The most fascinating aspect of the train wreck of a football coaching search conducted by the University of Tennessee in recent weeks is that a fan uprising via social media sank the school’s initial attempt at a hire.
Two Sundays ago, ex-Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano, now Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, had apparently reached a memorandum of understanding to become Rocky Top’s top dog.
Yet as word of the pending hire became public, segments of the UT fan base took to the social media to decry the choice.
Some Tennessee fans claimed to be offended because Schiano, a one-time Penn State assistant, had seen his name tenuously linked to the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse scandal. Another former Nittany Lions aide, Mike McQueary, claimed that a third PSU assistant, Tom Bradley, had told him years after the fact that Schiano had seen Sandusky acting inappropriately with a little boy.
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Schiano says that never happened. Bradley denies ever telling McQueary that it did.
For many, the suspicion was that some Tennessee fans were using a moral stance as a weapon when they were actually opposed to Schiano because of the coach’s 68-67 overall record at Rutgers and his 11-21 mark as head man of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Whatever the motivation, the UT fan revolt worked. The university caved and pulled out of its agreement with Schiano.
Subsequently, quite a debate has ensued over how much influence, if any, public opinion should be given in major college coaching searches.
For my part, I keep thinking back on three coaching hires in the state of Kentucky that show why giving public opinion a veto over coaching hires would be problematic.
The UK fan base was up in arms. Media members, myself included, were dubious.
Brooks had compiled a losing record (91-109) at Oregon. He had a losing mark (13-19) as head man of the NFL’s St. Louis Rams. The coach had no prior tie to the state of Kentucky nor anything in his background to suggest he could recruit in the SEC footprint.
Yet the head man who excited no one at the start was widely admired when he left UK of his own volition after the 2009 season. At the time, Kentucky football was riding a streak of four-straight winning seasons — something which had not happened at UK since the 1950s.
2.) I covered the news conference in Louisville after the 1997 season when John L. Smith was introduced as the Cardinals’ football coach.
At the time, Smith was a virtual unknown outside his native west and had a losing record (16-17) in his prior job at Utah State.
In his first public appearance as U of L coach, Smith wore cowboy boots beneath a pinstripe suit. He was so gung ho, he came across as goofy.
It was not a first impression to cement fan opinion behind a new coach.
Yet Smith, inheriting a program that had gone 1-10 the season before, led Louisville to five straight bowl trips, including an 11-win season in 2001. The tenure of the coach no one in Kentucky had heard of ended when Michigan State of the Big Ten lured Smith away from U of L.
3.) When Billy Gillispie was introduced as the new Kentucky men’s basketball coach in April 2007, public opinion was behind the move.
Having worked rapid turnarounds at both UTEP and Texas A&M, Billy G. was the “hot name” that spring in hoops coaching circles. In a case of fortuitous timing, he had introduced himself to Kentucky basketball fans by leading A&M to two victories in Rupp Arena in the 2007 NCAA Tournament, eliminating Louisville and Rick Pitino in the round of 32.
Gillispie “won” his introductory news conference as Kentucky head man, making a promise to reinvigorate the UK recruiting efforts which had lagged late in the tenure of his predecessor, Tubby Smith.
Alas, you know the rest of the story. After only two years, Gillispie, who had so charmed the state at his hiring, was sent packing with a 40-27 record and a reputation for, let’s say, unconventional behavior.
The moral to be drawn from these three stories is that how a coach looks from the outside on the way in is often quite different from how a coach is viewed on the way out.
So whatever you think about the fan uprising that wrecked Greg Schiano at Tennessee, public opinion — including the media — is far too dubious as a predictive indicator to be uniformly given a veto over coaching hires.