Early Sunday afternoon, word leaked out that the University of Tennessee had reached an agreement with Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano to become the Volunteers’ next head football coach. Over the next several hours, protests of every shape and size rang out around the Tennessee football community, and the school eventually backed out of its agreement to hire the former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach, much to the relief of Vols fans and much to the bafflement and indignation of several prominent football writers.
The putative reason for Schiano’s unpopularity was a 2015 deposition by Penn State whistleblower Mike McQueary, who testified under oath that he’d heard that Schiano had witnessed Jerry Sandusky “doing something with a boy” and done nothing.
There’s a lot to unpack in that statement: McQueary was repeating what he claimed fellow Penn State assistant Tom Bradley had told him, not what he’d witnessed firsthand. In fact, McQueary and Schiano never coached together. There’s a worthwhile conversation about what Schiano’s moral and legal obligations would be in that situation, whether there’s a difference between the two, and what it means to prospective employers that the alleged incident took place more than 20 years ago. It’s also worth considering the compelling but not necessarily exculpatory circumstances that would have surrounded a young coach like Schiano, trying to make his way in an organization that, in the years that followed, could not have more clearly placed football outside the reach of morality, legality, or public safety.
But that’s not the conversation we’re having. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller called McQueary’s allegation a “lie.” Dan Wolken of USA Today called it a “false narrative.” And maybe it is. Maybe Schiano is telling the truth and McQueary lied under oath to smear him for some unexplained reason. Or maybe it’s something less sinister, maybe something got garbled or misremembered in the game of telephone from Schiano to Bradley to McQueary to the deposition.
Either way, the outrage over Schiano’s presumptive hiring is far from an “abject tire fire lynch mob fiasco debacle,” as Yahoo’s Pat Forde called it. Forde’s colleague Dan Wetzel noted that McQueary’s accusation was uncorroborated — though not necessarily false — but also used the phrase “lynch-mob,” which feels at best ignorant, considering the very specific and higher-stakes historical origins of the term.
Even if Schiano came out of his time working for Sandusky without a blemish on his conscience, painting Tennessee fans as hysterical and bloodthirsty — as if Schiano lost his life, not just a job — undercuts the very real consideration that Vols fans and boosters, who are still grappling with the fallout from revelations of systemic sexual assault in their own athletic department, might not want to cheer for a team led by someone tarnished, unfairly or not, by his association with Sandusky. It’s not too much to ask for in light of a decade whose single greatest unifying narrative is the lengths to which people in power will tolerate, excuse, or cover up sexual assault and violence in order to win college football games.
The most baffling part of this whole story is that Volunteers fans and boosters weren’t applauded for taking that stand with such force that they demanded — and achieved — real change in a single afternoon. Instead, a persistent bully like Schiano, whose inflexibility and stubbornness as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers cost him the Bucs’ locker room, is getting treated like the victim, as the leading voices in football journalism uncritically throw in their lots with Joe Paterno truthers.
But for the sake of argument, let’s say the outrage over Schiano isn’t really about what he might have witnessed as a Penn State assistant more than 20 years ago. Let’s say Tennessee fans, as their less charitable critics allege, are mad about his record as a coach. Schiano, for all the talk about how “he won at Rutgers,” never won a Big East title even after it was decimated by realignment and finished in the top 25 just once. Going one game over .500 in 11 years at Rutgers, as Schiano did, looks like a feat of program-building, but the foundation he established didn’t lead to sustained success, or even competence, once Rutgers moved to the Big Ten. The program has won 10 games over the past three seasons combined. Plus, it’s not like things have gone much better for Schiano since, who was a conspicuous embarrassment during his ill-fated NFL tenure.
And Tennessee fans know a thing or two about conspicuous embarrassments. The Peyton Manning era and the 1999 BCS title are within living memory, but the Vols are just one game over .500 since Phil Fulmer was ousted after the 2008 season, and each head football coach since Fulmer — Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, and Butch Jones — has been embarrassing in his own way. Over the past decade, Tennessee athletics has slid into irrelevance not just in football, but also in baseball and men’s basketball. Even if there were no rape cover-up allegations to begin with, why shouldn’t Tennessee fans be upset that Fulmer’s won 10 games more recently than their new coach? What benefit of the doubt does Schiano, or athletic director John Currie, deserve at this point? What possible social capital can they cash in with a fan base that has every right to be outraged?
The Rock on UT's campus. pic.twitter.com/aG3BXrkKOW— Louis Fernandez Jr (@LouisWBIR) November 26, 2017
What happened at Tennessee is unsettling because it upsets the established order of power. From politicians to boosters to anonymous protesters armed with nothing but a can of Krylon, Volunteer fans stood up and demanded better from those who serve them. And no matter how much college football programs are run like a benign dictatorship, with money and power always seeming to flow up the food chain, Currie and his underlings serve the fans, or at least they ought to. Fans don’t owe the school steadfast obedience. They, as people with a stake in the team’s success or failure, and who tie themselves to some extent to the team’s reputation, have a right to demand certain things from their institutions, and the swiftness with which Currie capitulated ought to serve as a lesson that reverberates outside the football world: Sometimes you have to demand things from people in power.
In a society that venerates power for power’s sake, ranging from football coaches’ self-appointed roles as community leaders to our confusing predilection to treat elected officials as elites and not employees, it’s jarring to see Tennessee reverse course over nothing but a day’s sustained public pressure. It calls to mind another word that popped up on Wolken’s and Miller’s Twitter feeds in the aftermath of Schiano’s ouster:
We should all hope that it is.