What if Tennessee had hired Greg Schiano? A whimsical look at a disaster avoided
Exactly 2 years ago, on Nov. 26, 2017, Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano was set to become the next head coach of the University of Tennessee Volunteers. But Vols fans triggered a backlash on social media. Then boosters and state politicians got involved. Eventually, the potential hire was squashed. Almost 2 weeks later, UT hired Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Fast-forward 2 years, and the Vols are preparing for their first bowl game since 2016.
I’ve often wondered what life would have been like for Greg Schiano, as well as Tennessee players, fans and administrators, had UT ignored the protests. What if they took the heat, went through with the hire, and established Schiano as the 26th head coach in Tennessee football history?
Let’s give it a try, shall we?
Oh, the nightmare that could have been …
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A late Sunday night press conference is held on the University of Tennessee campus. Students who were home on Thanksgiving break returned throughout the day, and over 1,000 of them gathered in front of Neyland Stadium to voice their displeasure. One student holds up a FREE HARAMBE sign for no apparent reason. The same fraternity that burned a mattress when Lane Kiffin bolted in 2010 was back, this time setting an old recliner on fire.
The next day, Tennessee athletics director John Currie is speaking at the typically friendly Knoxville Quarterback Club luncheon. He has to escape an angry mob by jumping into the Tennessee River. That afternoon, Schiano’s picture is installed on the back of the Jumbotron.
Vols fans make their voices heard as 20,000 fewer season tickets are sold for the 2018 season. Only 63,000 fans arrive for the home opener against ETSU. Tennessee’s defense, already limited by the transfers of Daniel Bituli, Darrell Taylor and Nigel Warrior, gives up 55 points to Florida. A week later a near riot breaks out when Schiano instructs his defense to dive at Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm while the Bulldogs are in the victory formation … despite the Vols being down by 35 points. A staph infection outbreak hits the Vols’ locker room, and Missouri offensive coordinator Derek Dooley offers his expertise to Tennessee’s athletic department, as well as some expired antibiotics left over since 2012.
The Vols go on to lose every SEC game in 2018, allowing over 50 points 6 times. The Vols finish 3-9, the worst campaign in UT history.
Meanwhile, back in Columbus, Ohio State is flourishing. In particular, a memorable shutout win at Purdue propels the Buckeyes into the College Football Playoff. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer says that the 2018 team has energized him, and after contemplating retirement, he will return for the 2019 season.
On Jan. 12, 2019, exactly 9 years to the day of Lane Kiffin’s departure, agent Jimmy Sexton floats a rumor than Schiano is leaving Tennessee for a head coaching job in the XFL. Instead of student unrest, the news is met with unbridled joy on the UT campus. Kiffin, never one to pass up the chance to make noise on social media, tweets a picture of Smokey and the words, “Call me.”
Tennessee responds to the rumors by giving Schiano a 10-year contact extension.
Expectations are low for Schiano’s 2nd season in Knoxville in 2019. The decision to buy out the BYU game and replace them with Rutgers is met with disgust when 14,000 fans show up at Neyland Stadium to watch a 4-2 victory by the Vols. It’s actually one of the few positives in the season. The Vols are 2-8 after a loss at Kentucky. It’s obvious that it isn’t going to work with Schiano at Tennessee and Currie has finally seen enough.
Currie meets with the media during a hastily called press conference the next morning and announces the firing of Greg Schiano. Currie explains that once again, he won’t be using a search firm to assist with this next hire. He says that Schiano’s picture will stay on the Jumbotron until a special crane arrives, but it is on a ship working its way through the Panama Canal and is not expected in Knoxville until 2026.
Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden wears an orange shirt at his weekly press conference, spawning a new round of “Grumors.” Currie lets those “Grumors” fester for a few days while he makes calls to Memphis’ Mike Norvell and Baylor’s Matt Rhule. They both say no. In the meantime, the “Grumors” earn Gruden gets a 20-year contract extension from the Raiders.
Duke’s David Cutcliffe appears set to return to Rocky Top, but talks break down when Cutcliffe says that he wants to bring his pet Labrador Retriever “Sparky” and has the request denied.
After that, Currie contacts Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona and former Pittsburgh Penguins coach Scotty Bowman to gauge their interest in the Tennessee job. They each say no.
As is written in the University of Tennessee bylaws, every Vols football coaching search must involve Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy. So, Currie calls Gundy. Gundy says he’s very interested in the Tennessee job. As is tradition, Gundy decides to stay in Stillwater and receives a raise and a contract extension from Oklahoma State.
During this coaching search, Currie isn’t commenting publicly, instead spending 2 weeks in Toronto leading up to the men’s basketball team’s game against Washington. After the Vols’ victory, things get weird when Currie is unreachable for 6 hours. Later, he tells UT officials that he was stuck at the DMV and his phone died.
Suddenly, Currie receives a telegram from Washington State coach Mike Leach, who informs Currie that he’ll take the job and show up in Knoxville “when the Moon is in the seventh wave.” Currie never called Leach, so yeah … that was weird.
Finally, Currie bites the bullet and makes the one phone call he’s dreaded making.
“Coach Fulmer, what do you think about taking over as head coach once again? Really, things aren’t that bad!”
On the other end of the phone, all you hear is uncontrollable laughter.
Tennessee eventually realizes that Greg Schiano’s $570 million buyout is going to bankrupt the athletic department. They begrudgingly bring Butch Jones back as head coach, as he is still receiving his own buyout. Jones will also be required to manage a weekly bake sale to raise funds. It’s called “Biscuit by Biscuit.”
Yeah … probably a good thing Tennessee didn’t hire Greg Schiano.