What Tim Tebow Can Learn From Conan O'Brien

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Five lessons in how to handle a very public demotion

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A young, unconventional performer with an impassioned fan base finally gets his shot at the big time, a role he's wanted his whole life. A few months into his new job, he's doing well, but not as well as his bosses want. They decide to take the job away from him and give it to an older, more seasoned performer.

This story could belong to 24-year-old Tim Tebow, the Denver Broncos quarterback who was yanked from the bench a few games into last season and ended up leading his team to the playoffs—only to find himself likely demoted to second-string after the Broncos sign 35-year-old Super Bowl champion Peyton Manning. But these same circumstances also sound a lot like what Conan O'Brien went through two years ago. O'Brien was named host of The Tonight Show in 2009, but by early 2010 NBC decided to give the job back to aging legend Jay Leno, pushing Conan into the early-morning hours he'd been occupying before.

Tebow and O'Brien are different types of performers, of course. One's an athlete and the other is a comedian. And they appeal to different demographics: Tebow to earnest evangelicals, O'Brien to quirk-obsessed hipsters. But Tebow could still learn a lot from how O'Brien handled his very public demotion. Here, a few lessons for Tebow from O'Brien:

Engage with Twitter

Within hours of the announcement that NBC was favoring Leno over O'Brien, Twitter split into two camps: #teamconan and #teamleno. And almost as quickly, it was completely clear which team was winning: the scrappy, indignant members of #teamconan. O'Brien didn't join Twitter for another month or so, but when he did, he rallied his fan base with self-deprecating tweets that poked fun at his predicament, such as, "Today I interviewed a squirrel in my backyard and then threw to commercial. Somebody help me."

It looks like Tebow is already gaining a similar group of supporters on Twitter. The hashtags #FreeTebow and #TradeTebow have been trending for hours, an indication of his fans' desire for Denver to release him so he can play first-string somewhere else. Tebow himself has remained quiet so far—his last tweet is from March 6th, dispelling rumors that he is going to be on The Bachelor.

Tap into public sympathy ...

O'Brien knew how to tug his fan's heartstrings. When it became clear that he'd lost the Tonight job, he wrote a poignant letter to his fans explaining why he didn't want to give up his spot to Leno: "I cannot express in words how much I enjoy hosting this program and what an enormous personal disappointment it is for me to consider losing it ... But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction." Of course, the note closed with a bit of humor: "I am truly sorry about my hair; it's always been that way." The letter caused #teamconan's ranks to swell.

Expect Tebow's eventual statement to be similarly heartfelt—though probably minus the joke at the end. A quote from an interview with the Denver Post last December offers a glimpse at the tenor of the remarks he'll probably make: "[U]ltimately I don't know what the future holds, but I know who holds my future and that's something that gives me a lot of peace." Conan took the opportunity to remind fans that he's not self-conscious about his hair; Tebow will undoubtedly see his return to the spotlight as a chance to talk about his faith. Either way, both approaches highlight each performer's personality, thus endearing fans to them.

...but don't milk it too hard

Fans' good will toward O'Brien only lasted so long. Four months after leaving NBC, O'Brien was still complaining about how the network treated him (despite the fact that he walked away with a $32 million severance package) in a 60 Minutes interview. People were sick of his pity-me-cause-I-got-fired shtick by this point, and the overwhelming response to the interview was that Coco should move on.

It's hard to imagine Tebow succumbing to an extended bout of self-pity. Just look at how he reacted after the Broncos lost to the Patriots during the playoffs this year—he balanced his disappointment at losing with his joy at being able to make a boy with cancer smile:

I can choose to sulk and feel pity after this loss and this disappointment. I can choose to try to go invest in him and try to encourage him and make him smile and be a part of his life. That really changes your perspective as a young man and as an athlete. For me to try to invest in him, he helped me more than I helped him on that night.

Don't take a job with a direct competitor

When Conan returned to TV, he made a smart decision: He signed a deal with TBS, a basic cable station, rather than a network. That meant that the ratings on his new show couldn't fairly be compared to his ratings on Tonight. That way, he was able to define success on his own terms rather than living in the shadow of his old job.

Similarly, if Tebow leaves Denver, he should sign with a team in a different conference with a different set of strengths and weaknesses, so he won't find his performance constantly compared to how he did with the Broncos.

Before going back to work, try something different for a little while

O'Brien didn't immediately go back to TV after leaving NBC (yes, he was contractually prohibited from appearing on TV for several months as part of his severance package, but still). Instead, he launched a nationwide comedy tour, which resulted in several hilarious cover versions of pop songs and a feature-length documentary. The tour was a great way for O'Brien to connect with fans in-person and to experiment with stand-up-style comedy as opposed to the late-night hosting-style comedy he'd gotten used to on TV.

Whatever happens to Tebow as a result of Denver signing Manning—whether he goes back to the bench in Denver or gets "freed" by being traded elsewhere—he should consider doing a high-profile, non-football project for a little bit. Sure, he's got his charity work and could easily draw on the reservoir of good will to bring more attention to the Tebow Foundation. But we all know what the public really wants, no matter how many tweets he sends out denying it: Tebow handing out roses on The Bachelor.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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