Tennessee head coach search takes ugly turn

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Normally, if I’m speaking about a specific team I try to keep it as local as possible when writing these columns. It takes a special kind of wrong to make me write about a team like the University of Tennessee football team.

The Volunteers haven’t exactly been bottom feeders recently finishing the 2015 and 2016 with a 9-4 record under head coach Butch Jones. Jones took over the program in 2013 and after posting a 5-7 record in his first year, he finished the next three with above .500 records and three postseason bowl wins.

Despite this, Tennessee fans, who are notoriously fanatical with high expectations, were unimpressed with Jones’ ability to win within the SEC and not being able to make it to the conference championship game.

After starting this season 3-1, the Vols dropped four straight and closed out the season with a 4-8 record at the bottom of their division in the SEC. Jones was fired and Volunteer fans began to run wild with ideas on who to replace him.

The fan favorite to replace him was former Super Bowl-winning head coach Jon Gruden who is currently a broadcaster with ESPN but Gruden has expressed his desire to stay in the booth. He has even joked he would not do well coaching college due to the sheer number of recruiting rules surrounding the sport at that level and inadvertently get the program in trouble.

Despite this, Tennessee fans knew what they wanted and they wanted a “big splash” type of hire that would restore the faith that the Volunteers would return to SEC dominance. They didn’t exactly get that.

The news broke on Nov. 26 that Tennessee was set to hire Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, who previously was the head coach at Rutgers University and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL. Both his stints there had their bright spots but were markedly disappointing overall.

While at Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights had a few standout years including going 11-2 in 2006 and 9-4 in two of Schiano’s last three seasons at the school. He was hired to coach Tampa Bay in 2012 and was fired after two seasons.

On the surface, it is a rather underwhelming hire from a football perspective. A coach who finished with an overall record of 68-67 at the college level and quickly washed out at the pro level is not exactly the splash the fans wanted.

The blowback was immediate with students marching on campus to protest the hire and even local politicians spoke out against Schiano’s arrival. It was an angry mob that was quickly growing stronger as the participants grew.

That’s when things got ugly. As fans looked for any reason for the school not to hire him, old details were dug up about the biggest scandal to ever rock sports: the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case at Penn State.

For those of you who don’t know what happened, the story broke in 2011 when former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was indicted for child molestation. An ensuing investigation found that Sandusky had in fact spent decades using his influence as a coach to sexually abuse boys as young as seven years old.

Subsequent investigations also found that Penn State head coach Joe Paterno along with Penn State’s school president, vice president and athletic director knew about the abuse more than a decade prior and covered it up.

The scandal resulted in three Penn State officials along with Sandusky being sent to jail and a permanent stain on Penn State’s name. That stain soon spread to Schiano’s as the Tennessee fans began their research.

What they found was the individual who finally testified against Sandusky, Mike McQueary, said in a 2015 court deposition that a coworker of his had told McQueary that Schiano witnessed one of the victims being abused in the 1990s and was “white as a ghost”. The allegation is Schiano didn’t report it after seeing it.

Schiano and McQueary’s coworker have both denied ever having that conversation, a Penn State trustee said Schiano had absolutely nothing to do with the scandal and investigations by the attorney general of Pennsylvania, the Department of Education, federal prosecutors, an individual investigation led by a former FBI director and the NCAA found no proof that Schiano was part of the cover up.

It didn’t matter to Tennessee fans. By the night of the day the news broke, a famous boulder on campus that is commonly painted to celebrate victories had “Greg Schiano covered up child rape” painted on it.

Volunteer fans ran with the rhetoric that Schiano was an enabler of sex crimes against children with social media in particular running rampant with accusations. All of the sudden, Tennessee found a moral reason to justify protesting the hire.

The problem with this is two-fold. First off, the morality of denouncing an enabler of sex crimes against children is obviously a good one but other than one deposition, there is no proof that Schiano is an enabler of that. In fact, there’s more evidence that he isn’t given the sheer number of investigations and the fact that of the multiple, high-powered men who lost their jobs, Schiano was not one of them.

Secondly, Tennessee fans did not immediately jump to this as a problem of hiring Schiano but initially pointed to his resume as a football coach. Criticizing the resume is perfectly fine and, in my opinion, perfectly justified as well. The fact that it then morphed into the scandal that has consumed this story is pretty stable proof that Tennessee fans were using an atrocious scandal to fit their narrative.

To manipulate child sex crimes to protest a man coaching your football team for football reasons is downright disgusting. Hiding behind a false cover of morality by accusing a man of allowing heinous acts based on a single allegation to the point where his name is forever tied to this shows the danger of mob mentality.

The wave of negative press was so overwhelming that Schiano and the school agreed to break it off and Tennessee has continued to be rejected by coaches no doubt with their fans’ viciousness a major concern for candidates. Tennessee finally found their candidate last night in Alabama's defensive coordinator.

This scandal could very well have cost any future chance Schiano could have had at being a head coach elsewhere just because Tennessee fans decided to pounce and blow up an alleged mistake that he likely never made. The mob not only hurt Schiano but did so while disguising themselves as moral guardians when in fact they are the antithesis of that.

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