How could Tennessee athletic director John Currie have not seen this coming?
Maybe he couldn’t have predicted actual street protests over the hiring of a college football coach. Maybe the degree and the amount of social media backlash was a more powerful wave than he could have imagined.
But he couldn’t have possibly thought hiring Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano — a deal that Tennessee and Schiano eventually backed out of due to the backlash — was going to go over smoothly. It boggles the mind to think anyone could have spent as much time in athletic departments as John Currie has — or for that matter, as much time on planet Earth in the 21st century — and have that poor of an understanding of public relations.
There is perhaps no greater sin in PR than proactively connecting yourself to a radioactive controversy if you aren’t already compromised. And Currie managed to connect himself to the one of the most grotesque scandals in American history and possibly the most grotesque scandal connected to American sport without any force compelling him to do so.
Prior to Sunday, there was nothing whatsoever connecting Currie or Tennessee athletics to the Jerry Sandusky child rape scandal at Penn State. Today, every outlet in America that includes stories about college sports has a story about Tennessee football that also includes the name of a man who has been convicted of 45 counts of child sexual abuse and will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Let us stress here for a moment that the current public understanding of Greg Schiano’s role in the Sandusky case is extremely muddy, and is based on testimony from someone with at most second-hand knowledge of Schiano’s experience.
Former Penn State quarterback and assistant coach Mike McQueary, who testified that he saw Sandusky raping a boy in 2001, said that former Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley told him Schiano had witnessed something similar in the early 90s when Schiano, then in his 20s, was coaching Penn State’s defensive backs. McQueary said Bradley told him Schiano had once come in to Bradley’s office “as white as a ghost,” saying he had seen Sandusky doing something to a boy in the shower.
Schiano has denied McQueary’s account and said he never saw or had any reason to suspect any abuse at Penn State. Bradley also denied knowledge of the incident. Even if McQueary’s testimony is correct, we don’t know what else Schiano did with what he knew or why he didn’t do more. McQueary only said that Schiano told Bradley, a defensive assistant at the time with more seniority than Schiano, who was in his first full-time coaching job. The testimony did not even indicate what Bradley did with that information let alone anyone else.
So that testimony isn’t nearly enough to label Schiano as someone who protected a child rapist. It should, however, have been more than enough for Currie to stay far away from the situation simply because there’s nothing requiring him to touch it with a 10,000-foot pole. There’s always the possibility that more information could come out that would paint Schiano in a worse light, and even if there isn’t, Schiano will carry that connection everywhere he goes. Even if the backlash Sunday hadn’t been as extreme as it was and the hire had gone through, every story in every major news outlet about Tennessee’s new football hire would have still been stained with Sandusky’s name.
Obviously, athletic directors shouldn’t make coaching hires based entirely on public relations, but in Schiano’s case, the PR hit was extreme. Tennessee’s brand isn’t in position to absorb that sort of hit after a 4-8 season, and Schiano wouldn’t have been considered a surefire success at Tennessee even if Sandusky never existed. Schiano obviously has a sharp football mind and deserves eternal credit for turning Rutgers — however briefly — into a winning program. He’s been excellent at Ohio State, producing top-10 defenses nationally in each of his two years there. But he was fired after two years as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and his only experience as a college coach in the Southeast was as a linebackers coach at Miami. He is mostly a Northeast guy, and he shares enough personality traits with Butch Jones to make one wonder if his tenure at Tennessee wouldn’t be doomed to the same fate.
Simply put, even with Dan Mullen headed to Florida, Chip Kelly going to UCLA and Jon Gruden apparently no longer a real possibility, there is a long list of coaches — Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and Memphis’ Mike Norvell come to mind — who are just as qualified to coach at Tennessee as Schiano and don’t require Currie to ask who knew what about child rape.
And after the self-inflicted PR disaster Sunday, Currie will be lucky to still get one of those coaches.
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