‘Swamp Kings:’ Found footage shines despite incomplete look at complicated Florida Gators

By OnlyGators.com Staff
August 26, 2023
‘Swamp Kings:’ Found footage shines despite incomplete look at complicated Florida Gators

Despite the hype, fanfare and immensely high expectations, Netflix’s latest sports documentary “Untold: Swamp Kings” was largely an incomplete look at a deeply complicated Florida Gators football program helmed by former head coach Urban Meyer and captained by legendary quarterback Tim Tebow.

What was expected to be the next in a line of revealing deep dives into immense athletic achievements of the modern era was instead, simply, a 3-hour overview of a high-achieving team that relied on a treasure trove of found footage licensed by the University of Florida.

That never-before-seen footage of team meetings, practices, workouts, high-intensity training sessions and locker room shenanigans is where “Swamp Kings” truly shines. That footage alone makes the documentary worth watching, and anyone who goes in as a Gators fan will undoubtedly find value in reliving these memories and learning more about some of their favorite players.

Interviews with Meyer, Tebow, offensive coordinator Dan Mullen and two handfuls of star players also helped shed light on certain developments and incidents.

Unfortunately, the documentary suffered in nearly every other way. It ignored nearly half of the parties that contributed to Florida’s success, glossed over multiple issues surrounding the program and seemingly relied on the storytelling of the man responsible for the successful and controversial team to dictate the direction of the film.

The loudest criticisms of “Swamp Kings” have come from national media angry that not enough time was spent on the numerous arrests and player discipline issues that plagued the Gators under Meyer. Many have come across almost personally offended that Florida was not torn apart in the documentary the same way the media gleefully ripped the team to shreds during Meyer’s tenure, often focusing more on overall arrest numbers rather than the fewer major infractions that were seriously problematic.

While those critiques are accurate and justified, they are far from the only reasons why “Swamp Kings” was a failure in documentary filmmaking.

What should have been a thorough dive into the entirety of the Florida football program during the height of its success was instead more of a reputational rehabilitation for Meyer and a further lifting of Tebow — the greatest player in Gators football history — on a pedestal where his talent and motivational drive was somehow responsible for the majority of the team’s successes.

While Episode 1 was decent as a stage-setter, even it struggled to accurately contextualize the situation in which Florida found itself before hiring Meyer or the coach’s prominence on the national scene prior to joining the program. By the time “Swamp Kings” concluded, it was clear that Australian director Katharine English — who had no experience with sports storytelling let alone American football or the SEC (and therefore was a mind-numbing hire for this series) — created a cursory outline of the Gators program during these years but allowed Meyer to fill in the details and direct the story through his extended interview, which was featured most prominently in the four-part film.

“The Last Dance” this was not. Nor was it “The U,” which did a far better job covering the controversial Miami Hurricanes in 80 minutes than “Swamp Kings” did for Florida in more than 3 hours.

As a means of providing a faster read into the successes and failures of “Swamp Kings,” OnlyGators.com has decided to break down its review into some quick-hitter takes about the documentary, both positive and negative.

Unsung heroes given spotlight: Brandon Siler was the star of “Swamp Kings.” His honest revelations into the program’s culture as it shifted under Meyer were the highlight of the documentary. Siler certainly received praise for his contributions with the Gators, but he was truly the paradigm for what Meyer expected out of his players and exactly the type of person to whom Meyer’s methods were supposed to effect. The moment in Episode 2 where Siler got Meyer’s mind right after Ted Ginn ran back the opening kickoff in the BCS Championship Game was one of the best of the entire doc. Goosebumps. And hearing about the behind-the-scenes hand off of the defensive captaincy between Siler and Brandon Spikes inside The Swamp was great as well. Brandon James also got a lot of shine, though while he was a featured interviewee, we barely got to see his on-field contributions. This may have been the first time that Dallas Baker truly got the spotlight he deserved for his play from 2005-06.

Chris Leak disrespect: If you knew nothing about Florida football going into “Swamp Kings,” you would have thought Leak was a game-manager quarterback who was entirely unathletic, struggled to make plays and only succeeded because those around him were coached up to be playmakers … instead of a five-star prospect who held national records and many considered to be the greatest high school quarterback of all-time when he joined the Gators. Leak was not the right fit for Meyer’s system, but he threw for more than 2,600 yards with 20 touchdowns and only six interceptions during his “bad” 2005 season and threw for nearly 3,000 yards with 23 touchdowns and 13 picks in the the national championship-winning 2006 season.

Half the difference makers were ignored: “Swamp Kings” appeared to operate from a standpoint of believing the only players who mattered were the ones who decided to sit down with filmmakers. Percy Harvin was mentioned plenty for his incredible playmaking skill but still came unconscionably short of receiving his just due given his immense contributions to both title teams. Maurkice and Mike Pouncey apparently did not exist. Neither did Reggie Nelson, Cornelius Ingram, Ripley Cooper (you know, Tebow’s roomate!), Carlos Dunlap and Cam Newton. Aaron Hernandez was briefly mentioned twice (more on that below). Joe Haden was only shown twice on highlights. Jarvis Moss’ crucial block of a South Carolina field goal attempt in 2006 was shown, but his name may not have even been used.

And then there’s defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, who was overlooked to such an insane, insulting degree that “Swamp Kings” made it seem as if the defensive players actually spotlighted in the show were somehow operating in a vacuum without any coaching. Strong was a holdover from the prior coaching staff and the perfect person with whom to speak about the changes to the program. Even if Strong refused to be interviewed, he was as important an element to both national championship teams as Meyer or Mullen. Who knows if players were even asked about him in their interviews. Greg Mattison did not receive a mention, either, though he was only around for the first title.

It almost seemed as if Meyer was allowed to choose who appeared in “Swamp Kings.”

Hot seat melodrama, sensationalism: There’s no doubt that Meyer felt pressure going from coaching Utah out West to Florida in the SEC. However, time and again in the doc, Meyer continued to suggest he was close to being fired – or felt close to being fired – during situations where nothing could have been further from the truth. Losing to South Carolina under head coach Steve Spurrier in 2005 was not ideal, and expectations were high at Florida, but three losses in Year 1 hardly put Meyer on the firing line. (Nor would he have been there after losing two games in 2006 as he suggested.) The Gators had impressed in many aspects in 2005, and the documentary completely skipped over how Florida destroyed Florida State and won a bowl game that year. In fact, FSU was ignored consistently during the doc, including when telling the story of the 2006 season. (The Gators and Seminoles were tied at 14 in the fourth quarter, which was completely skipped over to jump to the SEC Championship Game against Arkansas.)

Adding to the melodrama — not just regarding Meyer’s job status but nearly every issue brought up in the documentary — was continually exaggerated, uniformed takes on the program by Paul Finebaum. While former Gainesville Sun columnist Pat Dooley also contributed, it was minimal. The documentarians choosing a name (Finebaum) with no connection to the program over many others who covered college football nationally or Florida intimately was an odd choice, and not including more journalists or third parties in the storytelling — or at least the production — was a serious oversight.

Midnight workouts: This was one area where the found footage truly shined. There were tall tales about those midnight workouts, many of which were actually positive, though some were about guys being worked so hard that they could barely move going back to their dorms. Spikes admitting that he was not motivated by working out like his teammates but realizing he had to fight against his nature in order to lead the team was a highlight. His introspection was impressive, though too much blame was put on him for the 2007 struggles – the entire defense was young and inexperienced and struggled constantly that year. Spikes’ turnaround in 2008 appropriately showed how he became a leader and difference maker.

The hits: Taking time to get player and coach reactions to Spikes’ hit in the 2008 Georgia game and Major Wright’s hit in the 2009 BCS Championship game was a huge plus. In attendance for both … the former sent the crowd into a frenzy with the impact and visual, while the latter was one of the loudest collisions that may have ever been heard in a football game. Hearing teammates react to the spear and missile hits was great, and Wright’s line about wanting to inflict fear rather than grab the interception was superb. Wright was also fantastic during nearly all of his interviews.

Too much Tebow … but with respect to others: Tebow did ultimately get too much credit for Florida’s success in “Swamp Kings” — just as he did at the time of his run in Gainesville. However, the documentarians did succeed in giving his teammates time to speak candidly about the media’s focus on Tebow and how they felt disrespected by their accomplishments not being spotlighted as much at the time. While there were highlights of Harvin shown throughout the doc, he was not actually spoken about in depth until the injury before the SEC title game. And while that was important, his contributions were so consistent and so vast that he was not given enough time to shine, even if he was not interviewed.

Behavioral issues overlooked, excused: Once the doc allowed Tebow to take the blame for Hernandez punching a student at The Swamp Restaurant in 2007 — with the incident being excused because the victim apparently said one too many racist comments at Hernandez — it was clear the arrests and controversies surrounding the program would largely be ignored. And that was absolutely the case. Brushes with the law and breaking of program rules was constant in Meyer’s program, largely due to a lack of discipline for star players. While media at the time did focus far too much on the overall number — which included so many minor misdemeanor traffic and marijuana citations that it was tough to keep track — there were still major arrests and disciplinary issues that went unpunished.

Dunlap’s DUI before the SEC title game was completely ignored. Zero context was provided to all of Hernandez’s problems, including that he was questioned in a 2007 shooting, which was applicable given what happened after he went to the NFL. No mention was made of the credit card scandal, though Jamar Hornsby was actually kicked off the team. Nothing was said about Newton throwing a stolen laptop out of his dorm window or Harvin allegedly choking an assistant coach during practice. The list goes on.

Rather, Meyer was allowed to wipe all of it away in one brush by leaning on his guilt over Avery Atkins’ death as a reason that he did not appropriately punish players. It was almost shocking how that tragedy was used to throw a cover over other seriously legitimate issues. There was a worry coming in that there would be too much focus on misconduct; instead, there was far too little for it to be an accurate representation.

Untold? The biggest overall issue with the series overall was the lack of true revelations, which given the access and the footage, one would have expected that to come en masse. The four episodes were immensely repetitive looking more at the greatness of certain parties involved — and the struggles of a select few — focusing on the “how” rather than diving deep into the “why” of everything that happened in Gainesville from 2005-10. It felt like there could have been another 90 minutes added to truly dive deep into every aspect of the program. If this had been a 60- or 90-minute documentary, perhaps some of these sins could have been forgiven. Instead, for a program that exceeded 3 hours, it left a lot to be desired.

Quick hitters / insight:

  • Being in the crowd for Florida-Arkansas was a truly wild experience. Checking scores on flip phones, feeling incredibly confident coming out of halftime only to watch Florida shit the bed. And the fake punt was one of the single wildest plays ever witnessed given the context of the decision.
  • The way the Gators were talked about by the media entering the 2006 national title game was the most legitimate bulletin-board material, stuff Michael Jordan could have only wished he got to motivate him during his career. What was not shown is that Florida had that stuff posted everywhere throughout the facility, on busses, in lockers and even on televisions. Meyer had the Gators feeling legitimately angry and disrespected going into that game.
  • Mullen at halftime of the 2007 LSU game must have been the most animated he had ever acted in his entire career. Did not remember seeing that clip previously – another instance where the found footage came through.
  • Remember hearing that Tebow was absolutely crushed emotionally after that LSU game, second maybe only to the 2009 SEC Championship Game against Alabama. The details he provided about the messages he received from Tigers fans were appalling but not surprising. It was nice to hear him open up about that.
  • Tebow’s narration of the Ole Miss fourth-and-short and The Promise speech hit so hard.
  • It took far too long for the Florida-Georgia rivalry to be mentioned, but Meyer calling it “nonsense, bullshit” and Ahmad Black saying, “I fucking hate Georgia” was fun levity. Not showing Meyer calling the end-of-game timeouts in 2008 told you all you needed to know about the focus of the doc making him look good in the end.
  • It was clear that Meyer’s unwillingness to hold Tebow to account for his rare instances of poor play helped split the team. The confrontation with Tebow and Spikes — seeing that footage — was another highlight.
  • The single best item anyone wore in the documentary was the Gators piece on Wright’s chain: Fighting Albert. Looked baller.
  • There was no mention of Tebow being a multi-time Heisman Trophy finalist beyond his 2007 win.
  • There was no mention of Mullen leaving between the 2008 and 2009 seasons and how that was among the key reasons the offense dropped off significantly in that time.
  • The entire period between Meyer’s initial resignation and his ultimate resignation was completely skipped over. The documentary ends abruptly without providing much information about how Meyer’s tenure ended. Hell, there wasn’t even shine on Tebow for going out with a bang against Cincinnati in his final bowl game.
  • There was nothing said about Shelley Meyer’s 911 call or any of the specifics surrounding Meyer’s condition other than that he took too many Ambien and was obsessed with perfection. (Let alone there being a deep dive into unreported [some rumored] reasons for his departure that likely could have be researched and uncovered.)
  • Why was Tebow whispering throughout the vast majority of his interview?
  • Florida should show this to the entire team and as many recruits as possible because it worked as a terrific motivational and promotional piece for the Gators program.

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