Today will go down in college football history, and the narrative will not be kind to Tennessee fans following a social-media frenzy that included state legislators, prominent boosters, former players and some media members who demanded the university not hire Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano as UT’s next head coach.
Don’t let that deter what happened. People don’t always view doing the right thing in the best way. It still doesn’t make it less right.
Look, it’s important that we get this out of the way up front: I sincerely hope that Schiano didn’t know anything about incarcerated serial-rapist Jerry Sandusky during his time as a Penn State assistant. But the bottom line is that Schiano’s name — for better or worse — was associated with the allegations. By now, you’ve read about the details.
I hope Schiano is a good man, a good father, a good leader of men, though his time in the NFL and myriad stories about different situations don’t really back up the latter. That doesn’t mean he’s a molestation enabler. Maybe he didn’t know anything at all, ever. Maybe he did.
There’s a gray area in there Tennessee administrators should not have been comfortable with, and that gray area is why the uproar ensued Sunday.
I believe Sunday’s revolt happened for the right reasons. Many national media members chose to run with the narrative that Tennessee fans were unhappy with Schiano’s football coaching acumen, and that’s the reason for the “faux outrage.” Are there some in that category? Absolutely. But the vast majority rebelled against the hire because of morality issues they simply couldn’t reconcile.
As a Tennessee fan, as a writer who covers the Vols, as a graduate of the school, as a father, as a man who tries to live with integrity, I cannot justify my football program operating in the Wilderness of Maybe. I’d rather lose for the next 10 years with somebody I can rally behind rather than have to worry about whether the person leading my team knew about one of the most heinous episodes in the history of sports and did nothing about it.
When there is literally an endless pool of candidates out there, to even wade into that deep end on the heels of a Title IX lawsuit and in the wake of all the Butch Jones atrocities that pale in comparison to anything associated with Penn State, it’s a tone-deaf decision for athletic director John Currie to go this route.
That’s why Vols fans everywhere had to unite and cry out for this to be rescinded. If it winds up costing Tennessee buyout money, so be it. It should come from Currie’s paycheck first and mega-booster Jim Haslam’s pocket second. If it winds up costing Tennessee wins, well, it is still the right decision. If it winds up costing Tennessee face in the public eye, this administration and athletic department have been public relations debacles for years; why should this be any different?
Could Sunday’s unprecedented outcry make this a more difficult hire for Tennessee now that Schiano is off the table? Absolutely it could. But if that’s the case, blame Currie; don’t blame a fan base that has had enough of poor on-the-field decisions, even poorer off-the-field decisions and didn’t want to pin its hopes of a program teetering on the brink of extinction on someone you’d be afraid to send your son to play for.
Currie’s smug arrogance in all of this and his refusal to understand the pulse of his fans, former players, fellow administrators and his state are grounds for dismissal in their own rights. But if Tennessee chooses to stay with somebody who may be a mouthpiece for the same decision-maker failures who have led us to this current state of a laughingstock program, at the very least Sunday could serve as a wake-up call.
You can continue to force-feed us with third-rate coaches and a program that continually stoops to all-time lows, but you can’t make us swallow our pride while you’re doing it. We will buy our tickets and fill your stadium, but we won’t compromise our beliefs to do it. And if we have to sacrifice a few puppets like Currie along the way, so be it.
The bottom line is that a bunch of the same national media members criticizing us for taking a stand for reasons they can’t back with facts but still fit into 280-character hot takes would have been criticizing the hire as a bad one had we stayed quiet. It’s only a matter of whether we want to read stories about how we blocked a potentially morally reprehensible hire or how we hired somebody who may be morally reprehensible.
The narrative only slightly changed.
If you don’t think Nick Saban would use Schiano’s possible checkered resume against the Vols the first chance he got in a prospect’s living room, you’re insane. It’s a narrow-minded hire that checks plenty of boxes but leaves many of the moral ones blank.
That we are even having this conversation is the clearest picture of Currie’s ineptitude and this administration’s continuing lack of grasp on the program it’s consistently running into the ground.
So, where do we go from here? That’s a question I cannot answer. That we were ever “here” in the first place speaks to the abject failure that is Tennessee’s athletic director, Board of Trustees and decision-makers. Why would we have any belief that it’s going to get better? They do not deserve the benefit of the doubt.
But those trumpeting the, “Tennessee will never be able to hire anybody now!” narrative is overlooking the fact that, Penn State stuff aside, Schiano was at best a mediocre coach and a coordinator who left the NFL after one year due to what was essentially a player mutiny. It isn’t like we just severed ties with somebody who could coach like Knute Rockne or inspire millions like Mr. Rogers.
Tennessee’s 12-day, one-man-led search wound up with Schiano, a man with too much baggage to sell a fan base trying to move beyond the failures of the past. There are a lot of questions surrounding Schiano, and this is a group of followers sick of having to answer questions, sick of having to justify second-rate hires and sick of supporting a bunch of administrators more worried about saving a dollar than saving face.
UT may wind up failing at this coaching search the same way it has the past three times, but exactly none of that will be because of what happened Sunday. Today was a victory worth fighting and worth winning.
We may not ever be able to brag about our football program, Vols fans. But, today, we should be proud of each other.