Freshly hired Tennessee athletic director Danny White is turning to a familiar face as UCF coach Josh Heupel has been named the Volunteers’ next coach. Heupel, 42, led the Knights to a 28-8 record in three seasons after White hired him to replace Scott Frost; White has now hired him again, this time to replace Jeremy Pruitt.
A press conference to introduce Heupel is expected around noon ET.
“We looked at a number of potential candidates,” White said. “Josh Heupel, who I had the privilege of working with for three years, 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.”
The move comes after Tennessee fired Pruitt for cause on Jan. 18 amid an internal investigation into alleged recruiting violations. That investigation coincided with the bottoming out of the Vols’ on-field performance under Pruitt. Tennessee lost seven of its last eight games to finish the 2020 season with a 3-7 record. In total, Pruitt finished his three-year tenure with a 16-19 (10-16 SEC) mark after replacing Butch Jones following the 2017 season.
Tennessee’s last 10-win season came with Phillip Fulmer as coach in 2007, which was the last year the Vols won the SEC East.
Heupel will be the school’s sixth coach since that season. He inherits a program that has gone 78-82 in the 13 years since. Fulmer spent the past three seasons as athletic director until announcing his retirement last week. The university quickly tabbed White as Fulmer’s replacement, and the former UCF athletic director wasted little time in hiring a football coach.
“I am thrilled to be coming to Tennessee,” Heupel said. “I understand that Volunteer fans are hungry for a return to the top that they so richly deserve, and it is my goal and commitment to bring a championship back to Rocky Top.”
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Penn State coach James Franklin, Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck, Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott and SMU coach Sonny Dykes were among the other rumored candidates for the job before the search settled on Heupel.
The former Oklahoma star quarterback spent 2006-14 on the Sooners’ staff under Bob Stoops. After a brief stint at Utah State, Heupel spent the 2016 and 2017 seasons in the SEC as Missouri’s offensive coordinator under Barry Odom, helping to develop quarterback Drew Lock into a First Team All-SEC performer in 2017. Missouri improved from 124th in total offense in 2015 to 13th in 2016 after Heupel’s arrival. The Tigers’ offense took another step forward to sixth nationally in total offense during Heupel’s second season at Missouri when Lock led the nation in touchdown passes with 44.
White then hired Heupel at UCF to replace Frost, who was leaving for Nebraska after leading the Knights to a 13-0 season in 2017. UCF finished fifth nationally in total offense in 2018, second in 2019 and second in 2020, according to the NCAA; however, the Knights were undone this past season by lackluster defense. UCF finished 123rd of 127 teams nationally by allowing 491.8 yards per game during a 6-4 campaign with Randy Shannon as defensive coordinator.
Heupel faces a steep challenge from the jump as the Vols stare down the barrel of potential NCAA sanctions stemming from the alleged violations during the Pruitt era. Additionally, Tennessee’s leading rusher Erik Gray and leading tackler Henry To’o To’o have entered the transfer portal; they are among several players who have either already transferred or indicated their intentions to transfer by entering the portal.
Alabama, Florida and Georgia are annual staples on the Vols’ schedule. The program now must also contend with a Kentucky program that has found steady success under Mark Stoops and a Missouri team that showed promise in 2020 under first-year coach Elijah Drinkwitz. But the Vols aren’t the only program in the SEC East rebooting in 2021 as Vanderbilt’s Clark Lea and South Carolina’s Shane Beamer are also entering the division as first-time head coaches.