Why I was dead wrong about Tennessee and how Josh Heupel can be just right
I couldn’t have been more wrong about the Tennessee coaching search to replace Jeremy Pruitt. That became reality on Wednesday morning when new AD Danny White announced UCF coach Josh Heupel was making the move from Orlando to Knoxville.
I didn’t just swing and miss. I struck out.
My first cut came last week was when I went on Jacob Hester’s show “Hangin’ with Hester.” It was roughly 2 hours after Tennessee announced that it hired White from UCF. Hester, within the first couple of minutes, suggested that Heupel would make a lot of sense. He was sitting first-pitch fastball down the pipe. He jumped all over a belt-high heater and knocked it out of the park. I, however, scoffed at the notion that the coach of one of the best 2-3 Group of 5 programs in the sport would agree to clean up the mess in Knoxville.
My second cut came at the end of last week when I wrote that if I were a betting man, I’d put my chips on interim coach Kevin Steele getting the job for 2021. I made the comparison to Ole Miss in the Hugh Freeze fallout, and how it took the path of least resistance by promoting Matt Luke to keep the ship afloat. No coach, I’d argue, would want to take on so many unknowns, especially at a place that’s in a legal battle over not paying an 8-figure buyout to the previous head coach.
My third cut came on Tuesday when I went on “The Paul Finebaum Show” and suggested that aforementioned Steele scenario playing out. Finebaum, like Hester, said there was no way that White was going to do what I predicted. Which was, vet a bunch of candidates, interview them and then decide to just keep the interim coach. If Hester hit the first pitch fastball out of the park, Finebaum shortened up on a full count and went the opposite way for a 2-RBI double down the line.
For me, however, that was strike 3.
I say this all not to point out that I just spent a week getting cold-taked on public airwaves, but to instead give credit to Tennessee. Seriously. There’s no sarcasm there. There’s no McDonald’s joke or champions of life reference coming from me today.
In a week, Tennessee went out and poached a respected athletic director and hired a proven offensive mind who not only put up big numbers in the AAC but also did so in the SEC as Mizzou’s offensive coordinator for Drew Lock’s record-breaking 2017 season. No, Heupel didn’t have an undefeated season at UCF like his predecessor, Scott Frost. He did, however, go 28-8 with 3 consecutive top-8 offenses. Two of those were without McKenzie Milton, who had cemented himself as the program’s best quarterback ever (don’t forget that group also includes the legend Blake Bortles).
Heupel is more proven than anything I thought Tennessee could get amidst what’s been a brutal month and a half in Knoxville. I assumed the only way the Vols would land a top-tier Group of 5 coach — or any coach — would be by overpaying them like Michigan State did with Mel Tucker last year.
Nope. Heupel is reportedly set to make in the neighborhood of $4 million annually, according to Yahoo’s Pete Thamel. That’s not an overpay. That’s essentially what Pruitt made in 2020. Pruitt ranked No. 11 of 14 SEC coaches in annual salary. For once, it actually feels like Tennessee made a smart financial move.
Having said all of that, there’s no guarantee that Heupel is the guy who will get Tennessee on the level of Florida and Georgia. There’s a history of AAC coaches striking out in making the jump to a Power 5 program, especially Heupel’s UCF predecessor, Frost:
Recent history of head coaches making the jump from AAC to P5 pic.twitter.com/iZEQXVhuzj
— Max Olson (@max_olson) January 27, 2021
Yikes. That’s not great. There are plenty of Tennessee fans who will also point out that it didn’t work the last time the Vols went the Group of 5 route with a certain Butch Jones. Heupel’s ceiling might not be much higher than Jones, who at least had consecutive top-25 seasons. Nobody else has done that in the post-Phillip Fulmer era at Tennessee.
There’s still a good chance that Tennessee struggles in a major way in 2021. After having dozens of players enter the transfer portal from a 3-7 team that lost 6 consecutive games by double digits, Heupel’s arrival doesn’t automatically flip the script. Could he bring over some players from UCF to instantly make Tennessee more interesting? Absolutely. Lord knows Vols fans would love to see UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel follow in the footsteps of his head coach and athletic director.
What Tennessee just pulled off could yield rewards beyond being a step above an SEC doormat in 2021. At its best, the White/Heupel combination will yield stability. More than anything, that’s what Tennessee needs.
It didn’t necessarily need to go out and hire someone with deep Tennessee roots. It didn’t need to catch lightning in a bottle. It didn’t even need a head coach with Power 5 head coaching experience, which the Vols hadn’t hired since 1977.
(I was right by saying that it made zero sense for P.J. Fleck to leave Minnesota for Tennessee. Instead of calling that a whiff, let’s say I fouled that one off on an 0-2 count.)
It needed a coach who has a clue what it’s doing, and who has proven success handling a quarterback room. Not including the recently hired Clark Lea, there are 4 defensive-minded head coaches returning in the SEC (Ed Orgeron, Kirby Smart, Nick Saban and Mark Stoops). What do all of them have in common? They all went through massive offensive transformations in recent memory (Stoops just overhauled his offense this offseason with Liam Coen).
Tennessee, in order to win in this era, needed a massive transformation on that side of the ball. Heupel, with his style and track record, at least makes that a possibility.
There are a bunch of things that’ll determine whether Heupel succeeds in Knoxville. There are personnel decisions, player development, getting along with the people who cut the checks, etc. He might have a proven defensive mind like Steele on board now, but who knows how long he’ll want to stick around. Heupel’s defensive struggles at UCF prevented the Knights from repeating that 2017 level of success. He has to make better decisions on that side of the ball, especially in a league that’s suddenly all about offense.
Tennessee fans saying there’s no chance Heupel will succeed are wrong, as are the ones saying he’s destined to bring national titles to Rocky Top.
We don’t know any of that yet. What we do know is that while Tennessee might’ve whiffed on a few candidates like Fleck, Clemson’s Tony Elliott, Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, Penn State’s James Franklin and SMU’s Sonny Dykes, it connected with Heupel.
All it takes is one. Tennessee made Heupel that one.
Splashy? Maybe not. A home run? Time will tell.
Unlike me, at least Tennessee put the ball in play.