How Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel plans to keep the buzz building

Josh Heupel’s first year at Tennessee produced a 7-6 record against a rugged schedule that featured five of the top 22 teams in the College Football Playoff committee’s final rankings — just the second winning season in the past five years for the Volunteers — and came amid the shadow of an NCAA investigation stemming from recruiting issues under former coach Jeremy Pruitt that remains open.

Heupel, who came to Knoxville after three years as head coach at UCF, shared the Football Writers Association of America’s Steve Spurrier First-Year Coach Award last season with South Carolina’s Shane Beamer. Along the way, Tennessee broke a number of school records offensively and reignited a fan base that had been desperately hanging on for much of the past decade.

Heupel knows that even more will be expected in Year 2 on Rocky Top. He expects more as well, which is why his office and the recruiting road have become second homes. It’s also why he’s just now taking his first real vacation with his family since being named the Vols’ coach on Jan. 27, 2021.

“It was overdue, especially for my family,” Heupel said. “We’d been to the Smoky Mountains for 48 hours or so, but this time we’re going to get away.”

Before getting out of town, Heupel sat down with ESPN to discuss a variety of topics, including the challenges of restoring the Vols to national relevance, what he learned in Year 1, what Hendon Hooker’s return at quarterback means to the Tennessee offense and the importance of maintaining momentum on the recruiting trail.

Not a lot of people in the SEC knew what to expect from you or the team last season. But now they do. How equipped is this team to handle the different expectations this season?

 

Heupel: I think one of the great things about us a year ago, and a big part of the reason players bought in, is that we never put a ceiling on what we could or couldn’t do. There are no excuses, last year or this year. We’re at Tennessee. The guys that came here to play and the guys that came here to coach came to win and came to win championships.

Our football team is one that expects to win. They do that because of the way that they’ve worked up until this point. There’s still a lot of work left to be done. But from our support staff to our players to our coaches, we’re confident that we’ve done what it takes to take another step. Now, you’ve got to go out and earn it every Saturday, but we’re excited to go do that.

Former Tennessee athletic director Doug Dickey used to say that the coach at Tennessee will always be measured by how he fares against Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Going back to the start of the 2008 season (coach Phillip Fulmer’s final season), Tennessee is just 4-38 against those three rivals. How close or how much closer do you think you are to beating those teams, and what’s it going to take to close that gap?

 

Heupel: We’re in a race to get there, to become our best as fast as we can. Inherently, those three programs are big, big measuring sticks for us. But every game is. A year ago, our margins for error were really, really small. We’re going to continue to recruit, continue to develop and increase those margins, and find a way to come out on the right side of it. We determine where we’re at in the fall by how we go about our business every single day. I believe in what we’re doing. At the end of the day, this program is going to be built on chasing championships and winning those games, and I believe we’ll get there soon.

Author: Lucy Green