When Joker Phillips was "forced to resign" this summer, over alleged NCAA violations committed while on the recruiting trail, I wrote this about Florida's fealty to "the right way."
Doing things "the right way" — or, at least, keeping "Florida" and "NCAA violations" as far from each other as possible — matters a great deal to Florida, and especially to Jeremy Foley. There aren't many other schools getting written up in the Wall Street Journal for doing things cleanly and having athletic success; there aren't many other schools that would quietly add a vision statement that begins with "Be the model collegiate athletics program" to their website.
This draws scoffs because openly claiming to take the high road always will. But I've been around, paying attention to, and reporting on Florida's programs for years now, and I have come to believe that this is a genuine vision.
That vision statement, and Florida's athletic department, revolves around the phrase "A Championship Experience with Integrity." Integrity really and truly does matter to Florida, and not purely for show: Jeremy Foley, good as he is at his job duty of managing an athletics program that has been successful on the field, has tried to make hiring coaches who can help mold student-athletes into quality human beings off of it part of his job, too. And in almost all respects, he has succeeded: Florida's coaches are, almost to a person, among the most respected figures in their fields, or have the potential to be, and not just for how their teams play.
There was one major exception to that rule, though: For all his success on the field, Urban Meyer simply did not run a program that commanded respect off the field. Meyer himself confessed that Florida was "broken" on his way out the door, a perception cemented by an infamous 2012 Sporting News feature from Matt Hayes that details how Florida's players ran the program like inmates running an asylum.
And that, I've been told more than once, was a significant factor in why Will Muschamp, straight arrow and straight-shooter, was Foley's guy when Meyer departed in 2010. Muschamp wasn't totally scot-free, thanks in part to time spent at Auburn — a former player accused Muschamp of paying him straight cash during his time as Auburn defensive coordinator, a charge Muschamp would "totally" deny in no uncertain terms — but he had a reputation for doing things the "right" way.
And Muschamp has run (ran?) Florida's program with a firm hand since his arrival in Gainesville, especially in regards to Florida's players.
Janoris Jenkins, probably the most talented player on Florida's roster entering the 2011 season, didn't last six months under Muschamp. A.C. Leonard (domestic violence) and Jessamen Dunker (felony grand theft scooter), each likely to become a major contributor for Florida at some point, were run off after being arrested on serious criminal charges. (Leonard was one of eight players from the 19-player 2011 Florida recruiting class, largely assembled by Meyer and finished by Muschamp, that were no longer at Florida by the beginning of the 2013 season. 13 of the 28 members of Florida's 2010 recruiting class did not finish their college careers at Florida, and that's without counting Leon Orr, who technically did.) Antonio Morrison was publicly chastisted, privately punished, and suspended for a pair of relatively minor arrests, one of which was trumped-up bullshit. Marcus Roberson got sent home from a road game for some miscreancy; Orr got kicked off Florida's roster for cheeky insubordination.
What flew for players under Meyer got their wings clipped by Muschamp.
And Muschamp also strove to avoid even the appearance of impropriety when it came to NCAA violations. Aubrey Hill and Phillips were both cut loose once the shadows of impropriety fell on them, and, in Hill's case, there was never even any insinuation that he'd done anything wrong at Florida. Muschamp defended Sharrif Floyd's actions in taking money from a foundation to go on recruiting trips, and torched the NCAA for its role in suspending Floyd to begin the 2012 season.
All of this is not to say that Florida's football program is as pure as driven snow, of course. Florida played an aggressive, often chippy brand of defense under Muschamp, and that modus operandi occasionally led to players doing indefensible and shameful things. Chris Johnson and Morrison throwing punches after plays, and Ronald Powell spitting at a Florida State player in 2013: That stuff wasn't done with integrity.
And I'm not naive enough to believe that any big-time college football program, Florida included, has constructed a roster entirely without the skullduggery and evasion of the NCAA's rules necessary to fairly compensate players who are unfairly exploited by a broken system — though I do think Florida, which has an exemplary compliance department, tries its damnedest to do the things within its power in accordance with NCAA rules.
But the perception that Florida is doing things "the right way" is important to Foley, and thus important to Florida. Hiring a new football coach is going to test how committed he is to maintaining that perception.
Most of the coaches Florida could pursue in this hiring cycle have at least one bete noire off the field. For Dan Mullen, those can be found in the pursuit of Cam Newton — remember, a Mississippi State booster and Newton's father talked money before Cam committed to Auburn — and the mysterious leaking of details of Newton's academic history from his Florida days (in violation of federal law, mind). For Rich Rodriguez, the no-no was skirting NCAA rules by practicing too often at Michigan, and incurring NCAA penalties. (Taken together, those reasons make a report that Mullen and Rodriguez won't be considered somewhat credible.)
But it's not just the more obvious names who have what we'd call "character concerns" if college football coaches who want million-dollar contracts were run through the wringer college football players aspiring to play in the NFL pass through. Hugh Freeze's sudden and surprising recruiting success at Mississippi has been eyed skeptically by some in the industry; Todd Graham is a mercenary who has burned bridges while leaving previous jobs in manners that make "classless" an easy tag to apply; Lane Kiffin is Lane Kiffin; Bobby Petrino's infidelity pales in comparison to his gross misuse of power at Arkansas; Dabo Swinney's Clemson program gets some of the same recruiting experts' side-eyes that Mississippi does; Bob Stoops's recent interest in making Oklahoma a halfway house for talented mistake-makers like Dorial Green-Beckham is troubling. I can go on and on and on and on and on. And I might.
The point is, a commitment to integrity is important, and Muschamp having it while not having football success made his firing hard for Florida to effectuate. And Muschamp being an exemplar for what a coach can do for his players off the field will make giving that ground back difficult for Foley and Florida.
In his comments during Monday's press conference addressing Muschamp's departure, Foley cited that "A Championship Experience with Integrity" mission, and said that would be "paramount" going forward in his decision-making process.
In his comments, Muschamp said "As a football coach, you've got to win games. That's the bottom line."
We'll see where lines in the sand and the bottom line meet.