Carlson: Tennessee Vols got a good football coach in Josh Heupel, but what did the former Sooner get?
Tennessee has named Josh Heupel as its next football coach.
Good for Tennessee.
Heupel, of course, is the former OU quarterback who led the Sooners to the 2000 national championship, then coached at his alma mater for nearly a decade. He was fired after a disaster of a 2014 season because his offense wasn’t good and his name wasn’t Stoops. Bob Stoops kept brother Mike even though his defense wasn't any good that season either, and the relationship between Heupel and OU have been strained ever since.
But that’s a topic for another day.
Heupel was introduced as the Volunteers coach Wednesday morning. In Heupel, they’ll get a coach who has recruited and developed quarterbacks such as Sam Bradford, Jordan Love and Drew Lock. They’ll get an offensive mastermind who has run an uptempo spread offense the past few years at Central Florida that twice finished in the top six nationally in scoring.
Heupel brings to Tennessee what the Vols have lacked in recent years.
But what of the deal for him?
The good news is, he’s joining a boss who likes him and who you have to think Heupel likes, too. Danny White hired Heupel at UCF three years ago, and when White took the athletic director’s job at Tennessee last week, many thought Heupel would be in the running for the football job.
Sounds like White considered several other coaches, including Penn State coach James Franklin and Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott.
But White ultimately chose Heupel.
The fact the two have worked well together for the past couple of years is no small thing. Heupel saw for years how important a good working relationship was for Stoops, who had such harmony with OU athletic director Joe Castiglione and OU president David Boren. Stoops often referenced those relationships as one of the biggest factors that kept him at OU for 18 seasons.
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Heupel will have a boss who is a known commodity. That’s significant.
So is the chance to lead a Power 5 team. There is a limited number of top-of-the-food-chain programs, and there are even fewer with the tradition and the history and the name brand of Tennessee.
Heupel gets his first Power 5 head coaching job at a program with some serious heft.
But of course, all is not well in Knoxville.
Everyone knows of the Vols’ struggles in recent seasons. They are hiring their fourth head coach since 2010, and they wouldn’t be doing this again if the results had been better.
But the turmoil at Tennessee goes beyond wins and losses.
Jeremy Pruitt was dismissed because Tennessee found serious recruiting violations in the program. They include cash given to recruits in McDonald’s bags. It’s been laughed about in the college football world — “You want fries or 50 dollar bills with that?" — but when the NCAA is done with Tennessee, there could be serious penalties.
"Had a very frank conversation with every person of leadership about what had transpired, what their knowledge is, what they believe is going to transpire as far as any penalty," Heupel said Wednesday during his introductory press conference in Knoxville. "And the reason that I'm standing here today is because I believe in a very, very, very bright future for Tennessee football.
"I believe that there's a minor speed bump that we're going through right now, 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 play and chase championships."
But it's impossible fore anyone to know how deep the punishments might go. Postseason bans? Scholarship reductions? Recruiting restrictions?
There is sure to be some of that, and it will handcuff Heupel.
Or at the very least tie one hand behind his back.
"This is a short-term problem," White insisted during Heupel's presser, adding that he believes Tennessee is being transparent and proactive with the NCAA. "I think we're attacking it head on and above board, and by doing it that way, I think we're going to get through it."
Still, it’s hard under normal circumstances to win in the SEC, but winning when the NCAA has punished your program because the previous regime acted like knuckleheads? That’d be a tall task for even the most legendary coaches who’ve come through Tennessee.
And frankly, you have to wonder if those past glories will only compound issues for Heupel.
Tennessee folks believe they should contend for national championships because they’ve done it before — even though they haven’t for the better part of two decades. They keep hiring and firing head coaches, and yet, they keep talking about how great a program they have.
Frankly, the Vol faithful is among the most delusional in college football.
A year ago, they were talking about winning a national title in 2020. They didn’t even need two hands to count their wins.
Asked for his message to Vols fans as some real-time negativity over Heupel's hiring swirled on social media, White said, "Some of you are awesome. Some of you are failing right now. Why would we be negative? The future of this place is unbelievably exciting and positive.
"I see nothing but great days ahead."
Maybe that's completely and totally true, but for Heupel's sake, you have to hope White has been straight with him. If this next few years are going to be difficult, admit it. If the wins are going to be hard to come by, pledge to stick with the coaching staff.
I’m happy Heupel has gotten the chance to be a Power 5 head coach. He has charted an unbelievable course to reach this point, from small-town South Dakota to junior-college football to a national title, from up-and-coming assistant to cast-off coordinator to a rebuilt coaching career that has led him to be the head coach at Tennessee.
Things are often rocky on Rocky Top, though.
And the worst may be yet to come.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.