How the heck did Josh Heupel, 44, get where he is as a football coach?
So, where is he, you ask? Best offense in the country, one awful evening from the national playoffs, 10 wins with a chance for 11.
Hired twice by the same athletics director, boosted to $5 million in base pay per year, fully guaranteed through 2024, with a bowl bonus and other add-ons to come.
Encouraging outlook, No. 2 prep quarterback in the country, signed and practicing with the current team in preparation for future seasons.
Strange and interesting path from there (Aberdeen, South Dakota) to here (Knoxville) with a week in Miami for the Orange Bowl. Up, up and away with one career setback.
Josh is a son of an obscure college coach, surprisingly successful as a player, quarterback of the 2000 national champion Oklahoma Sooners, consensus all-American, runner-up for the Heisman, fast track as an assistant coach, fired for no good reason … quick on the rebound.
Fear of the future, step by step to Tennessee? Afraid? Are you kidding me?
“I’m pretty confident in who I am and how we approach things,” Heupel said. “I’m pretty comfortable in my own skin. Go compete every single day. ‘What’s next, man?’”
Heupel has a very good NIL support system. Prep prospects and portal people who needed a map to find Tennessee now have a different perspective. Far more know about Josh’s accomplishments than care about why Oklahoma tossed him out.
What he has done in six years is a testament to the work he did before and the work he’s done since that traumatic crossroad. We now know tempo works. Relevant was that one athletics director, Danny White, and his attention to details and his blessed family connections.
Dr. Danny, as Central Florida AD, needed a coach to replace Scott Frost after his perfect 2017 season. Offense was the first requirement.
“We had this Ferrari and we needed a new driver,” Danny said.
Danny’s brother, Brian, was No. 2 in Missouri athletics. He said the Tigers’ offensive coordinator, Heupel, was ready to move up.
A former Missouri offensive lineman, Jonah Dubinski, said amen.
“You can’t imagine Coach Heupel having anything but success.”
Dubinski offered this insight.
“Coach gave each of his players wooden blocks with a message on them that set the tone for what he would expect for his fast-paced offense.”
The blocks read, “You’ve got all it takes, but it’ll take all you’ve got.”
Dr. Danny confirmed those endorsements, investigated the Oklahoma termination (knee-jerk reaction to a loss to Clemson), hired Heupel and was rewarded with 12 victories. Happiness is being right.
Meanwhile, a smoky little campfire was getting ready to erupt into a volcano at Tennessee.
Meanwhile 2, Dr. Kevin White, father of Brian and Danny, had moved from Notre Dame to Duke as AD. David Cutcliffe was football coach of the Blue Devils.
Tennessee needed help. Cutcliffe loves Tennessee. He asked Kevin White for ideas on how he might help the Volunteers. White Senior thought son Danny might be a fit. Money made it happen. Dr. Danny looked almost everywhere and couldn’t find a coach better than the one he had at Central Florida and was brave enough to accept the challenge.
Danny faced the basic question: Can Heupel win in the big league, at Tennessee?
“I knew he could,” White said.
Josh Heupel was not the least bit terrified by the NCAA penalty hanging over the Volunteers’ head. His contract provided a cushion. Josh was disappointed in the number of players who fled without giving him a chance.
Henry, Eric, Quavaris – you know who I am talking about.
The new coach appreciated those who stayed. He learned to especially appreciate Hendon Hooker. What a difference he made.
Heupel’s first edition of Volunteers exceeded expectations. This new group stopped Florida and Alabama domination, knocked off Kentucky, reached 8-0, was best in the country for a few minutes, lost to Georgia and mauled Missouri.
What happened at South Carolina remains inexplicable. What happened at Vanderbilt is best summarized by 56-0.
What else has happened? Recruiting was favorable.
Will Clemson be too tough? Maybe. Some of Tennessee’s top talent has more important business and will skip the game.
Tennessee has Heupel. He is sharp. His record is 45-16. Luck doesn’t get that good.
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected]