrilled when Urban Meyer took the Florida job, and even more thrilled when he started winning.
There was so much winning. So much winning that I was a regular at the local alumni bar on game days, and got there extra early to get a good seat for championship games. So much winning that it was a massive disappointment to lose, ever. So much that my friends and I complained current Florida students were getting spoiled. (This was happening around the same time that Billy Donovan’s basketball team won back-to-back NCAA championships.) I believed it when a summer intern told me that all that celebrating was getting a little cliché. But just a little. It’s still winning. So much winning that surely I was a winner. We were all winners. We were Gators.
There it is. That damn royal we again. The journalism overlords will smite me for using it, but they must not have gone to college football powerhouses. The royal we is the reason that through lawsuits, through attempts to unionize, through journalism exposé after exposé, the NCAA survives and thrives. It’s why all those maps that show college sports coaches as the highest-paid public employees in their state never lead to much change. It’s why sports talk radio guys always ask me tougher questions after I say I graduated from an SEC school, because I’ve signaled that I’m one of them so they can bring it.
In the Pony Excess documentary about Southern Methodist getting the “death penalty” for paying players, people talk about how part of the motivation was just wanting to have a winning team to brag about in the office on Monday. Everyone in Miami still brags about “The U.” Nobody at Florida State is gonna give back that national championship they won with Jameis Winston. And then there are the Joe Paterno truthers. The winning shouldn’t feel so good—especially when it is done by unpaid, exploited labor—but it does, and even more so when it feels as much a part of your identity as your name or your profession. Winning isn’t about logic. It’s about feeling good.
Feel free to peruse the Orlando Sentinel’s list of Gators arrested during Meyer’s tenure at Florida. It’s long—I remember some but not all of them, but definitely Aaron Hernandez. I suppose it would sound nice if I told you that people cared about this at the time and that I recall many vigorous debates on the topic, but it didn’t happen that way. Certainly not when Tim Tebow, the son of Christian missionaries, was gracing magazine cover after magazine cover and letting reporters follow him as he went to the local prison and prayed with inmates. But most importantly, not when the Gators were winning.
Gators fans hate Meyer now. It would be nice, I guess, to claim that we soured on him because he brought immorality into our precious program. But no. He just was showing signs of being a loser, the one thing college football can never tolerate. That loser said he was going “retire” because of his “health” and to “spend more time with his family.” He retired. Then he unretired. Then he said, for real, he was retiring. Then he magically healed when the Ohio State job opened up. Word on the street was that the Gators were trending down and he couldn’t be bothered to fix it. Asshole.
But he went to Ohio State and won. I have no doubt that is why everyone looked the other way as men like Greg Schiano, Kevin Wilson, and Zach Smith joined him at Ohio State. While his Ohio State teams didn’t get quite as many arrests as Florida, they still just missed the top half of teams back in 2015. Florida, perhaps wanting to prove it wasn’t all Meyer’s fault, still made No. 2.
Even when the details of Zach Smith abusing his wife came out, it took so many details. Photos of bruises. Text messages. Police reports. Court records. All to prove that Courtney Smith definitely said she was abused and Meyer either knew or should have known. Now OSU has decided that maybe the head coach should go away for a bit. There’s still a decent chance he’ll be back before Ohio State plays any games of significant consequence.
People seem to think this is the end of the line for Meyer, but I can’t make myself believe it. Maybe I’m cynical. Maybe I’ve just seen too many powerful people get a pass on things like this, on things even worse than this. Meyer has a proven record of building winners everywhere, and what’s more powerful to college football fans—hell, to colleges overall—than a winner? It’s powerful enough the Kansas City Royals were trying to talk themselves into drafting Luke Heimlich. You don’t think someone will take a chance on Meyer, if he wants to stay coaching? Ohio State may well do it themselves.
The school seems to be taking the right steps. Meyer is on leave, and I doubt Ohio State’s lawyers would let him get fired without a full investigation first. But it’s early August, when taking the moral high ground is easy because campus is nearly empty and kickoff is weeks away. Will Meyer be kept away if Ohio State loses a game? Or two? Or five?
Even if only some of what Courtney Smith has said is true, he should be dropped from the team, and from the sport altogether. But if you’ve ever felt the taste of winning, of truly basking in reflected glory, of feeling as if you were a champion by association and could climb a light pole and dance on top of a car and scream at the top of your lungs and kiss whoever you wanted with no retribution, you’d have as much doubt that Meyer is done as I do. Quitting a high, any high, is never as easy as it sounds.