If Josh Heupel is going to have success at Tennessee, he'll have to buck a brutal trend
It’s too early to say Josh Heupel is destined to fail at Tennessee. It’s also too early to say he’s destined to succeed.
But it’s not too early to say that a certain trend suggests it’ll be an uphill climb.
Well, I suppose there are a few trends.
The one that made the rounds Wednesday when Heupel was officially announced as the Vols’ new coach was this tweet, which showed how brutal it’s been lately for AAC coaches making the Power 5 jump. Pretty much everyone from Tom Herman to Chad Morris struggled:
Recent history of head coaches making the jump from AAC to P5 pic.twitter.com/iZEQXVhuzj
— Max Olson (@max_olson) January 27, 2021
(Olson cleared up that Matt Rhule actually went 19-20 at Baylor and not 19-29.)
I’d argue Manny Diaz wasn’t really an AAC jump considering he never coached a game at Temple after he held the job for 2 weeks after the 2018 season. It’s true that some of those coaches inherited brutal situations. Rhule certainly falls into that camp. And it’s probably not fair to judge Mike Norvell after 1 year at Florida State.
Whatever the case, that’s brutal. It’s actually not the only trend that Heupel has to buck. At least it’s not the one worth examining.
Think about this — how often have we seen a Group of 5 head coach have long-term success in the SEC?
Of course, Urban Meyer comes to mind. That was also 16 years ago when he left Utah, which was a few years from becoming a Power 5 program.
Here’s the list of every SEC coach who made the jump from Group of 5 head coach to the SEC since 2010 (not including recently hired Group of 5 head coaches like Heupel and Bryan Harsin):
- Gus Malzahn, Auburn
- Chad Morris, Arkansas
- Jim McElwain, Florida
- Eli Drinkwitz, Mizzou
- Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
- Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss
- Derek Dooley, Tennessee
- Butch Jones, Tennessee
- Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
Of those 9 coaches, Sumlin and Malzahn are the only ones who made it to Year 6. Obviously, it’s still too early to judge Drinkwitz or Kiffin, both of whom showed promise in Year 1. And it’s also worth noting that Kiffin has Power 5 and NFL head coaching experience, so he’s not the typical Group of 5-to-Power 5 jumper. Freeze and McElwain are in the same camp because while they had success, they self-sabotaged their way out of a job.
So that would mean since Meyer, the best Group of 5-to-SEC coach would be … Malzahn? Like, the guy who had 7 consecutive seasons with at least 4 losses and who was on the hot seat the last 4-plus years? Oh.
Then again, Tennessee would love to match Malzahn’s success. He beat Nick Saban 3 times during his 8 years at Auburn, which is 3 more wins than Tennessee has against Alabama since 2007. In 2019 alone, Auburn beat more top-10 teams (1) than Tennessee did from 2007-2020.
If Heupel beats a top-10 Alabama team with Saban, they might replace the Rock with a statue in his likeness.
Perhaps it’s not fair to use the SEC as a measuring stick for Group of 5 head coaches making the jump. After all, just 2 of 14 SEC head coaches have been at their current jobs since 2015 (Saban and Mark Stoops). This is the league that had 4 of its 14 head coaches fired after a pandemic season.
Still, even if you go national with this, the not-so-great Group of 5 trend continues. My guy and former SDS colleague Brad Crawford ranked his top 25 coaches in college football heading into 2020. How many of them had been Group of 5 head coaches? Just 6.
That group was Saban (No. 1), Brian Kelly (No. 10), Mario Cristobal (No. 12), Malzahn (No. 13), P.J. Fleck (No. 16) and Scott Satterfield (No. 17). Saban and Cristobal didn’t jump from Group of 5 programs to their current jobs, either. They had multiple jobs in between. That means of those top 25 coaches, only 4 went from Group of 5 head coach to Power 5 head coach. Malzahn was just fired and Satterfield had a bizarre 4-7 season at Louisville that was noteworthy for all the wrong reasons.
In the last decade, Kelly is the best example of a Group of 5 to Power 5 success story. Chris Petersen did it successfully going from Boise State to Washington, and Mark Dantonio elevated Michigan State after he made the jump from Cincinnati in 2007.
The list isn’t long. At least not as long as you’d think.
Does that mean Heupel can’t succeed? No. It just means that if he does, he’ll be a bit of an outlier. At least he would be based on where things stand.
It’s more common to see elite coaches who were promoted. Coaches such as Ryan Day, Lincoln Riley, Dabo Swinney, Jimbo Fisher and Ed Orgeron got in-house promotions that led to their first major taste of success as a head coach. All of them got big-time jobs and went to the Playoff without previous head coaching experience. (Kirby Smart did, too, but he obviously changed schools.) Once upon a time, having head coaching experience was a prerequisite at those places. Go figure that 7 years into this Playoff system, those coaches accounted for exactly half of the 28 berths.
Heupel isn’t going to be judged based on whether he can make Tennessee a Playoff contender. Well, that’s assuming we’re approaching this with realistic expectations for a program without a conference title in the 21st Century. He’s going to be judged on whether he can do what his predecessors couldn’t: become a yearly Top 25 team.
Sumlin had consecutive Top 25 seasons once. So did Freeze. Even McElwain and Jones did that before their 2017 collapses. Malzahn did it twice, but he never put together consecutive top-20 seasons.
Where will Heupel fall in that group? Who knows. He has adjusting to do. There’s recruiting and developing NFL talent at a high level, there’s properly managing top assistants who are making 7 figures and there’s dealing with the ebbs and flows that come with a high-profile Power 5 job.
In order to stick around in this league, a coach has to do all 3 of those things on a yearly basis. Heupel knew that when he left Orlando for Knoxville. Whether he knew the not-so-favorable trends he signed up to buck or not, his new reality remains the same.
An uphill climb awaits on Rocky Top.