When Trip Underwood found out that Greg Schiano was going to be the next head coach at his school, the University of Tennessee, he started doing some research.
After following the rapid reaction from fans on Twitter and various “recruiting boards,” Underwood, a student who says he was just weeks away from his final exams at the time, read a 2015 deposition given by former Penn State assistant and Jerry Sandusky whistleblower Mike McQueary. McQueary and Schiano were not on the Penn State coaching staff at the same time, but McQueary said, under oath, that Tom Bradley, a long-time Nittany Lions assistant whose tenure crossed over with Schiano’s and McQueary’s, “had come into his office white as a ghost and said he just saw Jerry doing something to a boy in the shower.” Schiano and Bradley publicly refuted that part of McQueary’s testimony. It was never proven in a court of law—in fact, neither was ever summoned to court to address it under oath. Schiano, along with being vetted by Tennessee, had been put under the microscope by Ohio State, where he has served as defensive coordinator the last two seasons.
Still, Underwood thought, “When it comes to the highest paid public office in the state of Tennessee, just being implicated in this, under oath, should be enough to take a second look at this guy.”
So at 4 p.m. on a Sunday, about two hours after reports of Schiano’s hiring first surfaced, Underwood walked across campus, cans of spray paint in hand, to “The Rock”—a 97.5-ton boulder of dolomite stone that serves as a university landmark. It took him roughly an hour to paint the face of the stone white. Then, with the blank slate still drying and a local television reporter looking on, he crafted the most damning, memorable and powerful rebuke of UT’s Schiano decision, spraying in large black letters: “Schiano covered up child rape at Penn State.”
Underwood’s message was a visual representation of the backlash that eventually forced since-terminated athletic director John Currie to reconsider the hire. Underwood said he received only support from people passing by. He and roughly 100 on-campus protestors were also buoyed by a much larger army protesting online. “Outkick the Coverage” proprietor and Tennessee fan Clay Travis tweeted Currie’s phone number and email address and urged those upset with the hiring to let him know.
It was stunning and in some ways jarring to watch, given the lack of concrete evidence that Schiano had a role in any cover-up. It also raised an important question in a week when NFL teams will begin tabbing new head-coaching hires: Given the current state in which Americans consume and rapidly react to media, the hurried pace of hiring processes in the NFL, and the checkered background of some candidates, could this kind of backlash play out at the pro level?
Black Monday fell on New Years Day this year, with four teams firing their head coach and Bruce Arians announcing his retirement. That created six openings, including the New York Giants (who fired Ben McAdoo in early December). The first one was filled on Monday when the Bears hired Matt Nagy.
Teams looking for a head coach have about a week to 10 days to interview five to eight candidates. That means flying to them or bringing them to you, having your security team run a background check, talking with their references and friends around the league and making a decision. In the best-case scenario, the coach isn’t on a team that’s in the playoffs the following week, and you’re the only one going after him.
If the candidate isn’t highly sought after, a team has plenty of time to not only vet him but package him to fans as well. In Los Angeles, the Rams were a team in transition with little fan base to speak of. General manager Les Snead went after then-30-year-old Washington offensive coordinator Sean McVay, a riser in the coaching ranks but not someone that people were falling over themselves for—yet.
The Rams fired Jeff Fisher on Dec. 12, Washington ended its season on Jan. 1 and McVay was announced as the Rams’ new coach on Jan. 12. L.A. had a full month to confirm he was their guy and, at the very least, 11 days to interview, check references and background. McVay and the Rams front office spent no fewer than five days together in January before the hire was official.
Three years earlier, McVay’s former employer didn’t have as much time when they hired his old boss, Jay Gruden. Washington fired Mike Shanahan on Dec. 30, 2013. By Jan. 6, the team had interviewed five coaches and had reportedly requested six others, including Gruden, then the Bengals’ offensive coordinator and a hot coaching candidate. He interviewed with Washington on Jan. 8 while he was being courted by the Titans, Vikings and Browns. His first stop was Tennessee. Then it was on to Washington, which didn’t let him leave town. A day after his interview Gruden was hired.
“If you were hiring these coaches the way the CEO of a company is hired, you’d take 30-60 days and make sure you knew everything there is to know,” one NFL team executive told The MMQB. “People are making decisions in 24-48 hours, and if you don’t take someone, someone else will.”
There is no perfect analog for the NFL in relation to what happened at the University of Tennessee. First, there’s nothing like being attached to the accusation of protecting child assault. Second, the fervor of college fandom, especially at an SEC school, is unrivaled by anything you’ll find in the NFL.
The most recent hire involving a coach with a known red flag was Vance Joseph, named Denver Broncos head coach last January. Joseph, who had a two-year career as a defensive back in the NFL in the mid-90s, had been rising in the coaching ranks since breaking into the league with the 49ers in 2005. He made defensive coordinator on Adam Gase’s inaugural Miami Dolphins staff in 2016 and was one of the top head-coaching candidates last offseason.
But Joseph had a past, and the Broncos knew it. While a DBs coach for two seasons (2002, ’03) at the University of Colorado, his alma mater, Joseph had been disciplined by the school for having inappropriate sexual relationships with two female trainers, which rose to sexual harassment under the school’s policy because he was a coach.
The two women spoke to a state task force investigating a recruiting scandal at Colorado. According the Boulder Daily Camera, which first reported the story, one of the women opted against pressing charges and the other declined to speak to police during their investigation. The case was closed, and Joseph was never questioned by police nor charged with a crime.
The Broncos vetted Joseph before the hire, speaking with people at Colorado, reviewing the report and talking to Joseph, who denied committing any crime but expressed embarrassment for his actions as a married father and as a coach. Joseph had come to Denver recommended by references at his four previous stops, the Fritz Pollard Alliance chairman John Wooten and the NFL career development advisory panel.
Joseph’s relatively low Q-rating played in his favor. In the case of Schiano, many UT fans objected to his less-than-sterling reputation as a head coach after a highly publicized failure with the Tampa Bay Bucs. The link to the Sandusky scandal became a convenient—and effective—means a desired end. Had Joseph had a similarly poor reputation as a coach, it’s fair to wonder whether those allegations would have affected the Broncos’ thinking.
A scroll through Tennessee Vols Twitter during the Schiano hiring process provided a peek into how volatile certain issues have become in the American consciousness. Fans were quick to package Schiano in with other unrelated but high-profile instances of sexual assault that have dominated the news cycle throughout the past few months. That sensitivity has further fortified NFL teams, who often prefer to look for outside help when hiring a coach or general manager.
The use of privatized search firms was a boardroom staple for decades and has maintained a presence in the NFL, where lines between a Fortune 500 CEO and head coach continue to blur. Jed Hughes, whose group Korn/Ferry has assisted the Browns, Seahawks, Chiefs, Falcons, Texans and Jets among other teams in recent years, sounds like a mix between campaign manager, presidential body man and former coach—the last of which is actually true. Before getting into the executive search world, Hughes worked under the likes of Bud Grant, Chuck Noll and Bo Schembechler as a position coach.
His experiences in football helped mold Hughes’ meticulous approach to the hiring process, which includes filtering out undesirable candidates, digging up background information and criminal history and preparing all invested parties on how to get behind the hire and create a sense of organizational unity. Before a process starts, for example, an owner can say the team wants nothing to do with anyone that has a domestic violence offense in their past (Hughes calls that a “knockout”). He ensures that none of those candidates make it beyond the screening process. His firm accounts for issues that have taken hold outside the world of football.
“Today, we’re just so sensitive to these [hot-button topics],” Hughes says. “They’re going on in politics, they’re going on in entertainment [. . .] Whether you’re guilty or not guilty there’s just a perception in this environment; that stuff is deleterious to your health. No matter how capable and qualified an individual is, under these sets of circumstances—maybe in two years it’s a different story—we’re facing a different climate than we faced before.
“That’s what you have to be sensitive to when you’re doing a search. You have to not only understand local dynamics but you have to understand what’s going on in the general population. [Tennessee] was a populous movement.”
Tennessee may very well have vetted Schiano to their satisfaction. Ohio State felt comfortable enough in hiring him as their defensive coordinator, though that was before McQueary’s deposition had been unsealed. But what NFL teams do markedly better than collegiate teams is create a utopian perception of the new candidate. A unified front, strategically, tends to knock down backlash. At a college program, where big-money donors and boosters have almost as much power as athletic directors, it’s tougher to wrangle everyone onto the same page.
Consider recent hires in Cleveland and Buffalo. Both staged video arrivals for their head coaches to thunderous applause. While this is not an exclusive offering by search firms, it is no doubt inspired by their foundational theory of a unified front.
“My guess is [a massive fan backlash] could be a factor. I don’t know if that’s really all that different from the past though,” one NFL executive told The MMQB. “In the past, it wasn’t social media. Saints fans have worn bags on their heads. Fans have flown banners. But I can’t say it’s not a consideration. The challenge is identifying whether it’s a consensus among your fans or a vocal, very small minority.”
Fan backlash played a heavy role in the first firing of this cycle. In December, Giants head coach Ben McAdoo faced an avalanche of fan criticism after an organizationally agreed upon plan to sit Eli Manning exploded into a week’s worth of talk radio and tabloid criticism. Soon after, he became the first Giants head coach in 40 years to lose his job in-season, and the first in 25 years to last two or fewer seasons with the franchise. While his inability to sell fans on a quarterback succession plan wasn’t the breaking point for team ownership, his performance in that realm certainly contributed to his demise.
“How often now are decisions going to be vetted in social media?” Hughes said. “And is that going to change a decision that has already been made, if people don’t agree with it? Think of the repercussions going forward for other hires.”
Could what happened at Tennessee happen in the NFL? It’s highly unlikely when you consider the confluence of factors that led to the Schiano Fiasco: A billionaire alumnus was pushing for a coach with a reputation for poor interpersonal skills, while the school’s legendary football coach was crafting a Game of Thrones-style coup for the athletic director job, while a radio bloviator told his legion of bro followers how they should think, all of which happened in an area where it’s faith, family and football but not necessarily in that order.
While boosters and alumni could change the course of a college program, there is no equivalent in the NFL. For instance, even if Levi’s wasn’t wild about Jim Tomsula’s opening press conference in 2015, their name is staying on the side of the 49ers’ building.
The way NFL hierarchies are built, the hiring process is naturally smoother. Agents deal with the owner and general manger, and once hired the coach deals with the general manager and key personnel men. In college, you have agents or search firms trying to negotiate massive deals with academicians and board members who are all trying to appease fans and alumni with skin in the game. Almost always, these men will be the highest-paid university employee, and at many public schools they could be the highest-paid public employee in the state. An NFL head coach could be making less than your kicker.
Many interviewed for this piece shared a similar sentiment: If you’re the University of Tennessee and you think you have your guy, roll with him and take the punches. You might have lost the press conference, but all is forgiven if there are wins when the games start. And if you hire the candidate who wins the press conference, you’re going to get fired if it turns out the press conference is the only thing he can win.
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