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  • Facing a consumer revolt, Tennessee backed out of hiring its next head coach, a testament to the power of social media and a tone-setter for the next move at one of college football's most prominent programs.
By Andy Staples
November 27, 2017

College athletics are a lot like the media business. There are end users—the fans and the readers/viewers/listeners—but they aren’t the only customers. We sell you copies of the print edition of Sports Illustrated, but we also sell space in the magazine to advertisers. We give you columns such as this one for free on the web, but we charge advertisers to place their content next to ours so you’ll see it as you read about your favorite team. In a way, the advertisers are like the big-money donors in college athletics. Their opinions often count for more than the opinion of the average reader.

The advertisers and the big donors pay more money, so their voices often carry more weight in our enterprises. But what we in the media and the people who run college sports should realize is this: If we lose the end user, we lose the entire enterprise. When the kid stops running to the mailbox to see who made the cover or when the fan stops buying tickets for that one game a year he saves up to attend, we’re on borrowed time. Sometimes, we need to stop and listen to our rank-and-file customers. Tennessee’s administration learned that Sunday.

We can argue about whether the majority of the Tennessee fans who revolted to the idea of the Volunteers’ since-squelched hiring of Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano really were incensed—as they claimed—because of Schiano’s alleged role in the Jerry Sandusky scandal. An accusation of a years-ago comment was never investigated and Schiano was never officially accused of any wrongdoing because he was accused by double hearsay. He also has denied it happened. We’ll unfortunately never know the truth in that matter. We also will never truly know if this is why Tennessee fans rose up Sunday or if they were angry for football reasons—because Schiano went 68–67 at Rutgers and got blown out by former Vols coach Butch Jones’s Cincinnati team near the end of his tenure there.

The bottom line is a vocal component of the Tennessee fan base did not want Schiano coaching at Tennessee. The customers did not want to buy the program Tennessee was prepared to sell them. So they spoke up with a voice they wouldn’t have had 10 years ago. In response, Tennessee’s administration did something it probably wouldn’t have done 10 years ago. It listened.

Social media has changed our lives in myriad ways, but two things stand out above the others.

• It has given a voice to the previously voiceless. Think about this: You can send a tweet right now, and the President of the United States might read it. Never has there been such a direct line between the powerful and the previously powerless.

• If enough voices get together and get fired up enough, they can turn into a mob—rushing to judgement and crushing everything in their path without regard for whether their cause is actually as just as they believe.

A lot of my colleagues have decried what happened Sunday as an example of the second. They believe that delusional Tennessee fans unhappy they didn’t land Jon Gruden—who was never coming no matter how grand the message board fiction—got mad and ruined the deal for a perfectly O.K. football coach. That’s not necessarily the case. While some Tennessee fans bought the Grumors hook, line and sinker, the majority of the fan base understood that the Vols were going to hire a person currently coaching college football. They just didn’t want this particular person. Schiano is basically a more aggressive, defensive-minded Butch Jones. He would have been a poor fit in the fishbowl of Knoxville, where every word the coach utters is scrutinized and where coaches who worry about outside noise get swallowed by it. That he was attached—however tenuously—to the most toxic scandal in sports history gave the more politically minded of the angry Tennessee fans an easy place to hook their rage.

It’s also something Tennessee athletic director John Currie should have considered as he was zeroing in on Schiano. The vetting process is supposed to bring every potential land mine into view before a school gets too far down the road with a candidate. When a candidate is potentially controversial, a school will often leak that it is considering that candidate as a trial balloon. Had Currie floated such a balloon in the past few days, Tennessee’s fan base would have reacted in similar fashion. The difference is the sides wouldn’t already have a Memorandum of Understanding. The Vols could have moved on to another candidate without a full-on revolt that will wind up making the search even more difficult going forward.

Another issue Sunday was what appeared to be an effort by some of the most influential voices in college football’s media corps to tell Tennessee fans to shut up and accept the hire. Whether this was because those people believe Schiano to be a great coach or because they want to stay on the good side of agent Jimmy Sexton is irrelevant. It came off as people in our business talking down to our customers who already had made their decision on the issue. We do that often. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone, and Sunday’s events should make all of us step back and consider listening to our customers a little more.

But here’s the tough part for us and the even tougher part for Currie. Every individual voice isn’t correct. When a consumer bloc rises up the way it did Sunday, it’s fairly easy to determine that the best move for the future of the business is to give the people what they want. (Or, in this case, to take away the thing they don’t want.) But what about next time? At some point in the coming days, Currie and company will settle on another coach. There is a 0% chance that coach will satisfy 100% of the fan base, so what happens then? Currie gets paid a lot of money to determine whether he’s dealing with a few cranks or a full-blown meltdown. He’ll have to figure it out.

Some coaches who would have been interested in the Tennessee job probably crossed the Vols off their list after Sunday. That’s actually fine for Tennessee. As someone who has lived in Knoxville and covered the program, I’m convinced those coaches wouldn’t have the stomach to succeed as Tennessee’s coach. They would have failed anyway, so it’s probably better for everyone involved that Currie now will get to choose from a self-selecting sample of coaches willing to deal with a lot of passion and at least a little bit of nuttiness. After Sunday, I’d bet the fans who revolted will choose to embrace the person who does get the job if only to prove the fan base didn’t rise up out of a desire to destroy the program. The fans didn’t do what they did Sunday because they’re crazy. They did it because they love Tennessee. Maybe they love it a little too much, but that’s far better than the opposite problem. Currie would do well to remember that.

Currie knows a bad hire here means he’ll probably get fired along with the football coach. But guess what? The same would have been true had he ignored his customers and rammed through the Schiano hire. If the coach he hires loses, they’re both gone. If the coach he hires wins, they’ll both get raises. It’s that simple.

Currie wisely listened to his customers before consummating a marriage that would have been doomed from the start. Now comes the most difficult part. Now that Tennessee’s fans understand the power of their collective voice, can Currie figure out when and how to listen going forward?

College Football
Greg Schiano's Memorandum of Understanding With Tennessee Could Burn Vols

A Random Ranking

I finally saw Spider-Man: Homecoming last week. This is the third version of the Spider-Man franchise this century, so it feels necessary to rank the Spider-Men and their sequels.

1. Spider-Man

We forget now that comic book movies have taken over the multiplex, but Sam Raimi’s version revived the genre in 2002. (Bat-nipples had killed it for a minute.)

2. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Superheroes: They’re as awkward as we were at 15!

3. Spider-Man 2

The one with Doctor Octopus and the amazing runaway train scene.

4. The Amazing Spider-Man 2

This one, with Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy and Jaime Foxx as Electro, probably would have been more memorable had it not been buried by newer, better superhero fare.

5. Spider-Man 3

Generally terrible except for the evil Peter Parker scene, which was so terrible it was great.

6. The Amazing Spider-Man

The subtitle should have been “So We Don’t Lose The Rights To The Character.”

Projected Playoff

1. Clemson

The Tigers crushed South Carolina on Saturday, and if they’ve decided to activate Postseason Destruction Mode, that’s bad news for Miami in the ACC title game.

2. Auburn

This is the team no one wants to play right now. But the Tigers still have to beat Georgia for a second time. They dominated the first meeting, but the second could be tighter.

3. Oklahoma

The Sooners have played their best games against their best opponents this season, but just like Auburn, they now have to beat a good team they’ve already blown out in a second meeting against TCU.

4. Wisconsin

Yes, this is me predicting a Badgers win in the Big Ten title game. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, I’m terrible at picking games. But the College Football Playoff selection committee is hoping for this set of outcomes. That would be the least controversial. If Ohio State beats the Badgers, prepare for intense debate Saturday and Sunday.

Big Ugly of the Week

This week’s honoree is Ohio State center Billy Price, who helped keep the offense steady as backup quarterback Dwayne Haskins replaced injured started J.T. Barrett and led a comeback win against Michigan. How athletic is Price? Check this out. Remember, he’s snapping before he pulls. This is some premium dancing bear stuff.

Three and Out

1. Texas A&M fired Kevin Sumlin on Sunday, ending a sometimes-rocky relationship with a coach who won 51 games over the past six seasons. In the statement announcing Sumlin’s firing, Aggies athletic director Scott Woodward minced no words as he laid out the expectations for the next coach.

"Our expectations at A&M are very high,” Woodward said in the statement. “We believe that we should compete for SEC championships on an annual basis and, at times, national championships. I believe that we need a new coach to take us there.”

This will be a tall order. The Aggies haven’t won a conference title since the 1998 Big 12 championship. Their last national title came in 1939. The place has the money, the facilities, the resources and the recruiting base to do all the things Woodward described, but it hasn’t been able to do it yet. Perhaps the next coach will have better luck.

2. Earlier Sunday, Arizona State fired Todd Graham. Sun Devils athletic director Ray Anderson outlined his expectations for the program following the firing. (Sensing a theme here?) “We have been average,” Anderson said. “Seven and five and second place in a riddled Pac-12 South is not our aspiration. We deserve more.”

Now it’s up to Anderson to hire the man who can bring the Sun Devils a better record and better bowl games. Who will that person be? Might it be Memphis coach Mike Norvell, who was Arizona State’s offensive coordinator from 2012 to ’15? Might it be Sumlin, who turned down Arizona State to take the Texas A&M job? No matter who the Sun Devils hire, he’ll face some lofty expectations relative to the program’s historic success. (Kind of like the next guy at Texas A&M.)

3. Speaking of expectations, expect happiness for LSU walk-on running back Reshaud Henry, who popped the question Saturday after the Tigers’ win against LSU. (She said yes.)

For Your Ears

George Schroeder of USA Today joined to discuss the situation at Tennessee, which overwhelmed a lot of other really big news on Sunday.

What’s Eating Andy?

I hate getting scooped, especially on stories involving Waffle House. But if you listened to that podcast, you know Schroeder is one of the best.

What’s Andy Eating?

I appreciate when a place knows enough about what it does well to guide a diner to the wisest menu option without the diner even ordering it. I didn’t even consider the pulled pork sandwich when I scanned the menu at Zombie Pig BBQ on Sunday. When I visit a barbecue place I’ve never tried, I usually want to try just the meats first without any distraction. So I ordered the four meat platter, which came with ribs, pulled pork, pulled chicken and sliced brisket.

Andy Staples

At this cozy spot tucked into a strip mall in Columbus, Ga., the platters come with two slices of white bread. This is fairly common at barbecue joints in Georgia and Alabama, and I didn’t think much of it until I took a few bites of the pulled pork. It was spicy and salty and juicy and would have been excellent on its own, but the texture took me back. This was the meat that filled the best pulled pork sandwiches at the family gatherings of my childhood. For lack of a better term, this was Sandwich Pork. So I grabbed a slice of bread and loaded it with pork. Then I slapped the other slice on top. Each bite took me back to ping pong tournaments and July 4 fireworks. The act of stuffing this pork between two simple slices of bread had rendered it doubly delicious.

The smoky, slightly sauced chicken also would have made a perfect sandwich stuffing, but I feared adding more bread would have made it impossible to eat the meat plus my sides of macaroni and cheese and Brunswick Stew. The mac and cheese was thick and creamy, and the Brunswick Stew was tangy and stuffed with chunks of pork.

Andy Staples

If you go, get a three-meat platter. The pulled pork, pulled chicken and ribs are your choices. Getting brisket outside of Texas is always risky, and the other meats are so much better here that it isn’t worth wasting stomach space that could be used for more bread. Because if you really want to do Zombie Pig correctly, you’ll ask for six slices of bread and eat ribs, a pulled pork sandwich, a pulled chicken sandwich and a pork and chicken sandwich. You might not need to eat again for a solid 24 hours.

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