The college coach seemed earnest enough. The tone of his voice was fervent, the expression on his face blew three freeway exits past sincere, barreling straight toward righteous. He was recruiting a high school kid who had found trouble, a young man who had serious character flaws, but now was ready for a second chance. The coach insisted the kid needed and deserved that second chance, and he was the beacon who could make it work for him. That was dirty pool. I mean, what self-respecting American doesn’t believe in second chances?
I’ll tell you who does believe in them: head coaches in search of superior athletes who can help them win.
That thought has been inescapable through the whole Aaron Hernandez episode. How does a man facing a murder charge, a man accused in a different civil case of shooting a victim in the face, a man potentially implicated in two other murders, play football for all those years at Florida and for the New England Patriots? What was the skid from there to here and who, other than Hernandez, greased it?
Patriots owner Bob Kraft said Hernandez ended up with his team because it was "duped" by him. Urban Meyer, the coach who recruited and guided the tight end to and at Florida, has stiff-armed those who want to tie Hernandez’s subsequent actions to him and his former program.
We can understand why.
There is no direct link. But in the larger sense there is a misguided belief on the part of a lot of coaches, Meyer included, and even school administrators and pro coaches and team owners, that they can change players from whatever it was they have been to something better. And that — here’s the most important part — they can win with guys like that.
After all, no matter what anybody says, no matter how much preaching about developing and featuring high-character athletes is spun to the public, at the major college and professional levels, the No. 1 goal is and always has been and always will be winning.
Kraft wasn’t duped, and if he was, he wasn’t paying attention. Hernandez’s character had come into question long before now. It’s the reason his draft stock dropped coming out of Florida. The Patriot Way wasn’t going to alter that. The fact that Meyer recruited him, in hindsight, is no big surprise. The New York Times reported recently that 41 of the 121 players on Meyer’s 2008 national championship team have been arrested.
That’s pathetic, especially against the backdrop of Urban’s ongoing arrogant posturing that his way — like the Patriot Way — is the anointed way, his way involves families and perspective and emphasis on preparation for life after football. That last part is so appealing, so attractive to the soul … until that life includes standing behind bars in a jumpsuit.
Urban Meyer is about winning, just like a lot of other people who have made coaching their profession.
And that kind of record — 41 of 121 — stems from the same condition that afflicted the oh-so-sincere coach who wanted to give his recruit a second chance. All that kid had done was plead guilty to sexually assaulting a girl at his high school. But the college coach was convinced that the athlete, who was decorated for his play, would be different under his watch, that the coach would change him.
Question: Why is it that coaches so often want to extend those second chances to great athletes and not to scrubs? The answer there is as obvious as the benefits that come to coaches who win.
Somehow those renovations are worth making, those risks are worth taking. It’s almost a god-complex adopted by coaches who are either delusional or disingenuous.
The implication here isn’t that no mulligans are worth extending or that all coaches are pond scum. Their jobs are difficult and they’re paid a lot of money to do them. They have to be so many things: strategists, motivators, innovators, babysitters, psychologists, disciplinarians, salesmen and CEOs. But here’s what most of them aren’t and never will be: saints. They are opportunists, not rehabilitators.
If they pursue an athlete, of high character or not, they want to use him to win. Coaches may say they want to help players on their way to a better end, but, in reality, it’s the other way around. That’s why so many gifted athletes get those second chances. It’s for the same reason they got a first chance.
Unless the skid that’s been greased for them leads them down Hernandez’s steep path, or down the path that so many of Meyer’s former players at Florida have slid. Then, all of a sudden, the coach’s talk about developing players in all areas of their life rings hollow. Just like the pitch from the coach with the fervent voice and righteous expression who was so eager to hand out one more second chance.
Gordon Monson hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
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