What Tim Tebow Can Learn From Conan O'Brien

Five lessons in how to handle a very public demotion

AP Images/Reuters

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.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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