To understand Josh Heupel the Tennessee football coach, start in Aberdeen, South Dakota

Blake Toppmeyer
Knoxville News Sentinel

Josh Heupel gave one of his first coaching pep talks when he was 4 years old. His infant sister, Andrea, served as his audience.

Norma Fredrickson had been Heupel’s private sitter growing up in Aberdeen, South Dakota, before Andrea was born. Heupel liked staying with Fredrickson, and he had friends there.

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Fredrickson adored Heupel, but she didn’t know whether she could take on a baby in addition to her crew of five boys. So, once Andrea needed to join her brother at a sitter, the Heupels had to switch.

After trying the new sitter, Cindy Heupel called Fredrickson to ask whether she’d reconsider and take both her children. Fredrickson agreed to give it a go for a week.

The weekend before the trial began, Heupel had a chat with Andrea.

“Andrea, now listen,” Cindy Heupel recalls hearing her son telling his baby sister. “Norma is the best, and you have got to be good. You have got to be good, because we have got to stay with Norma. So, I don’t want to hear you crying. You can’t cry. We’ve got to sleep when it’s naptime. We’ve got to do this, Andrea. I promise I’ll help you, but you’ve got to be good so we can stay at Norma’s.”

Josh Heupel, right, at age 6, with his sister, Andrea, age 2.

Fredrickson delivered the verdict at the end of the week: Everything went great. She continued keeping Heupel and his sister, who would become known as “Princess Andi” around Fredrickson’s place.

“Josh was so happy,” Cindy Heupel recalled.

His coaching had paid off.

Nearly 40 years later, Heupel is coaching on a much bigger stage.

Tennessee hired him as its football coach on Jan. 27 after he compiled a 28-8 record in three seasons as Central Florida’s coach.

Heupel, 42, learned leadership in the example set by his parents: Cindy, a former high school principal; and Ken, a former football coach.

But it’s also fair to say that he’s wired for this. Heupel’s leadership, poise and goal-oriented approach started taking shape throughout his youth in Aberdeen.

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Josh Heupel gravitated to football from an early age

Cindy lifted her 3-year-old son over the fence at the Aberdeen Central High School football field, so he could join his dad at practice. So began Josh Heupel’s life in football.

Ken was Aberdeen Central’s defensive coordinator. He never had to worry about his son's attention waning at practice.

Josh Heupel, center, with his parents Ken and Cindy while he was the coach at Central Florida.

Ken would say something to a huddle of players before turning to hear another Heupel’s voice.

“I’d turn around, and he was there talking to the team, saying something to the team, and then walk away,” Ken said.

Ken remembers his 8-year-old son quizzing him following Aberdeen Central's narrow loss in a state semifinal game after Ken had become head coach.

Here's the headline in the Argus Leader after Ken Heupel's Aberdeen Central team lost 7-0 to O'Gorman in South Dakota's 1986 state semifinals on a night when the temperature was near zero degrees. On the ride home, 8-year-old Josh Heupel quizzed his dad about why Aberdeen Central didn't throw more passes into the flats.

Josh rode in the passenger seat up front — not uncommon for kids in those days — while his dad drove them home.

The seat belt’s shoulder strap went across Heupel’s mouth, but three times he pulled the strap away so he could ask his dad why Aberdeen Central’s offense didn’t attack the defense differently.

Did his dad realize the opponent was playing a Radar defense?

Yes, Ken said.

Did he know the flats are open against a Radar defense?


Then, did he realize they only threw to the flats twice all night?

“My goodness,” Ken remembers thinking.

Heupel grew comfortable speaking with adults at a young age.

After Ken had joined the staff at Division II Northern State in Aberdeen, he recalls his son encouraging players to elevate their performance so that incoming recruits wouldn’t pass them on the depth chart.

Heupel focused on football and basketball in high school, but he played a little bit of everything as a child. Cindy laced his ice skates and took him to outdoor hockey practices while she was pregnant with Andrea. Heupel tried baseball, too, and Andrea became his wrestling practice partner. She wore an old wrestling singlet that her grandmother altered to fit her.

Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel in wrestling gear at age 4.

“He’s my best friend since we were born,” Andrea said.

When Heupel was 4, he asked Santa Claus for a set of football lockers for Christmas. These were the days before Internet shopping, and Cindy knew she’d have her work cut out for her finding such a present. She asked a school custodian, but there was nothing to be had.

She warned her son that you don’t always get what you’d like for Christmas.

“Oh, but Mom, Santa’s elves can make anything. Santa is going to have it, I just know it,” Cindy remembers her son saying, as he looked at her with big brown eyes.

She redoubled her efforts, and shortly before Christmas, a junkyard dealer she had contacted located the prize — a set of three old lockers covered in gunk.

Cindy got them into the basement, cleaned them and painted them purple and gold — the colors of the Minnesota Vikings, Heupel’s favorite NFL team. She fashioned her son’s last name on the middle locker, flanked by the names Kramer and Rashad, for the Vikings’ Tommy Kramer and Ahmad Rashad.

“Santa’s elves had delivered, and I’m just telling you, that kid was ecstatic,” Cindy said. “He had those lockers in his room for forever and a day.”

Josh Heupel poses with the lockers he received for Christmas when he was 4. His mom, Cindy, painted them purple and gold for his favorite NFL team, the Minnesota Vikings. The lockers had Heupel's last name in the middle, flanked by Kramer and Rashad, for the Vikings' Tommy Kramer and Ahmad Rashad.

The lockers have been passed down to Heupel’s son, Jace, although they’re no longer purple and gold.

“They’ve held everything from Jace’s Batman and Spiderman costume when he was little to his football gear and baseball gear that he’s got now,” Heupel said.

The son of a football coach and a high school principal

Josh Heupel made the Tang.

Ken left Aberdeen Central to become Northern State’s defensive coordinator in 1987. Josh was 9. He’d wake up in the morning’s wee hours in the summer so he could ride with his dad to preseason practices.

Northern State in Aberdeen, South Dakota, hired Ken Heupel as defensive coordinator in 1987. He later served seven seasons as the Division II program's head coach.

Players’ breakfasts consisted of doughnuts and Tang, an orange drink mix that Josh prepared.

He helped launder players’ uniforms and changed their screw-in cleats. He was a ball boy on game days.

“I can’t imagine a better childhood, just being a part of those things,” Heupel said.

Even during the football offseason, Heupel was a regular at Northern State’s campus. While his dad worked in his office, Heupel slipped into the gym to shoot hoops.

Ken spent 19 years at Northern State, including seven seasons as a head coach, before retiring in January 2005.

Cindy climbed the school administrator ranks, and she was Aberdeen Central’s principal while her son attended school there.

“He stayed out of trouble,” Andrea said of her brother. “He never was in the principal’s office, so it was never a big deal for him.”

Cindy did, though, sometimes hear stories about her son from fellow staffers that made her proud — like how whenever Heupel was a team captain in P.E. class, he was quick to pick the special education student for his team.

“He’s a person that never leaves anyone out,” Andrea said.

Josh Heupel was a standout basketball player throughout his youth in Aberdeen, South Dakota, along with starring on the football field. He's pictured here at age 8.

That proved true after Heupel’s team won a YMCA basketball championship game while he was in elementary school. Heupel made the winning shot.

Tournament organizers were short a trophy, and a bench-warmer on Heupel’s team wasn’t going to get a trophy — until Heupel walked over and gave his trophy to his teammate.

Heupel, the game’s star player, went home without a trophy.

“I think it’s just who he is,” said Ken, who now lives with Cindy in Edmond, Oklahoma, near Andrea. “He’s going to take care of people.”

How Josh Heupel showed he was ‘geared toward succeeding’

Ken thought his son might play college hoops.

Josh Heupel playing basketball for the Aberdeen Central Golden Eagles in 1994.

A two-sport star at Aberdeen Central, Heupel’s sweet 3-point shot helped the school’s prominent basketball program pile up victories, including a state runner-up finish in his sophomore year.

But Heupel also became Central’s starting quarterback as a sophomore, and he decided to make football his path. Heupel stayed after basketball practices to throw offseason passes to wide receivers inside the gym.

Steve Svendsen, Heupel’s high school football coach, had his players fill out goal sheets before Heupel’s senior year. Heupel wrote down six team goals, 10 individual goals and six steps he planned to take to achieve his goals.

Josh Heupel, quarterback of the Aberdeen Central Golden Eagles, in the fall of 1995.

Heupel credits his mom with teaching him that simply setting goals isn’t enough.

“She always encouraged me to dream big, but also set a plan out of how you’re going to accomplish those things,” he said.

Svendsen still has the goal sheet Heupel turned in. He shows it to players as an example of the foresight and commitment required to achieve aspirations.

“He carried that plan out and actually got things done, and he would rally kids and get them to work out or go throw,” Svendsen said. “He was very geared toward succeeding.”

Josh Heupel earned high praise during his senior season at Aberdeen Central. He led the team to an 8-2 record.

Heupel devoured game film. This was well before the days of high school game film being accessible online. Film meant VHS tapes.

Heupel spent hours at Svendsen’s house during weekends reviewing film of Aberdeen Central’s past game before scouting film of the upcoming opponent.  

“At times, I’d have to tell him, ‘Hey, Josh, you’ve got to go home. I’ve got to see my family every once in a while. … Here’s the film. Take it home and go watch it,’ ” Svendsen said with a laugh.

For Heupel, the preparation was part of the enjoyment.

“I had a football curiosity about coverages and how you scheme it,” he said. “I tried to approach it more like a coach than simply a player, and I did that throughout my playing career.”

Josh Heupel poses with his family after a game coaching Central Florida in 2019 in Orlando.
Back row (L to R): Dawn Heupel, Dan Boren, Andrea Boren, Josh Heupel, Cindy Heupel, Hannah Heupel and Ken Heupel
Front row (L to R): Jace Heupel, Hunter Boren, Janna Boren

Josh Heupel is the pride of Aberdeen

Svendsen tried to warn South Dakota State’s coaching staff that they were making a mistake.

SDSU wanted Heupel to join its program as a walk-on after he threw for 2,471 yards as a senior, when he led Aberdeen Central to the state quarterfinals. 

Not going to happen, Svendsen told them. He’s worth a scholarship.

Svendsen gave the same message to the coaches at Montana.

Houston was among the schools that showed Heupel interest before signing a quarterback higher up on its recruiting board.

“A lot of people were really looking, but no one really wanted to pull the trigger,” said Svendsen, who now coaches at a Texas high school.

Josh Heupel earned all-state selection as a senior in 1995, when he threw for 2,471 yards and led Aberdeen Central to the state quarterfinals and an 8-2 record.

Svendsen was right, though. Heupel deserved more than a walk-on opportunity.

He signed with Weber State, which competes in what was then known as Division I-AA, before transferring to play a season at Snow College. Both programs are in Utah. Then he headed for the big stage at Oklahoma and elevated its slumbering program into renewed national prominence.

Long before Josh Huepel was Tennessee's football coach, he was an Oklahoma quarterback who finished as runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.

Heupel finished as the Heisman Trophy runner-up as a senior in 2000 and led the Sooners to a 13-0 season, including a 13-2 victory over Florida State in the national championship.

When Oklahoma football played in nationally televised games during the 1999 and 2000 seasons, South Dakotans throughout the state tuned in to root for Sooners quarterback No. 14, the pride of Aberdeen.

“When a South Dakota kid is on the national stage, everyone in the state is backing you up,” Svendsen said.

Josh Heupel wasn’t turned off by challenge at Tennessee

Heupel’s sense of calm always impressed Svendsen, but he cautioned there’s more to Heupel than meets the eye.

“Don’t let that demeanor fool you, because behind that, he’s thinking about, ‘How am I going to get you?’ ” Svendsen said.

New Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel is introduced during a basketball game between the Tennessee Volunteers and the Kansas Jayhawks at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee on Saturday, January 30, 2021.

Heupel must show his steady leadership, goal-driven mentality and competitive drive to succeed at Tennessee.

Coaching the Vols comes with outsized expectations and scrutiny.

It’s one of college football’s highest-pressure jobs, especially now.

Heupel inherited a roster devoid of elite talent and thin on depth after a wave of players headed to the NCAA transfer portal before he was hired. And the specter looms of self-imposed or NCAA sanctions because of recruiting malfeasance that occurred under the previous coaching regime.

That’s not cause for Heupel to fret.

“Easy has never been Josh’s word,” Ken said.

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at 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.