KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee athletic director John Currie is defending his coaching search and vouching for the character of Greg Schiano a day after negotiations between the two parties broke down amid a public backlash.
Currie issued a statement Monday acknowledging the Ohio State defensive coordinator had been 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 issued a statement saying, “I deeply regret the events of yesterday for everyone involved.” Davenport added that “the university remains steadfast in its commitment to excellence, and I look forward to John Currie continuing the search” for a new coach.
The school and Schiano were close to an agreement Sunday before the deal fell apart after heavy criticism from fans, state lawmakers 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.”
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said he wasn’t involved in the search but added that he doesn’t “think anybody looks at the way everything came down yesterday and says that’s the way it should happen.”
Haslam also said his brother, Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, wasn’t playing an instrumental role in the search. Jimmy Haslam was part of the search committee that assisted in the hiring of Currie this year.
“I do think we should all be concerned about a rush to judgment,” Bill Haslam said.
Currie 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 Schiano was never asked to testify in any criminal or civil matter.
Currie said Tennessee officials conferred with Ohio State officials who conducted their own investigation after the 2016 document release.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer praised Schiano on Monday as “an elite person, an elite father, an elite friend, an elite football coach.”
“The one thing about coaching is it’s got to be a perfect fit, and maybe it wasn’t,” Meyer said. “I’m certainly not saying that. But move on, keep swinging as hard as you can, you’re at a great place.”
Anthony Lubrano, a Penn State Board of Trustees member who has staunchly supported former Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno, criticized Tennessee officials for being influenced by “a grossly uninformed social media mob.” Lubrano called Schiano “a man of high integrity and strong character.”
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 . This marks Tennessee’s fourth coaching search since the forced exit of Phillip Fulmer in 2008.
There are still 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.” Tennessee has 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 amid an NCAA investigation of his Southern Mississippi tenure.
SCHIANO FALLOUT: Tennessee was closing a deal with Schiano when it fell apart. If a memorandum of understanding was signed between the two parties, Schiano could seek compensation. Tennessee vice chancellor Ryan Robinson said Davenport hadn’t signed a memorandum of understanding but that he wasn’t aware of whether anyone else involved had signed one. The Chattanooga Times Free Press first reported Robinson’s comment.
PAYING JONES: 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 find jobs.
RECRUITING IMPACT: 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 October.
VOCAL FANS: It will be interesting to see if the Schiano situation affects how other fan bases respond when a school is considering an unpopular hire. “The dichotomy of this set a new precedent in college football,” SEC Network analyst and former LSU defensive lineman Marcus Spears said. “This is something we’ve never seen before.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.