Given the civility of our earliest debate, the last thing I want to do is get contrary with Dr. Saturday (who backed me up on Jacksonville and writes glowingly of Mark Richt), particularly over something that happened weeks ago.
Nevertheless, I have some issues---some, mind you---with the good Doctor’s take on a recent Paul Finebaum diatribe. Quoth the Doc:
Ah, yes, those modern despots. Meyer, you may have read recently in places desperate for offseason content (if you didn't read it when it came out three weeks ago), told some booster club or other, "You're either a Gator or you're not a Gator," apparently a veiled response to "criticism" by ex-quarterback and radio host Shane Matthews. (Oh, snap!) Saban dissed Alabama fans for a lack of "passion and energy" before the Tide's loss to Utah in the Sugar Bowl. (Oh no di'n.) They're mad, Finebaum tells you, mad with power. . . .
"Absolute power" to do what? Excommunicate paying customers? Torture message board haters who mock "Urban Cyer lol"? Reporters? Give me an example of a blackballed reporter. . . . Are they going to behead the long snapper as an example? Are we still talking about football coaches or the great and terrible Khan sweeping in from the steppe?
What's more frustrating than even Finebaum's overheated rhetoric (and the fact that this pair of virtual non-quotes is still in the news) is that, in context, it's not that unusual. It's kind of tame, really, compared to the number of fans -- and the comments to Finebaum's column should give some good indication of this, in quantity and quality -- who do view coaches in this way, as heads of some kind of a "nation" whose dictates and processes (or The Process) are beyond reproach and, if necessary, to be followed to the letter. This is when "coach" goes beyond a job description and actually becomes part of the man -- when Nick Saban becomes Coach Nick Saban, or, most loathsomely, "CNS" -- attached to a name the same way we reverently add "Doctor," "Father," "General" or "Senator," but never, say, "Lawyer," "Engineer" or "Architect." Honorifics are reserved for the people we trust with our bodies, our souls, our guns, our government ... and our football, of course.
Dr. Mr. Saturday (as long as we are being honest about our titles here; Matt Hinton and I have been on a first-name basis long enough that I don’t expect him to call me "Mayor," or even "Counselor" or "Colonel" . . . though, I have to admit, "Colonel" is nice on those rare occasions when I get it thrown my way) is right about the overblown reaction to the Armani Bear’s fairly benign comments.
Say what you will about Nick Saban---and there certainly are valid reasons for criticism---an inclination to duck responsibility is not among his faults. In the press conference immediately following Alabama’s loss in the Sugar Bowl, Coach Saban accepted the blame for the Crimson Tide’s poor performance, and, when he was asked about remarks he made beforehand which may have provided Utah with bulletin board material, he absorbed the criticism for that, too, saying "the whole kit and caboodle" was his fault. (That stood out in my mind because it had been quite a while since I heard a grown man actually use the phrase "the whole kit and caboodle.")
Where Matt and I part company is with regard to Urban Meyer’s line, which, you may recall, went a little something like this:
We want former Gators to come back, but loyalty's a two-way street. If you want to be critical of a player on our team or a coach on our team you can buy a ticket for seat 37F, you're not welcome back in the football office.
You're either a Gator or you're not a Gator. It's real simple. For those who are not Gators keep buying tickets, critique, but if you're a real Gator, get to know our players. Let's enjoy the greatest era not just football of Gator athletics.
When Matt asks, "‘Absolute power’ to do what? Excommunicate paying customers?" he is asking a rhetorical question in the service of sarcasm, but Coach Meyer---a man who has given every indication that he has no sense of humor whatsoever---likely would answer that question with a steely-eyed, tight-lipped, grim affirmation while pointing and staring at the questioner.
Of course Urban Meyer believes he has the absolute power to excommunicate paying customers. What other possible interpretation is there? Coach Meyer proclaimed that, "[i]f you want to be critical of a player on our team or a coach on our team"---note the absence of any adverbs; not unfairly critical or unreasonably critical or overly critical; just plain ol’ garden variety critical, even constructively or correctly---"you can buy a ticket for seat 37F, you’re not welcome back in the football office."
So, yes, Paul Finebaum’s criticism of Nick Saban is way off base, but, yes, Paul Finebaum’s condemnation of Urban Meyer is on point. The guy who "buy[s] a ticket for seat 37F" is, by definition, a "paying customer." A former player who is "not welcome back in the football office" has, in effect, been "[e]xcommunicate[d]" (which was, by the way, an exquisite word choice when applied to a coach named for a pope).
What else, other than de facto excommunication from Gator Nation, could Coach Meyer have intended when making the blanket declaration that "[y]ou’re either a Gator or you’re not a Gator"? Coach Meyer was responding---more belatedly than the media, by the way---to a comment made by former Florida quarterback Shane Matthews in January. The Gator signal caller’s rather tepid critique ("The first couple of years, I wasn't sure the spread offense would work in the S.E.C. . . . Honestly, it didn't work until last year, when he had the right personnel running his offense") is demonstrably accurate and Florida fans whose Gator credentials extend back farther than, say, 2005 flatly stated the obvious fact: "Meyer should have never said anything. He has every right to defend his players, but no right to say who is a Gator and who isn’t."
In short, his considerable and undeniable on-field achievements notwithstanding, Urban Meyer has an awful lot of gumption for a guy who had no S.E.C. ties five years ago, and that irrefutable reality justifies the nature and vehemence of the criticisms Matt Hinton finds so over the top.
By the way . . . Shane Matthews isn’t the only former Gator quarterback to have made public comments recently that Coach Meyer might not like. One former Florida great recently appeared on the show of the offending Paul Finebaum, where he said:
They’ve still got that rumor going down there, Paul, that if he has about one more big year he might be the Notre Dame coach. I know you’ve heard that rumor. . . .
It’d be surprising if he left, but who knows? He’s accomplished so much. I mean, I left after 12 years because I just said, "Hey, I’ve done enough. Try something else." He may get to the point where he needs to try something else. Who knows?
Maybe it was his dream job and not anymore. I don’t know.
So said former Florida Gator quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Steve Spurrier. Urban Meyer was none too pleased at Darth Visor’s snarky remarks---in one of the year’s better instances of cultural illiteracy, Urb observed: "Here's a quote for you -- I am not going to Notre Dame. There's gotta be something else going on in sports. Isn't there car racing going on?"---so one wonders when orders might come down from on high. Has Urban Meyer gotten so big for his britches that he feels empowered to declare the Ol’ Ball Coach lagarto non grata in Gainesville?
If we live in a country in which Canadians can declare American conservatives "unpatriotic" for disagreeing with the president they helped to elect, then I suppose Ohioans with Midwestern and Western roots are fit to declare the greatest Gator of them all to be something other than a genuine member of the Florida faithful. A carpetbagger who doesn’t know whether NASCAR is in season gets to lecture Sunshine State football fans on what defines them as a people. And to think I thought Reconstruction had ended. . . .