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Tennessee Fans’ Veto of Greg Schiano’s Hire Is an Unprecedented Stunner

Fierce backlash over an allegation linking Schiano to the Penn State scandal prompted the Volunteers to back out of their agreement, perhaps forever altering the hiring process

New Era Pinstripe Bowl - Rutgers v Iowa State Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

The era of Greg Schiano, Tennessee head coach, existed for a few hours on pieces of paper nobody saw. But while the ink never dried on Schiano’s deal, the paint accusing him of covering up child rape certainly dried on a Tennessee campus landmark. Though the Schiano era never advanced past the hypothetical stage, nobody will forget the time a school’s fan base successfully shouted down its administration’s decision.

Earlier on Sunday, reports surfaced that Tennessee had decided to hire Schiano, currently Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, to replace the recently fired Butch Jones. Right off the bat, the news was incredibly unpopular. The pipe dream for many Vols fans had been that this opening could lure Monday Night Football announcer Jon Gruden, who once led the Buccaneers to the Super Bowl, away from one of the cushiest jobs in all of sports. Instead, the school turned to Schiano, who like Gruden once coached the Buccaneers, but who unlike Gruden completely failed as their head coach. Schiano’s name hasn’t been seriously linked to any major college or pro opening since Tampa Bay fired him in 2013—the only person claiming outside parties were interested in Schiano was the man who hired him at Ohio State. The likes of Bill Belichick and Urban Meyer consider Schiano a great defensive mind, and he once turned around a moribund Rutgers program, but his reported hiring indicated that Tennessee would settle for somebody that no other program appeared particularly interested in.

Even those intent on lauding Schiano’s defensive aptitude would be hard-pressed to ignore his history of allegedly acting contrary to his players’ best interests. A quick rundown from his two-year stint in Tampa Bay: Schiano was accused by the NFLPA of leaking confidential information about quarterback Josh Freeman’s enrollment in a substance abuse program and reportedly rigged a vote to strip Freeman of his captaincy; repeatedly ordered his players to attack opposing kneel-downs (which angered Tennessee legend Peyton Manning); allegedly exaggerated a player’s recovery from an infectious disease; and claimed medicine is not an “exact science.” NFL.com’s Michael Silver summed up how thoroughly Schiano was hated in the Buccaneers’ locker room and NFL coaching circles, with one player saying that playing for Schiano was “like being in Cuba.” Why, exactly, would any high school recruit sign up to play for Schiano?

But that’s not what caused the biggest stir on Sunday. Quickly and loudly, fans focused on testimony from a civil suit relating to the Jerry Sandusky scandal, in which whistleblower Mike McQueary claimed that Schiano had seen Sandusky “doing something to a boy in a shower.” McQueary and Schiano never coached together, but in the testimony—unsealed in 2016, after Schiano’s hiring at Ohio State—McQueary stated that he heard former Penn State assistant Tom Bradley say that Schiano had made that claim. Nobody other than the figures about which McQueary’s statement was made know whether it’s true, and Schiano has denied it.

But Tennessee fans caught onto this, and what started as a fan base upset about football turned into a righteous crusade. Soon, Vols fans were literally painting the allegations around campus:

Tennessee politicians began saying that hiring Schiano would harm the state. Here are the reactions from three state representatives:

Virtually everybody else in the state echoed those sentiments.

It quickly became apparent that the school couldn’t hire Schiano with this kind of backlash—especially for athletic director John Currie, who was hired in February with the implication that this coaching hire would define his tenure. Tennessee and Schiano had reportedly signed preliminary paperwork, but the Vols backed out after the fan base’s vocal opposition. It’s unclear whether the university will owe Schiano any money—or whether he might sue the school—but regardless, it’s stunning to see a school that had progressed so far in the process change course on account of fan outrage.

But there was no choice. Schiano is a maybe-good coach with a bevy of red flags, and Tennessee fans seized on his alleged association with the most monstrous scandal in college football history.

It’s worth pausing to wonder if Schiano would be getting introduced right now if fans thought he was a coach that would help the Volunteers be good at football. Maybe we don’t have to look too far for the answer. Back when Butch Jones was in the fan base’s good graces, the team was involved in a string of sexual assault incidents. In one instance, Jones allegedly called a player a “traitor” for helping a woman who said she was raped by two Volunteer players. The school had to settle a Title IX lawsuit for $2.5 million over its handling of those sexual assault allegations. While there was outcry over the school’s response, Jones didn’t get fired for prioritizing football over properly handling sexual assault allegations—he got fired because he lost football games. It didn’t get the school’s last AD, Dave Hart, fired either. Were Vols fans loud enough to change their administration’s mind this time because they’d learned their lesson from Jones? Or because Schiano was going to be unpopular from a football perspective as well?

The important thing isn’t why Tennessee fans ended up here, but what they ended up focusing on. Sunday is the first time anybody can remember a fan base overruling an administration’s decision so quickly, and that happened because of what those fans were hollering about. When Tennessee fans were yelling about the quality of Schiano’s résumé, it seemed there was no doubt he’d still get hired. When they were painting rocks with the words “child rape,” Tennessee had to double back. It’s one thing to have a bunch of upset fans; it’s another to have a moral mutiny on your hands.

Sunday isn’t important because of what it means for Tennessee’s football team. Apologies to any Vols fans who think that ditching Schiano will convince Gruden it’s his time to take the Tennessee job: Whoever leads this program next won’t be significantly more or less talented at coaching than Schiano. It’s important because everybody saw how loud and ugly it is when a fan base hones in on something besides football. I hope it’s something the next school, the next coach, and the next fan base remember.