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Did “Swamp Kings” serve sports fans or Urban Meyer’s ego?

The “Untold” series focusing on the Gators is getting mixed reviews.

FedEx BCS National Championship Game - Oklahoma v Florida
Head coach Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow of the Florida Gators celebrate after their 24-14 win against the Oklahoma Sooners during the FedEx BCS National Championship game at Dolphin Stadium on January 8, 2009 in Miami, Florida.
Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images

Netflix released the final chapter of the latest “Untold” sports documentaries on Tuesday, August 22 with “Swamp Kings”, a supposed all-access look at the Florida Gators under Urban Meyer from 2005-10. DK Network’s Murjani Rawls put together an excellent review of the four-part series, noting how it was a nice trip down memory lane for Gators fans but did not touch on the darker side of Meyer’s time there.

After viewing the full series, DK Network’s College Sports editor Collin Sherwin and sports editor Chinmay Vaidya look back at what was good, what was bad and whether this documentary was worth the watch.

What would you rate this series on a scale of 1-10 and why?

CV: We’ll get more into what was good and bad below, so I’ll be brief here. I didn’t go into the series expecting it to be some revelatory experience, but I did expect to get a better understanding of the Florida program which was so dominant under Meyer. And ultimately, I felt I did get that. As a college sports fan and sports documentary fan, this was a solid watch. I’ll give this a 7/10.

CS: How about a -31/10, one for each arrest of a player under Meyer in Gainesville during his tenure. As someone that lived and breathed college football in Florida during all Meyer’s tenure, this is nothing short of a Pravda-ization of a team that left a black mark on the sport permanently. The Meyer Era resulted in plenty of victories, but still scars the Gator community and the City of Gainesville to this day.

Urban’s teams were a particular disgrace to a sport that often fetishizes disgrace. If you want to discuss Tebow and the on-field record fine, but it’s just part of the legacy. To leave out entire crucial stories that helped define that team their legacy is just malfeasance.

Now that our ratings are out there, was there anything positive from the series?

CV: The player perspectives were awesome. Brandon Siler was my favorite, but I think all those former athletes provided something important to the story. It was cool to hear about their experience taking a program that was lost in the wilderness to multiple national titles. Tim Tebow’s interviews were a bit over the top, but that was expected. Hearing the player journeys was worth the watch.

CS: Only that the massive and justified backlash to this project means no one will ever take any Urban Meyer redemption story seriously. Good job, good effort Urbz. Don’t kick anyone for missing in this ludicrous attempt to raise your favorability ratings.

What was wrong with the series?

CV: I’ll preface what I’m about to say with the following: there’s no morality in college football. This is a greedy, corrupt, ruthless sport where being first is the only thing that matters. And if you think the lack of integrity is something only Meyer’s Gators had, you must’ve missed the Jim Harbaugh saga and Auburn hiring Hugh Freeze.

Meyer’s Gators had off-field issues left and right, with more than 30 players being arrested during his time there. And there was a mention of legal issues and how the school dealt with them, but it was for a 5-minute snippet in the third episode. There were TV clips and newspaper stills, but that was it. Tebow mentioned one instance with Aaron Hernandez, but the player interviews didn’t have much about this either.

It’s fine if the filmmakers wanted to ignore the off-field stuff altogether, but giving Meyer the mea culpa with Avery Atkins was nonsensical. If you’re going to allow him to express remorse on ONE instance where enforcing strict policies went wrong, you have to then dive into what happened when he didn’t enforce them on a much deeper level. Using Atkins’ death as a PR tool for Meyer is awful.

I’m dubious about Meyer’s “health issues”, mostly because they seem to pop up when things are going wrong for him wherever he’s at. The 2010 season, which is when these issues first started to surface, was ignored completely. There were some slides at the end about Meyer going to Ohio State and the Jaguars, but nothing else. There’s no need to include anything that happened to Meyer after Florida.

CS: This is a short list of things totally ignored by the producers. I could easily name a dozen more, and probably 50 more that I couldn’t prove but are overwhelmingly likely true.

This project is the cinematic equivalent of saying “Charles Manson really helped build a family in Southern California. People forget that.”

I’m glad Chris Rainey is still with us, as his upbringing is truly tragic and I hope he’s turned his life around. But his “time to die” text to his girlfriend was one of the defining stories of that era. And to a much less important extent, so was his “I’m glad I’m Chris Rainey. It’s real nice to be me” quote that showed how blatantly this team was cheating. I don’t care about NCAA cheating because Indianapolis is just mall cops and players should get paid, but not even mentioning what was one of the major stories of that time is just so absurd.

CV: Where are the administrators? Where are the athletic directors? Where are the rival players and coaches? This was one of the most dominant teams in college football in the most dominant conference in college football, and we’ve got nothing from Nick Saban, Les Miles, Mark Richt or Steve Spurrier. There’s also no historical context to show how truly lost Florida was before Meyer arrived. It’s something casual fans might not know about, and takes a few minutes to explain.

The doc was a positive portrayal of this era despite all the problems (we’ll get to that in the next subsection), but there were far too many stories about Meyer’s structure within the program to not explore that. The “Circle of Trust” and the nonchalant approach to legal issues is something that should’ve been asked.

What did you think of the show’s portrayal of Urban Meyer and do you think this was acceptable?

CV: You don’t need a documentary series to know what kind of person Meyer is. He’s done a good job showing everyone on his own. So from that standpoint, this was glorified PR that frankly wasn’t needed. The filmmakers likely had some agreement with Meyer to get his participation, and they likely felt he was needed to tell the story.

However, Meyer is one of the greatest college football coaches ever. Forget the morality for a minute. He’s won at the highest level at the biggest programs and it’s the reason he keeps getting mentioned even now when a college job opens up. If you want to win national titles, Meyer is someone who can get it done. And whenever someone brings up Meyer, I can bet you people immediately think about Florida. He was going to get some favorable treatment.

CS: An absolute hack job. Netflix should be ashamed to be a co-producer and disavow this trash. I hope some of the victims of this program run amok, both players that were abused by coaches and staff and those that were victimized by players, continue to speak out about this farce.

SEC football programs are massive operations and complicated for plenty of reasons. But a program with this legacy needs to be dragged at least as much, if not more than, they are celebrated for their on-field success.

Could the show have been made without Meyer? Should it have been made without him?

CV: Technically, the show could’ve been made without any former coach or player. That’s includes Meyer. The filmmakers wouldn’t have gained much credibility by doing this, but they could’ve added a few more neutral voices to contrast Meyer’s on-field success with the off-field chaos.

There’s no way this series should’ve been made without him. He’s almost as synonymous with Florida football as Tebow, and he’s the architect of the program which struck fear across the sport for half a decade. He had to have a voice in this story.

CS: I’m asking for Billy Corben, director of maybe the best ESPN 30 For 30 ever in The U, to do the unauthorized version of this story. Corben is a Canes alum, but he fairly showed both the good and the bad of what was happening with the Hurricanes across decades.

He’s also got an IMDB page full of films that aren’t afraid to tell a whole story. I’d much rather hear from literally anyone than Meyer, one of the most sanctimonious yet evil liars in a sport where lying is often deified.

If Urban wants to defend himself under real cross-examination on camera, fine. But throwing him softballs while he longingly looks from the stands at The Swamp is a farce.

Would Meyer be as successful as he was at Florida if he coached in the current college football landscape?

CV: Meyer was a great offensive mind and recruited at an elite level. NIL may have changed the picture when it comes to landing top players, but Meyer is going to be able to get players wherever he would coach in today’s landscape. His no-nonsense militaristic approach wasn’t going to work in the NFL, but at a place where he’s got all the control and is dealing with young men who are looking to become remembered? He’s going to be successful on the field.

CS: As players now have more power and control over their destiny than they ever have thanks to the transfer portal and NIL rights, Meyer’s dictatorial style will continue to become less and less effective. His version of the spread was truly revolutionary, and he was one of the best at recruiting a roster to fit his system at Utah, Florida, and Ohio State.

On the field, there’s no doubt he’s a great coach. I made plenty of money betting on him because he could scheme it up with the best, and wasn’t afraid to take big chances when they were needed. But his off-the-field militarism rightly fades to yesteryear more and more each day.

The events of “Swamp Kings” took place during the BCS era? With conference realignment set to change the College Football Playoff, which system do you think is better for college football?

CV: There was something exciting about knowing even one loss could eliminate you from contention for the national title. It brought additional hype to every game. The BCS was still a flawed system, and the four-team CFP was the start of an improved one. The CFP still has some problems, but it’s a better format than what was previously used. We’ll see how conference realignment changes an expanded playoff, but the additional teams is what was needed to truly give the system some legs.

CS: I wish the Playoff expansion was only to six teams, because then every loss can still end your season, and the sheer terror of fans every week is part of what makes college football special. But I’d rather have 12 (which is too many) than two, where some very deserving and often undefeated teams (including Meyer’s 2004 Utah) didn’t have a chance to play for a ring.

Is Tim Tebow the best college football player ever?

CV: There are three players who I consider equal when it comes to the best college football players I’ve ever watched. Those players are Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel and Tebow. When you consider Tebow won two national titles to go along with his Heisman, it’s hard to argue with anyone who feels he’s the best ever. The aura around him is a bit overblown but he leaned into it successfully, and it’s impossible to poke holes at his leadership or work ethic. If I was a college football player, I’d want Tebow on my team.

CS: While Cam Newton only played one full season, he was by far the best I ever saw. If we’re going best career, I’ve got Tommie Frazier, Herschel Walker, Barry Sanders, Jim Brown, Archie Griffin, and Tebow all in that GOAT conversation. I wouldn’t object to any argument for any of them. If Tebow had won it all in 2009, it’s probably him. But he didn’t, so it’s still a conversation.

Are the “Swamp Kings” Gators the best college football dynasty of all time?

CV: Florida’s biggest rival Georgia will have something to say about this after back-to-back titles. The Bulldogs are going for a three-peat and if they achieve it, they’ll be the best ever. Alabama has had an insane run, Clemson got two titles in three seasons and USC won those trophies no matter what the NCAA wants to say.

I’m not going to pretend to know what happened in college football before 2000, but the Gators are on a short list of schools that have won multiple titles in the last two decades. If Florida had completed the undefeated season with a national championship in 2009, they’d be up there with Alabama for best ever. For me, it’s still the Crimson Tide stringing together three titles in four seasons (2009, 2011, 2012) and six since Saban took over.

CS: Do they even crack the Top 10?? Yale before 1900, Minnesota in the 30’s, Notre Dame across three different eras, Alabama across three different eras (Wallace Wade, Bear, Saban), Wilkinson and Switzer’s Oklahoma, Osborne’s Nebraska, Robinson and Carroll’s USC...

For an extended period the Gators were really, really good. At their peak (second half of 2008 season), they were absolutely a great team. But they are astronomical units from the best dynasty ever. And even against modern era teams, the 2009 Crimson Tide easily whipped them, and the 2019 LSU Tigers would have done the same.