The search firm, with strict limitations, searched the field of prospective football coaches for Tennessee. It sent up trial balloons. A surprising number were shot down.
Big names were simply not interested.
“Why would I go there?”
University President Randy Boyd and Chancellor Donde Plowman had created qualification requirements. They didn’t really want another coordinator hoping for on-the-job training. The next coach needed head-coaching experience. Integrity had to be his middle name. Only acceptable reputation would be clean as a proverbial hound’s tooth. A winning record would be helpful. Money was no object.
Tennessee spent millions to bring in new athletics director Danny White, very highly regarded, to solve this little problem. His mandate is to restore respectability. And some degree of greatness.
Danny brought his own short list of possibilities. Near-perfection is scarce in college coaching. Hugh Freeze and Lane Kiffin are exciting and might have paid their own way to Knoxville and would have been big headline hires – but they are nowhere near perfection as people.
White looked and looked for the right man. When he didn’t find what he was looking for, he circled back to where he came from, to the University of Central Florida in downtown Orlando, and hired the coach he hired three years ago.
“Oh my,” said one of my favorite readers, chair of the sounding board.
Josh Heupel is not exactly a household name. Nick Saban most likely assigned an aide to do research. How do you spell it?
White said he looked at a number of potential candidates.
“Josh is everything we were looking for: winning with integrity, a history of championships and the architect of explosive offenses. He is a players’ coach and the kind of person the student-athletes go the extra mile for. I saw that first-hand, and you can see it in his coaching record.”
Heupel, 42, has a 28-8 record. His first year was 12-1 when he had more Knights left over from previous coach Scott Frost’s perfect season. His second season was 10-3. Last season was 6-4.
Heupel’s specialty is offense. He was quarterback of Oklahoma’s 2000 national championship team. He was runner-up to Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke for the Heisman Trophy.
Count that as one connection to Tennessee. For now, Weinke is coach of Vol quarterbacks. Count that as Josh’s best connection to Peyton Manning, also a runner-up for a Heisman.
There is another Heisman tie. Josh coached at Oklahoma for eight seasons. He was Sam Bradford’s quarterback coach when he won the big prize in 2008.
Bob Stoops eventually fired Heupel and other Sooner assistants. Josh became offensive coordinator at Utah State for a season. He moved on to Missouri as offensive coordinator. The Tigers led the SEC with 37.5 points per game in 2017. He developed quarterback Drew Lock. He deployed an up-tempo attack that featured run-pass option plays.
He helped finish off Butch Jones. Missouri walloped the Vols, 50-17. Butch was dismissed the next day.
White said Heupel was “one of the brightest offensive minds in college football” when he brought the coach to Central Florida. It appears he still has the touch. His sophomore quarterback, Dillon Gabriel, threw for 3,570 yards and 32 touchdowns against four interceptions in the season just past. Dillon led the nation in passing yards per game.
We are almost certain Heupel is not a defensive coach. Central Florida finished 123rd in total defense.
We don’t know who is doing whom the larger favor. Heupel gets a big jump in pay and his chance on a lower rung of the big-time ladder. He faces a tough challenge. The Tennessee roster has eroded. NCAA sanctions are out there somewhere.
White has at least a temporary answer to his prayers. If Josh succeeds, bingo. If he doesn’t, we’ll have another coaching search in three years. White’s contract appears endless.
Heupel will find SEC recruiting a new experience, a jungle overpopulated with tigers, bulldogs, wildcats and the dreaded Crimson Tide. Unlike some, he must follow all the rules – carefully.
Josh will have no home-court recruiting advantage. He’s from Aberdeen, South Dakota. Before Oklahoma, he went to school at Weber State and Snow College in Utah.
He will have some job security. He knows his boss.
He had a good contract at Central Florida, guaranteed through mid-January 2024. His salary was $2.3 million. Tennessee must pay $3.5 million in buyout penalty to get him. It owes Central Florida $2.5 million for taking away White.
We hear Central Florida is enjoying doing business with Tennessee.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org.