Even Bill Belichick can’t erase Greg Schiano’s terrible reign with Buccaneers

Bill Belichick rarely says more than a few words at a time. He communicates in mumbles and blurts, uttering now-famous lines like “No days off” and “We’re on to Cincinnati.” When he was asked about Greg Schiano on Sunday, however, he was downright effusive.

“He’s one of the very best coaches I think in our profession,” the Patriots coach told reporters after New England’s drubbing of the Miami Dolphins. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Greg and the way he runs his program and the job that he does. I would say the most impressive thing for me is the way that our players, which we’ve had a lot of Rutgers players come through here, the loyalty and the, I would say love of the program, the college program that they were in at Rutgers when he was there, how they maintained that for years and years after they had left.”

That wasn’t all. Belichick praised Schiano as a father and said the former Rutgers coach “helped me in a lot of different ways.” Belichick said on Monday that he had “Zero reservations. Zero” about Schiano’s character – and this was as the University of Tennessee backed out of its plans to hire Schiano amid a fury of fan anger that included his unproven role in the cover-up of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State.

Greg Schiano (L) got an earful from Tom Coughlin in 2012 after a heated conclusion to a Bucs-Giants game in which Tampa blew up New York's victory formation. (AP)
Greg Schiano (L) got an earful from Tom Coughlin in 2012 after a heated conclusion to a Bucs-Giants game in which Tampa blew up New York’s victory formation. (AP)

Getting the unyielding support of Bill Belichick and Urban Meyer – who hired Schiano as the defensive coordinator at Ohio State – is about the best someone can do in football coaching. And the praise is earnest. Belichick’s son played for Schiano at Rutgers as a long snapper in 2011. We all know the invaluable role Schiano played in the life of Eric LeGrand, who was paralyzed in a 2010 Rutgers game and has felt the constant support of his former coach ever since.

Schiano’s former boss in Tampa, ex-Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik, chimed in with this testimony on Twitter: “Fact-he’s honest, awesome father/husband & an excellent football coach. This shouldn’t be whether YOU think you like him or not, you don’t even know him. #Meyer #Belichick ask them.”

So there’s a chasm of disconnect between the lavish praise from some football coaching gods and the overwhelming venom from Vols fans. Part of that disconnect is because Schiano’s peers don’t think the man they know is capable of turning a blind eye when a child is in danger. But an unspoken part of that gap is because of how Schiano’s time in Tampa is perceived. The professional praise for Schiano mostly fits if we’re talking about only his Rutgers career. But it rings less true when his Bucs reign is considered.

It wasn’t only the losing in Tampa. Nick Saban was just above mediocre for most of his time at Michigan State and 15-17 with the Miami Dolphins, and yet he’s a legend now. Belichick himself mishandled things in Cleveland and they’ll build a statue for him in New England.

Rather, it’s the events that accompanied two years of losing that continue to be alarming in retrospect.

The Bucs confronted an outbreak of staph infection (or MRSA) during Schiano’s term, and although that itself can hardly be blamed on him, his response to it brought harsh criticism. Kicker Lawrence Tynes underwent toe surgery and Schiano told reporters he was “responding well” to treatment. That drew a response from Tynes’ wife, Amanda, who tweeted a photo of her husband with an IV in his arm. “I hear my husband is responding ‘well’ to treatment,” she wrote. “LOL! He’s NOT responding at all yet. This is our #bucslife.”

The Bucs made it worse by putting Tynes on the non-football injury list, which guaranteed his base salary but withheld additional benefits.

“I come up with MRSA and it’s a non-football injury?” Tynes asked Fox Sports in 2013. “They’re basically trying to exonerate themselves of this, and I’m not going to allow it to happen.”

Tynes sued and eventually reached an undisclosed settlement with the Bucs this past February.

Then there was the spiral of once-promising quarterback Josh Freeman, who had an exciting start to his career and couldn’t take the next step under Schiano after a 27-touchdown 2012 season. A divorce between player and coach got public when Freeman missed a team photo and rumors flew that the head coach rigged the team captain vote to leave the quarterback out. Then, worst of all, Freeman’s confidential medical information was leaked, which led to an NFLPA investigation. That inquiry went on and on (and on), but the union contended it had information showing Schiano discussed that personal information with Bucs teammates. Schiano emphatically denied wrongdoing, and it’s possible the leak came from elsewhere, but it was another example of a leader who couldn’t lead. And, perhaps even more troubling, Schiano was a coach who couldn’t handle a crisis. He won 11 games over two seasons, and the two-win team under replacement Lovie Smith is also an indication of how shipwrecked the Bucs were.

Tynes and Freeman are both out of football now. Is it fair to blame Schiano? That’s debatable. But it is fair to say that every head coach is trusted with bringing a group together and making individual players better. That hardly happened in Tampa. The word “mutiny” was thrown around in the media before Schiano’s ouster after the 2013 season, and not many rushed to cast that descriptor aside as hyperbole. After the last, lost season was over, Darrelle Revis flatly stated, “Guys didn’t like coming to work.” He reportedly signed a jersey for a Bucs executive that said, “Thanks for letting me leave.”

Maybe this is indicative of a difference in college culture versus the pros. Maybe Schiano’s hard-charging ways work on one level and not the next level. But the 11 years since Schiano’s 11-2 season in New Jersey is a long time in coaching, and today’s college athletes may not fall in line the way the Rutgers players did. It’s not a sure bet to assume they will.

Coaches evolve and grow, just like the rest of us. Schiano has surely softened his manner over time. But let’s face it: The kind of failure Schiano authored in Tampa is rare. It raises questions beyond his ability to draw up a scheme or evaluate personnel. There are plenty of head coaches who get only one shot, do better than Schiano did, and don’t get another lucrative gig. Beyond the Penn State situation, there were a lot of questions about Schiano’s regime in Tampa that never got fully answered. And when you’re making a multi-million dollar investment in one person to be the face of a university, all of the questions better have ready answers.

What the Vols fans did Sunday is not exactly rational and not exactly healthy. But that doesn’t mean their reservations about Schiano are unwarranted.