KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Tennessee athletic director John Currie is defending the process of his coaching search and vouching for the character of Greg Schiano one day after negotiations between the two parties broke down amid a public backlash.

Currie issued a statement Monday acknowledging that the Ohio State defensive coordinator was a leading candidate for the Volunteers’ coaching vacancy without explaining why the two sides parted ways.

Currie said Tennessee “carefully interviewed and vetted” Schiano and that the former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach “received the highest recommendations.”

The school and Schiano were close to an agreement Sunday before the deal fell apart after a protest on campus and complaints on social media from fans, state representatives and gubernatorial candidates.

Their complaints stemmed from Schiano’s background as an assistant at Penn State during Jerry Sandusky’s tenure as the Nittany Lions’ defensive coordinator. Sandusky is serving 30 to 60 years in prison for his conviction on 45 counts of sexual abuse.

Court documents released last year of a deposition in a case related to the Sandusky scandal suggested Schiano might have been aware of Sandusky’s sexual abuse against children, though Schiano says he had no knowledge of what was happening at the time.

“The head football coach at the University of Tennessee is the highest-paid state employee,” Tennessee State Rep. Jeremy Faison said. “They’re the face of our state. We don’t need a man who has that type of potential reproach in their life as the highest-paid state employee. It’s egregious to the people and it’s wrong to the taxpayers.”

Faison was one of at least three state representatives who went on Twitter or issued statements to criticize the possibility of Tennessee hiring Schiano. Republican gubernatorial candidates Mae Beavers, Diane Black, Beth Harwell and Bill Lee also relayed their objections to a Schiano hire.

State Rep. Eddie Smith tweeted that “a Greg Schiano hire would be anathema to all that our University and our community stand for.”

Court documents released in the summer of 2016 included a deposition from former Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary, who indicated former Penn State assistant Tom Bradley said Schiano went to him in the early 1990s “white as a ghost and said he just saw Jerry doing something to a boy in the shower.”

Schiano tweeted in 2016 that he never saw abuse or had any reason to suspect it while working at Penn State. He worked for late head coach Joe Paterno from 1990-95, starting as a graduate assistant and then as defensive backs coach.

“Consequently, we, of course, carefully reviewed the 2012 investigation report by Louis Freeh,” Currie said in his statement. “Coach Schiano is not mentioned in the Freeh report and was not one of the more than 400 people interviewed in the investigation. We also confirmed that Coach Schiano was never deposed and never asked to testify in any criminal or civil matter. And, we conferred with our colleagues at The Ohio State University, who had conducted a similar inquiry after the 2016 release of testimony.”

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said Tennessee had been in contact with Schiano and spoke out on his behalf Sunday during a conference call previewing the Buckeyes’ Big Ten championship game with Wisconsin.

“Greg’s been a close friend for 20-plus years,” Meyer said. “He’s an elite person, elite father, elite husband, and that carries over to how he handles his players. Excellent coach, excellent person.”

That didn’t stop Tennessee fans from voicing their displeasure with Tennessee’s decision to consider Schiano for the Volunteers’ coaching vacancy.

About 100 people gathered on Tennessee’s campus to protest a potential Schiano hire, with many of them holding signs with various messages such as “Schia-NO.”

At a rock on campus where students often paint various messages, the words “Schiano covered up child rape at Penn State,” appeared Sunday.

“The accusations that he knew what was going on at Penn State, whether that’s true or not, we don’t need that kind of drama going on right now,” said Shai Simpson, a Knoxville resident who participated in the protest. “We need something that’s going to bring us back up right now.”

Schiano posted a 68-67 record from 2001-11 as the head coach at Rutgers, where he turned around what had been one of the nation’s worst programs. He also went 11-21 as coach of the Buccaneers from 2012-13.

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick expressed his support for Schiano on Sunday after the Patriots’ victory over the Miami Dolphins. Belichick’s son Stephen played for Schiano at Rutgers.

Belichick called Schiano “one of the very best coaches, I think, in our profession.” Belichick cited the loyalty that NFL players from Rutgers have toward their alma mater.

“I think the relationship that he has with his kids, with his players, and how well prepared his players are (when they) come into this league is exceptional,” Belichick said.

Tennessee (4-8, 0-8 SEC) fired coach Butch Jones two weeks ago and ended its season Saturday with a 42-24 loss to Vanderbilt. This year marked the first time Tennessee lost as many as eight games in a single season and the first time the Vols had ever finished winless in SEC play.

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