KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee reportedly came close to hiring a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach on Sunday.
It wasn't the one most Tennessee fans were hoping for, though.
Multiple media outlets reported that Tennessee and Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano neared a deal that would have made Schiano the next football coach of the Volunteers.
By Sunday evening, sources told the Times Free Press the deal was off the table after the Tennessee fan base had made clear it did not support the hiring of a coach who was loosely implicated in the cover-up of a child rape scandal at Penn State.
Schiano, 51, was the head coach at Rutgers from 2001 to 2011. Rutgers had not been to a bowl game since 1978 when Schiano took the job, but he led the Scarlet Knights to six bowl games in his final seven years there.
He left for the NFL, becoming Tampa Bay's coach in 2012 and going 11-21 in two seasons before being fired. He returned to football when Ohio State coach Urban Meyer hired him in December 2015.
In 2016, Schiano was implicated as a possible witness in the Penn State child rape scandal. Testimony unsealed from former Nittany Lions assistant coach Mike McQueary in a deposition indicated McQueary had been told by another assistant that Schiano apparently once witnessed former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky "doing something to a boy in the shower."
Schiano denied McQueary's second-hand account by telling ESPN in July 2016, "I never saw any abuse nor had reason to suspect any abuse during my time at Penn State."
Schiano worked at Penn State from 1990 to 1995, first as a graduate assistant and then as its defensive backs coach. From there, he worked as an assistant for the Chicago Bears and as the defensive coordinator for the University of Miami before taking over at Rutgers. The New Jersey native has never coached in the Southeastern Conference.
Tennessee athletic director John Currie reportedly targeted Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen to replace Butch Jones, who was fired with two games left on this year's schedule, but Mullen accepted the head coaching position at Florida on Sunday and Currie turned his attention to Schiano.
The Vols' season ended Saturday with a 42-24 loss to in-state rival Vanderbilt that left them 4-8 for the first eight-loss season in program history. Currie fired Jones on Nov. 12, cutting short his fifth season, and launched a nationwide search for his replacement.
The Times Free Press reported that Jon Gruden, who led Tampa Bay a to a Super Bowl victory during his time with the Bucs, had contacted potential assistants to gauge their interest in joining a staff at Tennnessee. Gruden, now an analyst for ESPN, appeared to be a fan-favorite candidate.
With regard to Schiano, the fan support swung violently in the other direction Sunday as reports surfaced, with the first one coming from USA Today Sports and indicating Currie and Schiano were close to an agreement.
A small group of fans first gathered outside Neyland Stadium in mid-afternoon. Some held signs with messages such as "Fire Currie" and "Fire Davenport," a reference to University of Tennessee chancellor Beverly Davenport. Even state legislators and local businesses in Knoxville released statements condemning the potential hiring of Schiano.
An iconic rock on the Tennessee campus was painted with the message, "Schiano covered up child rape at Penn State."
Schiano's name surfaced in connection with the Sandusky scandal several months after he was hired by Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer. Meyer was asked about situation shortly thereafter and told the Toledo Blade, "There's no issue as far as I am concerned."
"I first heard about it several months ago, and we had a long talk," Meyer told The Blade. "I've known Greg for 20-some years. I have as much respect for Greg Schiano as I do any person — not just any coach, any person. We had the chat, and he told me everything that happened. He stands by his statement, and we stand by his statement."
Sandusky is serving a minimum 30-year sentence after his 2012 conviction on 45 charges of sexually abusing 10 boys.
Meyer spoke reverently of Schiano on a Sunday conference call and acknowledged he knew Tennessee had contacted the Ohio State assistant. The Buckeyes are scheduled to play Wisconsin in the Big 10 championship game Saturday.
"Greg's been a close friend for 20-plus years," Meyer said. "Elite person, elite father, elite husband. Carries over into the way he handles players; excellent coach, excellent person."
Meyer's glowing review of Schiano did little to sell the Tennessee faithful. A man with a megaphone stood on the steps outside the Tennessee athletic department offices late Sunday afternoon and shouted to a crowd of several dozen, "Who would you take over Schiano?"
The crowd responded, "Anybody." Then they broke into a chant of, "Hell no, Schiano!"
Schiano is widely viewed as an astute defensive mind, but he also left baggage behind during his brief NFL stint. NFL.com columnist Michael Silver described Schiano's coaching style as "autocratic" in a 2013 column.
Silver's column quoted Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett as saying that legendary former Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning once "cussed out" Schiano for the way Schiano's defenses handled situations when their opponents were attempting to take a knee.
"And I ain't never heard Peyton cuss," Bennett told Silver.
The fallout with Schiano leaves Currie still hunting for Tennessee's next coach. The Times Free Press published an updated candidate hot board this past week that was headlined by Gruden and Mullen. Iowa State coach Matt Campbell was listed third on the hot board, but ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach reported this past weekend that Campbell's buyout of more than $9 million was viewed as a hurdle by Tennessee.
That could leave Currie looking again at Memphis coach Mike Norvell, who has directed the Tigers to a 10-1 regular season in his second year leading them. Arkansas, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Texas A&M are other SEC schools in the midst of coaching searches and will presumably be in pursuit of candidates Tennessee is considering.
Interim Vols coach Brady Hoke said after Saturday's season-ending loss that he planned to continue recruiting players on behalf of the program.
"John Currie will go out and find the best possible person for this university and for this football program, and we'll just see what happens," Hoke said.
Hoke, formerly the head coach at Michigan, called Tennessee "a very good job."
"And I'll start with the city of Knoxville," he said. "I think the people in this city — and we haven't been here long — the passion that they have for football, I think it's something special that you always want to have. It's a good job, it's one of the best jobs in the country."
Contact David Cobb at email@example.com.
This story was updated Nov. 26 at 11:59 p.m.