KNOXVILLE, Tenn. >> Tennessee athletic director John Currie is defending the process of his coaching search and vouching for the character of Greg Schiano one day after negotiations between the two parties broke down amid a public backlash.
Currie issued a statement today acknowledging that the Ohio State defensive coordinator was a leading candidate for the Volunteers’ coaching vacancy without explaining why the two sides parted ways.
“Among the most respected professional and college football coaches, he is widely regarded as an outstanding leader who develops tough, competitive teams and cares deeply about his student-athletes,” Currie said.
Tennessee Chancellor Beverly Davenport also issued a statement offering her support to Currie while acknowledging her regret over the handling of the Schiano situation.
“I deeply regret the events of yesterday for everyone involved,” Davenport said. “The university remains steadfast in its commitment to excellence, and I look forward to John Currie continuing the search to bring the next head football coach to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.”
The school and Schiano were close to an agreement Sunday before the deal fell apart after a protest on campus and complaints on social media from fans, state representatives and gubernatorial candidates.
Their complaints stemmed from Schiano’s background as an assistant at Penn State during Jerry Sandusky’s tenure as the Nittany Lions’ defensive coordinator. Sandusky is serving 30 to 60 years in prison for his conviction on 45 counts of sexual abuse.
Court documents released last year of a deposition in a case related to the Sandusky scandal suggested Schiano might have been aware of Sandusky’s sexual abuse against children, though Schiano has said he never saw abuse or had any reason to suspect it while working at Penn State.
Currie said Tennessee “carefully interviewed and vetted” Schiano and that the former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach “received the highest recommendations.”
The athletic director said Schiano wasn’t mentioned in the 2012 report on the Sandusky scandal led by former FBI director Louis Freeh and “was not one of the more than 400 people interviewed in the investigation.” Currie also said Tennessee officials confirmed that Schiano was never asked to testify in any criminal or civil matter.
In his statement, Currie said Tennessee officials conferred with Ohio State officials who conducted their own investigation after the 2016 document release.
“I know that Coach Schiano will continue to have great success in his coaching career and wish him and his family well,” Currie said.
Tennessee (4-8, 0-8 SEC) fired Butch Jones two weeks ago and just finished a season in which it set a school record for losses . The Vols went winless in SEC competition for the first time since the league formed in 1933.
This marks Tennessee’s fourth coaching search since the forced exit of College Football Hall of Famer Phillip Fulmer in 2008.
“This hire is critical, but this hire is also going to be on the fans now,” said SEC Network analyst and former LSU defensive lineman Marcus Spears. “They let their voice be heard about Schiano, and it changed the whole situation. … Now if you get a guy and the fan base approves and he doesn’t win, it’s going to be on them as well.”
Still, there are more questions than answers as Tennessee’s search continues. Here are some things to watch:
NO SEARCH FIRM
When Jones was fired, Currie said he wouldn’t hire a search firm “at this time.” Monday’s statements by Currie and Davenport didn’t indicate any change in those plans. Tennessee’s had bad luck in the past when it hasn’t hired a search firm. Former athletic director Dave Hart didn’t use one when he hired men’s basketball coach Donnie Tyndall, who was fired after only one season due to an NCAA investigation of his Southern Mississippi tenure.
Tennessee was closing a deal with Schiano when it fell apart. If a memorandum of understanding was signed between the two parties, Schiano could try to get some type of compensation from the school.
Tennessee owes Jones $8.26 million as part of his buyout. Currie has said the school would owe Jones’ entire staff about $13 million, though both figures could be mitigated depending on when and where Jones and his assistants are able to find jobs.
The addition of a Dec. 20-22 signing period this year makes it important that Tennessee select a coach soon because many high school seniors will be finalizing their college choices long before the traditional February signing date. Seven seniors have withdrawn verbal commitments to Tennessee since the start of October.
It will be interesting to see if the Schiano situation has an impact on how any fan base responds the next time a school is on the verge of making an unpopular hire. “The dichotomy of this set a new precedent in college football,” Spears said. “This is something we’ve never seen before.
“The fan base, they know they have a voice now. It was always said (that) they’d spend the money, they’d fill the seats, they’re a big part of how the university thrives and does well. But now at Tennessee they actually know they have a voice and they can be a part of the decision-making process on who you hire as a head coach.”