Greg Schiano Confronts Problems Head On, Which Is Exactly What Tennessee Needed

A look back at the coach’s path from Rutgers to Tampa and how it aligns with what the Volunteers ultimately were seeking. Plus an updated draft big board, the SEC quarterback on the rise and what to watch this weekend
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We don’t always get along with the people we cover. Our job is, many times, to get information they don’t want us to have, and that part of it is necessarily adversarial.

You learn about people in those moments. I learned about Greg Schiano.

A pair of season-opening losses had turned temperature up on the then-Buccaneers coach in 2013, as had a pending divorce from ex-first-round QB Josh Freeman and a MRSA outbreak in the Tampa Bay facility. In turning over rocks, I learned about an August players-only meeting to address the unrelenting camp Schiano had staged, with captain Dashon Goldson sent by the group to confront the coach afterwards.

That Friday, I flew to Tampa and sat down with Schiano. I told him what I knew. He went on the record, ahead of the Bucs’ trip to New England. Meanwhile, we’d set up a quick, boilerplate, off-the-bus 1-on-1 for TV that Sunday morning in Foxborough.

Long story short, I wrote the story, and Schiano wasn’t happy with it. And so instead of that 1-on-1 in the tunnel that Sunday, we had a short, loud exchange. A few weeks later, we talked again, and it was settled. In the end, I wound up with more respect for him for handling it like he did.

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I don’t know Schiano like the guys who played for him at Rutgers or at Tampa, nor do I know him like the coaches who’ve worked with him. I also understand the scouts who didn’t like him because Schiano was difficult with access, the same way Joe Paterno used to be at Penn State.

But I’d like to think I got a glimpse at one reason why he’s been successful: He confronts problems as they arise, and is willing to settle them in short order. Trust me when I say that lots of NFL people wouldn’t handle an issue like that in as direct away as Schiano did that Sunday.

I can also give you perspective on his work at Rutgers. My first job out of college happened to be in New Jersey, working for the Asbury Park Press, and in my short time there (late 2002/early 2003), I got to see what a graveyard Rutgers football really was. We were in the office one night, and Rutgers-Temple was on, and I’m not exaggerating when I say you could count the fans in Piscataway by the dozen.

Literally no one in Jersey cared about the program. There was no anger, just apathy.

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That was Schiano’s second year there. Four years later, in his sixth season, the Scarlet Knights were undefeated into November, and knocked off Bobby Petrino and Louisville to enter the Top 10 for the first time in program history. Rutgers topped out at third in the AP poll. This was a program that made one bowl game in its history, prior to Schiano’s arrival. He made it to six in his final seven years.

There’s a reason why the Bucs hired Schiano in 2012: the Rutgers job proved he was a master of doing more with less. And then he started to get more, too. In the 14 drafts pre-Schiano, Rutgers had six players selected. In Schiano’s 11 years, 17 Scarlet Knights were drafted, including the first three first-round picks in school history. And a year after he left, seven of his recruits were taken in the 2013 draft.

How he’d do it? Well, I look at my own experience with him, and see that guy, one who went into Rutgers and confronted every problem—and there were a raft of them—to pull off that turnaround, which compares to the miracle that made Bill Snyder an icon at Kansas State. Conversely, it didn’t work in the NFL with the Bucs, and maybe it wouldn’t work in Knoxville either.

And we can argue about that. Schiano has no experience in the SEC, and it’s fair to question his fit as the quasi-politician coaches in that area are expected to be. As for his history as a Penn State assistant, while Tennessee’s vetting cleared him the same way Ohio State’s did two years ago, I understand trepidation in hiring anyone out of Paterno Era PSU, if that was truly the motivation for Sunday’s outrage.

I don’t like someone losing a job on second-hand, unsubstantiated hearsay, and I think it’s reprehensible that anyone would use that particular case as a red herring because they don’t like a coaching hire. Tarring someone’s reputation without basis as a form of kicking and screaming is worse. But if you don’t want to be connected to anyone who was there for it, then I get it, 100 percent.

The Lessons and Warnings of Tennessee's Greg Schiano Saga

So yes, there are good and understandable reasons for Tennessee people to not like the idea of Schiano. That’s fine. He wasn’t a perfect candidate. But given the mess the program has been since Phil Fulmer was pushed out nine years ago, my feeling is having someone who can confront and eradicate problems is just what the administration in Knoxville should be ordering up.

Or, at the very least, that quality should rank well ahead of social media fallout.

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FIVE FROM SATURDAY

1. Among the craziest things from Rivalry Saturday, this one had to rank up there: Both Florida and Florida State entered the day with a 4-6 record. Not only did I not expect that this year, I didn’t think I’d ever see that. So, obviously, changes are afoot. The Gators have already made theirs, bringing in Dan Mullen. The Seminoles’ shift could be coming, with Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M making eyes at one another. If Fisher goes, that could lead to more dominoes, with Oregon coach WillieTaggart, a native Floridian and the former South Florida coach, expected to be on FSU’s list. That, of course, would mean another significant job opening in the Pac-12, and Phil Knight cracking open the wallet again.

2. As the next couple weeks pass, I’d suggest you read NFLPA president Eric Winston’s comments from last December and May. On both occasions, he backed the decisions made by Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and LSU’s Leonard Fournette to skip their bowl games in order to protect their draft stock, decisions that certainly will resonate with a few draft prospects now, particularly since both came off the board in the top 10. “The thing that’s changed is that another false narrative has been proven false once and for all,” Winston told me in May. “The whole idea that, ‘Man, if you sit out your bowl game, then they’re gonna think less of you and you won’t get drafted as high,’ has obviously been proven false again. We all knew it was false. And McCaffrey actually took it another step, and said, ‘I’m not doing any of my workouts either. I’ll do my Pro Day and you can work me out there, but I’m not doing any of these private workouts.’ And good for him.” We already have our first this year: Texas OT Connor Williams, a potential first-rounder, announced Monday that he would skip the Longhorns’ bowl game to prepare for the draft. Williams, who’ll forgo his final year of eligibility, missed seven games this year with a knee injury.

3. We’ve been touting the 2019 defensive line class, and we have another name to stick in the group: Auburn DT Derrick Brown. The speed and athleticism of the Tigers’ front seven certainly has the attention of NFL scouts, and Brown is the prospect that pops off the tape to them. He’s listed at 6-foot-5 and 316 pounds, has 8 tackles for losses and 3.5 sacks on the season, and forced a fumble against Alabama. I haven’t asked around all that much about next year’s class, but if I did … My guess is that Brown, Michigan DE/DT Rashan Gary, Ohio State DE Nick Bosa and Clemson DT Dexter Lawrence would all rank among the Top 10 prospects.

4. This calendar year has been one to forget for Baylor football, but that doesn’t mean that some good players weren’t left behind from the Art Briles era. One bright spot for the 1-11 Bears is true sophomore receiver Denzel Mills, who can fly and is listed at 6-foot-3. Still fairly raw, Mills finished his second collegiate season with 61 catches for 1,087 yards and eight touchdowns, with his breakout coming in an 11-catch, 192-yard effort against Oklahoma. He’ll be a fun one to follow next year.

5. Want another Baker Mayfield update? With his captaincy stripped for a day and the spotlight on him, the likely Heisman winner responded by throwing for 281 yards and three touchdowns on 14-of-17 passing in the Sooners’ blowout of West Virginia. And it feels to me like scouts are undeterred by the events of the last couple weeks, which is to say the momentum he’s built in NFL circles is still there. Mayfield, who’s completed 71.4 percent of his passes and boasts a 37-5 TD-INT ratio, has maintained a very good shot at going in the first round.