Over the weekend, news broke that the University of Tennessee had entered into contract negotiations with Greg Schiano, currently the Ohio State defensive coordinator, to become their new head coach. Social media immediately went abuzz with outrage as many Volunteer fans were up in arms about the pick as many have had their hearts set on the "dream boat" pick of John Gruden or some other superstar pick.
Number 1: If John Gruden really wanted the job, he would have already had the job! Gruden, however, has a cushy gig right now as a broadcaster and his offshoot programming such as Gruden's QB Camp leading up to the NFL Draft. He has reached the post-coaching "Promised Land" that any retired coach would dream of. He gets to stay very involved in the sport but has none of the risk, headaches, and insecurities that come with being a head coach in the NFL or major college football. So, if you take that off the table, who is your next best choice?
Let's look at Schiano's track record for a second. The last two years, he has been the defensive coordinator at Ohio State under Urban Meyer - not a back understudy role. In Columbus, Schiano has had a field day working with one of the most talent-stocked programs in college football. The Buckeyes' defense has also not disappointed either as they have been a solid unit for years and Schiano has helped them get even better. Prior to that, Schiano spent two seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL - probably an ill-advised role as the Buccaneers were in complete disarray at the time and the cupboard was bare from a talent perspective. So, being the controversial pick there on the recommendation of Bill Belechick probably did not help him come in as the warm and fuzzy choice with Buccaneers fans. After all, he was the head coach at Rutgers before that - Rutgers!
While an NFL Head Coach coming from Rutgers was not seen as a great hire for the Bucs, it should take nothing away from what Schiano accomplished there. He came to Rutgers, a program that had not been to a bowl game in over 25 years when he got there - and even that does not describe how bad the situation was either! Schiano left a cushy gig as the Defensive Coordinator at Miami (FL) where he was essentially a coach in waiting to take over probably one of the toughest jobs in college football at Rutgers. But, what he accomplished there is remarkable!
Rutgers was a program without any real success, poor facilities at the time, little recruiting cache, an apathetic fan base, a lack of talent in the program, even less recruiting cache out of the state than in it, and a reputation for killing the career trajectory of more than a few coaches. What Schiano accomplished was remarkable! He started by cleaning house and instilling a new attitude with the players who remained. They were going to be short on talent, but they were going to win with desire and work ethic. He coined the term "State of Rutgers" as a way to get high school coaches and players to buy into Rutgers as a destination location where players can succeed in major college football and even get into the NFL. He utilized his Florida coaching connections to land many of the top prospects from the talent-rch state that were left over by Florida, Florida State, Miami and other top schools. Schiano built defenses on speed, not size. He was able to mine enough seeds from Florida to give the Jersey kids a reason to stay at home where they can play in front of family and friends.
After a few rough years to start and transition the program, it all came together in 2005 when Rutgers made their first bowl game since 1978's Garden State Bowl. That team was quarterbacked by 6'1", 205 lbs. Florida product Ryan Hart - a tough, gritty QB who was thrown into the fire as a true freshman and engined the unthinkable. Hart's top target was a 5'9" speedster at wide receiver named Tres Moses, who left as Rutgers' all-time leading receiver. Schiano got upstate New York star Brian Leonard to pick the Scarlet Knights over hometown Syracuse and the junior running back emerged as the heart of the team - a tough, gritty performer who was just not going to be outworked. Schiano was able to convince another New York product in then-sophomore Ray Rice to also pick the Knights over Syracuse and others. Along the way, the Knights also picked up role players such as in-state additionsTE Clark Harris and a lanky WR Tiquan Underwood - both who went on to play in the NFL.
The defense was even more remarkable! The star was 6'1", 265 lbs defensive tackle Eric Foster - a player who became a two-time All-American despite being so undersized as an interior lineman (happened to have one of the quickest first steps in college football which made him such a monster inside). The defense ends ranged in weigh from 235 pounds to 265 - hardly intimidating numbers. The secondary did not have a four or five star prospect among them - Derrick Roberson, Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, Courtney Greene, Ron Girault, and Joey Porter - all went took a chance on Rutgers over being a small fish at a bigger school and each emerged as an NFL player after their time "on the banks."
So, not only did Rutgers make it to their first bowl game in decades, they took Arizona State to the last minute in a 45-40 thriller on the Sun Devils' home turf in Arizona during that year's Insight Bowl. From there Rutgers did the improbable of consistently competing in bowl games in five of the next 6 years. They even achieved an improbably Top 5 ranking at one point in 2006 after knocking off then #2 Louisville in what is still heralded as one of the greatest games in Rutgers history. Schiano's work made it even a possibility that Rutgers' would one day be considered for Big Ten membership.He put over 30 players into NFL camps during his tenure and as a former NFL agent who represented many of them, I can vouch that rutgers' guys were well-respected in the NFL, not necessarily as superstars, but as the more disciplined, lunch pail guys and hardest-working overachievers you will find on the free agent market. Many of them stuck around the NFL as long as they did because of the work ethic that Schiano instilled in the program.
So, you have to really appreciate just how successful Schiano was in New Jersey. So much, that Michigan offered him their head coaching job and he turned it down.Schiano could have had his pick of college football's top jobs at that point. His jump to the NFL was ill-advised to say the least as the things that made him such a good college coach were not going to play well in the NFL at the time. But, it was probably the best thing that happened to him.
He learned to listen to people. At Rutgers, he succeeded as a dictator and a control-freak. He was known to cast aside players after their eligibility ran out and did not value those alumni enough. He learned from that mitake. Even at the Bucs, he learned to appeciate the special type of players he was able to bring to Rutgers and he gave those players another shot. When he was fired from the NFL, he went on his own "listening tour" where he talked with other coaches and tried to make himslef better as a person and coach. He learned to embrace others and build them up. When he teamed up with Urban Meyer who came to Ohio State from Florida - once another top SEC power - these last two years were probably filled with discussions on how the Big Ten and SEC differ, what it takes to succeed in the SEC, and what Schiano needed to learn to make it there one day.
Tennessee is a great destination for a head coach. The school has a proud tradition of football success, a loyal fan base, top notch facilities and a 100,00+ stadium rivaled only by a handful of other national powerhouses.It has a major market partner in Nashville providing it with a media base in addition to the SEC connections. It has the cache of the Volunteer Navy and other Rocky Top traditions to make it a place players would want to spend a few years.
What Tennessee lacks right now is a vision and respectability. It needs a visionary who can once again build it up to compete with other SEC schools. Tennessee can already compete with other school in the SEC East on facilities and off the field advantages. To escape the division cellar should not be a tough task with the right head coach as other programs are also in disarray. Florida is going through its own rebuilding; South Carolina is no more attractive destination than Knoxville itself. Missouri is down right now and Kentucky will never emerge from the basketball shadow and always play second fiddle. So, how much convincing will it take?
Much of the outrage to Schiano goes back to his role as a Penn State assistant under Joe Paterno from 1990-1995. Schiano's name has come up in court documents in the cases surrounding the Sandusky scandal - as almost any Penn State coach during that time did. What we don't know if just how much he might have known and what more he could have done about it. Paterno and athletic heads already were aware and their heads roled on from there. Is Schiano never again employable as a head coach because of it? The fact that Ohio State brought him im as a DC should give at least some notion that a major program was comfortable that such an issue would not happen again under his watch. As a 50+ year old coach, he is much more secure in his position now than he was as a 20-something graduate assistant where he may not have had the confidence to do much more than he did - as horrible as that might have been. As a disclaimer, I have not read court papers or have immediate knowledge of how much Schiano knew or what actions he took, but I do know enough about him as an individual now that I would not be inclined to think that he should forever be banished either. After all, his time at Rutgers was scandal-free and he actually produced good, young men.
Having gone through the aftermath of Penn State and his track record at Rutgers, Schiano is probably even more of a stickler for making sure his next program remain scandal free. I think what he brings as a compassionate but tough love disciplinarian is just what a program like Tennessee needs to restore the winning mindset in Knoxville. What he is probably best as is a recruiter and with ties to talent rich Florida, New Jersey and now Ohio, will there be anyone with a better recruiting profile. There are much worse people who are head coaches in major college football. Tennessee will be hard pressed to find someone who can build a better foundation, run a clean SEC program, and restore Tennessee back to respectability than Greg Schiano.