Why did Josh Heupel want to become the Tennessee football coach? To 'chase championships'
Danny White changed jobs. He kept his football coach.
Tennessee on Wednesday announced Josh Heupel as its new coach. Heupel, 42, was 28-8 the past three seasons at Central Florida, which was his first head coaching opportunity.
White had been UCF’s athletics director from 2015 until taking the job at Tennessee last week. He previously hired Heupel to replace Scott Frost at UCF in December 2017.
“I just kind of realized that the best option was the guy that I’ve been working with for the last three years,” White said of Heupel's hiring.
Heupel promises to bring an exciting brand of offense to Tennessee. UCF ranked in the top eight nationally in scoring offense in each of his three seasons.
“We’re going to play with tempo here,” Heupel said. “We’re going to be the aggressor.”
White dubbed Heupel “one of the most innovative minds in all of college football.”
“I don’t know how we could deliver offense more than we just did (with this hire)," White said. "We’re going to move the ball and score some points.”
A former Oklahoma quarterback who helped the Sooners win the BCS national championship during the 2000 season, Heupel coached on Bob Stoops’ OU staff from 2006-14. He was Missouri’s offensive coordinator in 2016-17, and the Tigers paced the SEC in scoring in his second season.
Heupel replaced Jeremy Pruitt, fired for cause last week amid an ongoing investigation into recruiting malfeasance that Tennessee expects will result in several major NCAA violations.
Tennessee also swapped athletics directors, hiring White to replace Phillip Fulmer, who is retiring after more than three years on the job.
Heupel steps into a difficult situation. Tennessee players have been streaming toward the NCAA transfer portal, thinning an already insufficient roster. Because of the ongoing investigation, the possibility of self-imposed or NCAA penalties looms.
"The reason that I’m standing here today is because I believe in a very, very, very bright future for Tennessee football,” Heupel said. “I believe that there’s a minor speed bump that we’re going through, but the kids that are in our program right now and the kids that are being recruited are all going to have an opportunity to go play and chase championships.”
Heupel received a six-year deal worth $4 million annually. His buyout for leaving UCF is about $3.5 million.
White said he interviewed coordinators and head coaches, both veterans and up-and-comers, for Tennessee’s vacancy. He didn’t turn to Heupel until toward the conclusion of the search.
White embarked on “an exhaustive nationwide search,” he said, which he admitted “sounds crazy,” because he hired the coach who had been under his nose all along.
“I didn’t have a top candidate at the beginning of the search,” White said. “… I don’t start a coaching search with a specific end game in mind. I don’t think that’s smart."
Heupel's first season at UCF was his best. He went 12-1 after replacing Frost, following Frost's 13-0 campaign. Frost departed for Nebraska.
UCF's lone loss during Heupel's inaugural season was a 40-32 defeat to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl. The Knights finished 10-3 in 2019 and went 6-4 this season.
BYU trounced UCF, 49-23, in the Boca Raton Bowl to cap this season. The Knights' other seven losses during the Heupel era each came by eight points or fewer, including a 36-33 loss in November to Cincinnati, which won the American Athletic Conference and finished 9-1.
While UCF's offense remained prolific under Heupel, it plummeted on defense in 2020, ranking 123rd nationally in total defense and 92nd in scoring defense.
Heupel's salary at UCF was $2.3 million after a contract extension and a raise during the 2018 season that took his contract's expiration to Jan. 15, 2024.
Heupel has a proven track record of developing quarterbacks, a position that has been a wart for Tennessee since Joshua Dobbs’ final season in 2016.
UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel threw for 3,570 yards and 32 touchdowns and four interceptions in 2020. He led the nation in passing yards per game.
At Missouri, quarterback Drew Lock flourished in Heupel’s up-tempo system that relied heavily on run-pass option plays. Lock is now in the NFL.
The Tigers averaged 37.5 points in 2017, tops in the SEC. Heupel was Missouri's offensive coordinator during the final game of Butch Jones' coaching career at Tennessee. The Tigers trounced the Vols 50-17 on Nov. 11, 2017, and Jones was fired the following day.
Heupel helped tutor Heisman winner Jason White while Heupel was an Oklahoma graduate assistant in 2003, and he was Sam Bradford’s quarterback coach when Bradford won the award in 2008.
Heupel, a Aberdeen, South Dakota, native, was a two-year starter at Oklahoma. He finished as the Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2000 behind Chris Weinke, who is UT's quarterbacks coach. The Sooners capped that season by beating Florida State 13-2 in the national championship.
Heupel began his college career at Weber State before transferring for a season at Snow College. Both schools are in Utah.
After two seasons as a graduate assistant for Bob Stoops, Heupel earned his first on-field assistant job in 2005 as Arizona's tight ends coach.
Stoops brought him back on staff as a quarterbacks coach the following year, and he was promoted to co-offensive coordinator in 2011 alongside Jay Norvell, who is now Nevada's coach. Stoops tapped Heupel to call plays in that arrangement. Heupel and Norvell spent four seasons in that two-headed role before Stoops fired them.
Heupel became Utah State's offensive coordinator for a season before heading to Missouri.
Heupel's latest challenge will be his stiffest: Rebuilding Tennessee's program amid the threat of NCAA penalties.
“I’m excited about what we’re embarking on," he said.
Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake's subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.