Josh Heupel and The Embrace

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We all want to win. And we’d like to win as fast as possible, please.

The most important word in that sentence is win. You don’t do that, nothing else will matter. But I do believe the healthiest word in that sentence is possible.

The depths of last Monday’s press conference and the looming shadow of violations made the whiplash all the more attractive when Tennessee hired Danny White. This is a great hire! Maybe he’ll get us out of this fast!

And it seems like the Vols gave that a real go. James Franklin is one of the best coaches in the country, and Tennessee seems to have made a run at him. He said no. I get how being associated, even loosely, with someone like Franklin can also raise expectations.

But the reality of who Tennessee is right now – the reality of what is possible at the moment – meant the Vols were always most likely to hire from a less proven tier.

Tennessee’s situation still feels most like exile. And not because they hired Josh Heupel today, but because of everything that led up to today, which is now everything Heupel and White (Josh and Danny?) will take responsibility for moving forward.

Patience was the best play last Monday, it swiftly faced temptation during this coaching search, and patience remains the best play today. Do not believe the prophets when they tell you this could’ve all been over soon. You do what you want, but I wouldn’t recommend spending any more energy on Lane Kiffin, other than wanting to beat him by a million when we play Ole Miss in the fall.

Heupel is what was possible, and perhaps the best of what was possible. Maybe if we don’t hire UCF’s AD, we don’t get a coach with as good a resume as his. The fact that White trusted him to work together again is good news to me. Either way, patience is still the best way out of exile. But this way, we might have a little more fun along the way.

In our candidates piece using SP+ to show progress over their predecessors, we noted that if Heupel was the pick, we’d talk a lot about how his 2018 and 2019 teams rated higher in SP+ than Scott Frost’s undefeated 2017 team:

Scott Frost & Josh Heupel, UCF

CoachYearRecordSP+Avg SP+
201713-014.16 (+5.2)
20206-410.915.5 (+9.5)

The 2017 team went 4-0 in one possession games. The 2018 team went 1-1 – best way to win close games is not to play them – with the lone loss to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl after McKenzie Milton got hurt. The 2019 team went 1-3. But play for play, UCF improved from 2017 to 2018 to 2019.

And offensively:

TeamYearOffensive SP+

Tennessee’s previous hires, you’ll remember, came to us as:

  • Defensive coordinator, Alabama
  • 23-14 at Cincinnati, 27-13 Central Michigan
  • 17-20 at Louisiana Tech
  • Fired after going 5-15 with the Raiders; Offensive coordinator, USC
  • Offensive coordinator, Tennessee

If you’d like to debate the resumes of Butch Jones vs Josh Heupel, we can. In the above SP+ piece, we noted how Jones was a proven winner but didn’t improve what he inherited. It’s impossible, of course, to improve on the number of losses Heupel inherited from Scott Frost’s final year. But in SP+, he succeeded. I’ve never met him, but I wonder if there’s a part of anyone who might’ve followed Frost after 2017 that might want to make their own name in a different situation, to prove themselves outside of that shadow. If so, the desire to prove yourself is a good fit at a program looking to do the same.

You can make a respectable argument that Josh Heupel is the most proven collegiate head coach the Vols have hired since Johnny Majors. Heupel wouldn’t have been the only candidate to check that box, and being better than everything since Phillip Fulmer isn’t the ultimate goal. But at a time when this job might be harder than ever, it is where you start. It’s what is possible today.

Words matter. Danny White is right about that. What we say, what we tweet, what we put out there…it all matters. I don’t know if Josh Heupel will win at Tennessee or not. But even and especially in exile, seek the welfare of the city.

We can do that honestly. When Jeremy Pruitt was hired, we appreciated the eye towards the ceiling and said, “In the short-term, Pruitt is as good as Tennessee and Fulmer had any right to do after this crazy set of days.” When Butch Jones was hired, we noted how he was the lowest vote getter on our fan poll but thought fans would embrace him given time (and initially, he recruited his way into a big ol’ hug by March). When Derek Dooley was hired, I wrote about basketball.

But in each case, and now this one, I still believe the way we communicate matters. The healthiest way to do that for Tennessee is to embrace the reality of our situation, what was possible in this hire today, and what this hire might make possible from here.

For now, patience. Let’s see where it goes. And whatever it’s worth, even at the end of all these years of coaching searches, I find myself excited about those possibilities.

Go Vols.

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2 months ago

Will, well said… nicely balanced article with supporting facts. I can stomach only so much of the emotional rage and “expert” opinion on Vol Nation. You and Joel do a great job on this site! Go Vols!

Don Clifton
Don Clifton
2 months ago
Reply to  Harley

LOL Harley IKR, that place will give you a headache

Isaac Bishop
Isaac Bishop
2 months ago

Well Heupel did own Kiffin when both coaches were at UCF and FAU respectively. Unfortunately, Heupel will have to work with a seriously depleted roster and possible sanctions this year so we can’t expect too much.

However, when Heupel beats down Kiffin twice in row which leads to Kiffin taking UCF’s OC Lebby with him to Ole Miss it makes you wonder if Heupel’s offense is a bit underestimated.

Don Clifton
Don Clifton
2 months ago

Great article Will, totally agree and I think this is going to be a fun team to watch. He just needs the right D coordinator

2 months ago

Great article Will. Enjoyed the conversation with Joel too. I really believe Heupel is as good as it gets right now, which could be a good thing. I am a little alarmed that his assistants are not in place yet and concerned that we have not named a DC. Hoping for a hail mary with Steele and I will feel much better about 2021-22.

Last edited 2 months ago by Matt