I was never particularly fond of how Greg Schiano was treated by Tennessee Football fans when he was nearly hired as its head football coach in 2017.
Schiano and Tennessee’s hiring agent at the time, former athletic director John Currie, were crushed under a social media avalanche that ended up in Schiano being excluded from the hiring process and Currie being fired after just eight months on the job. The potential Schiano hire wasn’t a grand one on its own merit. A Schiano hire would have had all the splash of the Mojave Desert.
Many Tennessee Football fans used a loose tie to the Joe Paterno scandal at Penn State, where Schiano was an assistant coach at the time, as reason why Schiano shouldn’t be the next head coach of the Vols. In reality, Schiano just wasn’t a great hire and would have failed on his football merit alone. He’s gone 12-22 in his return to Rutgers since he was jilted by the Vols. His career record in college is 80-89. The Vols could have done better at the time and fans knew it.
Schiano’s ties to the disgusting daily activities that were going on at Penn State were loose, but Tennessee fans certainly had one thing right: things can explode in a hurry when there are any ties whatsoever to allegations of sexual abuse. Just ask former Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who was fired after allegations of hazing, which involved troubling sexual overtones.
Northwestern has never been a football power in the modern-era of college football. Well, things are about to get worse. The Wildcats are now tied to an off-field scandal that far overshadows that of a simple NCAA violation, such as paying players or managing their mandatory academic requirements. There are crimes against the NCAA. Then, there are crimes against humanity. Northwestern is dealing with the latter, which is far more damaging than fixing a grade or two or passing out a hundred bucks to a great player.
Tennessee is currently undergoing the final stages of its NCAA investigation which centered around payments made to recruits under former coach Jeremy Pruitt, who was the coach tabbed to fill the void left by Schiano’s exclusion. There is no comparing Pruitt’s missteps to the potential depths of depravity that allegedly occurred at Northwestern. This latest situation will take more than just a few games for the Wildcats to overcome. This will take years and perhaps decades to bounce back from. Just ask Penn State. For Northwestern, this could be just the tip of the iceberg.
Fitzgerald may have done nothing wrong. Still, he was fired about two weeks after the hazing story broke, despite being Northwestern’s head coach for 17 years and being a former Wildcat player. Fitzgerald wasn’t incredibly successful at Northwestern, which has rather low expectations considering its academic standards. However, his success – or lack thereof – wasn’t why he was fired. Fitzgerald, whose team was 1-11 last season, was fired because of the negative publicity that Northwestern received in just a couple of weeks. The court of opinion has never been stronger, fair or not. Fitzgerald is the latest example.
Imagine if Schiano had ever been a part of a hazing scandal – or any scandal that questioned his morality – at Tennessee. Fans and some media would have immediately cited his time at Penn State as reason he should have been fired without much investigation, like Fitzgerald. The timing couldn’t have been worse for Northwestern with the season pressing down upon them. It would have been every bit as bad for Tennessee or any other school.
UT fans know all about bad timing when it comes to replacing a coach. Having to replace Lane Kiffin just before National Signing Day in 2010 wasn’t easy and set the Vols back for a decade. It was bad for Tennessee Football when Kiffin chose to leave for Southern California. It may be even worse for Northwestern moving forward.
So, did Tennessee’s fans act unfairly and overreact when it became public knowledge that Schiano was in line to become Butch Jones’ replacement? I’m not as certain as I once was. Fair or not, the media can rule the roost when it comes to decisions about firing a coach. With his ties to Penn State, there’s no way that Schiano would have survived even a fraction of what Fitzgerald was accused of.
Instead of hiring Schiano, the Vols went with Pruitt, who had his own struggles. Still, Pruitt didn’t do anything that would have caused a sudden, offseason upheaval that would set the Vols up for almost certain failure with their next coach as is the case with Northwestern. Tennessee coach Josh Heupel, who replaced Pruitt, had to overcome a pending NCAA investigation, but he didn’t have to deal with any of the backlash that Fitzgerald’s replacement will have to deal with.
Tennessee got so bad for so long that a book called “Decade of Dysfunction” was written by longtime media member Mark Nagi. If there had been any sort of Schiano, summer explosion, Nagi may have needed to update his book, add a few chapters and rename it. However, “15 years of ‘effing up” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Moreover, Tennessee’s faithful fans would have had to endure that many more years of languishing behind their SEC rivals.
Did Schiano get an unfair shake at Tennessee? Probably, but with social media and a society always ready to jump to quick conclusions, it’s hard to think that much good could have ever come from Schiano being the head coach at Tennessee. He would have been on the hot seat from Day One, and that was the last thing the Vols needed after stumbling ever since Kiffin chose Los Angeles over Tennessee.