Q & A | Urban Meyer

College football: Ohio State coach responds to Hernandez criticism

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Stephan Savoia | AP
Urban Meyer indicated his text to The Dispatch was prompted by some inaccuracies which have swirled about Aaron Hernandez's treatment while a player at Florida.

Like most people, Urban Meyer was “stunned” to hear that New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez — one of his former players at Florida — had been investigated and then charged with the murder of Odin Lloyd, whose body was found June 17 at an industrial park near Hernandez’s home in North Attleborough, Mass.

Since then, the second-year Ohio State football coach opted not to speak publicly about Hernandez and how the case has affected him, his family and former Florida coaches and support personnel who interacted with a sometimes-troubled Hernandez during the tight end’s three seasons at the university from 2007 to ’09.

“I’ve been, on purpose, staying away from this whole thing, but I’m not now,” Meyer told The Dispatch yesterday before embarking on a family vacation. And he added that, foremost, his “prayers and thoughts are with the family and friends of the victim.”

Yet aspersions have been cast in some media circles that the way Meyer and others tried to help Hernandez work through some of his personal challenges might have served to “enable” him. In a brief interview yesterday, Meyer refuted that claim and others:

 

Question: Have the recent personal attacks on you in relation to this case bothered you?

 

Answer: Whenever someone attacks your character, our staff — people aren’t aware of all the things we do in terms of being a mentor, dealing with issues and all that. Yeah, I have been avoiding talking about this because you’re talking about a serious crime; you’re talking about families that have been very affected by this. And to pull something back personal that isn’t true from four to seven years ago, that’s mind-boggling to me.

 

Q: Pat Dooley of The Gainesville Sun wrote a week ago that you and your wife, Shelley, welcomed Hernandez into your home at times back then, offering him family-style exposure among other ways of trying to show him the right path. Do you think now about what else you could have done?

 

A: Absolutely. When one of our (Florida assistant) coaches started recruiting him up in (Bristol) Connecticut, it was right after his father had died suddenly. There was a lot of emotional trauma with that. Years ago, that would weigh forever on my chest — “What could we do? What could we do?” Then I’d talk with other coaches, and in essence the conversation was you do the best you can. But at the end of the day, there is free will. You can’t change people. You can set the table and try to help them, make sure there is a spiritual component in their life, make sure there is a family atmosphere. And that’s what we try to do — it’s what we’ve tried to do everywhere.

Q: So how do you react when someone uses the term “enabler” to describe how you handled Hernandez?

A: When I hear that, the first thing I know is it’s not true. And second, I don’t spend much time thinking about it. I’m worried about my players and my team and my family. Years ago, (such criticism) used to bother me. That’s why I don’t read much anymore; I just stay away from it.

Q: What do you recall of Hernandez’s brushes with the law during his time at Florida?

A: Relatively speaking, he had very minor stuff. He was questioned about being a witness (to a shooting), and he had an argument in a restaurant (in which Hernandez allegedly struck an employee in an argument over an unpaid bill), and he was suspended one game (reportedly for a failed marijuana test). Other than that, he was three years a good player. That was it.

Q: It has been suggested that Hernandez failed four to seven drug tests in his time at Florida.

A: I just received an email from a friend where there is an accusation of multiple failed drug tests by Hernandez covered up by the University of Florida or the coaching staff. This is absolutely not true. Hernandez was held to the same drug-testing policy as every other player.

Q: In regards to the shooting incident, in which two people in a car were wounded, a police report surfaced that showed Hernandez and teammate Reggie Nelson were questioned but never charged. What do you recall of that episode?

A: I don’t remember his name in (the report). I remember it was about a one-hour discussion. One of my coaches came in and said, “Hey, they’re getting questioned for this.” … I said, “Well, what do I need to do?” And he said, “Nothing. They’re not involved.” And that was it. They weren’t questioned for (doing) the shooting. They were questioned as a witness.”

Q: You mentioned that your concern for Hernandez rose most when he occasionally would visit his hometown.

A: His people back home said, “Keep him (in Florida), don’t let him come back home” (because of what they saw as unsettling influences). That was a big part of it, now that I remember it. And I didn’t understand the seriousness of it. People warned me and the coaches warned me, saying, “He can’t go back home.” Again, though, I had no idea we’d be talking about what we are now.

Q: Many look upon college head coaches, despite a three- to five-year exposure with an athlete, as being quasi-parents responsible in part for how an athlete turns out.

A: Absolutely that is part of our responsibility. Now can it completely wear you out in worrying about what’s going on 24/7? Yes. But it is our responsibility. We represent the university. We’re like the CEO of a company, but the difference is we’re in the public eye. And then the stories that get told and printed, with the inaccuracies, that’s what just wears you out.

Our program, in my opinion, does as good of a job as anybody in America in involving families, making it a family atmosphere, getting to know our players and trying to develop our players in all areas of their life — social, spiritual, athletic, everything. Our coaches coach, but that’s a small part of it. ... It’s why we work so hard on life after football with these kids.

tmay@dispatch.com

@TIM_MAYsports

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