Josh Heupel could be the anti-Pruitt for Tennessee Vols. That's a good thing | Adams

John Adams
Knoxville News Sentinel

Tennessee fans might be more excited about their new football coach if he had been hired as a package deal with new athletics director Danny White a week earlier.

Imagine if White had announced at his introductory news conference that he didn't make a list of coaching candidates for the job he was hired to fill. Or that he wouldn't need a search firm.

He simply would hire the same coach he hired at Central Florida three years earlier. How easy would that have been?

But White didn't arrive in Knoxville with UCF coach Josh Heupel in tow. He began a search that reminded UT fans of previous coaching searches.

They can't be sure how many coaches White had in front of Heupel entering the search. But maybe, Heupel will be the right choice.

Fans hoped as much for Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Butch Jones and Jeremy Pruitt — all of whom tried and failed to revive a football program that has had eight losing seasons in 13 years and hasn't lost fewer than four games since 2004.

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Heupel will have a bigger challenge than any of them. He will be taking over a losing program that could be headed for NCAA probation, after UT's internal investigation revealed serious recruiting violations. He also will be assuming command of a program that seemingly gets worse with each hire.

Perhaps, Heupel can change that.  He won 28 of 36 games in three seasons at UCF after succeeding Scott Frost, who made the Knights one of the top non-Power 5 conference programs in the country.

UCF kept winning while fielding one of the nation's most dynamic offenses under Heupel, a former offensive coordinator at Oklahoma and Missouri. His offensive success contrasts sharply with what has been going on at UT. Too often, Tennessee's offense couldn't get out of its own way under Pruitt.

Josh Heupel is accompanied by his son Jace as they arrive in Knoxville on Wednesday, January 27, 2021.

Football coaches are sometimes hired, in part, based on the weaknesses of the previous coach. There are plenty of examples, but I’ll just pick one to make my case.

Jones wore you out with catchphrases. He talked about a “fistfight in a phone booth,” “63 strain” (three great efforts in a six-second play, snap and clear, brick-by-brick and leaders eat last – to name a few).

He also told us “Tennessee quarterback is a global position.”

After five years, it was apparent you couldn’t “slogan” Alabama into submission, and not even a global quarterback could prevent his coach from being fired.

Pruitt, Jones’ replacement, was more rural Alabama than global. He didn’t deal in catchphrases or even good grammar. He was all about football. And he didn’t need a brick-by-brick analogy to rebuild the program. He would just do it.

That didn’t work out well, either, as evidenced by his 16-19 record.

UT should have been looking for the anti-Pruitt. The Vols needed a coach who wouldn't embarrass them at a microphone or with his offense. And he would have head-coaching experience, which Pruitt didn't.

Heupel checks those boxes. He also is well educated in quarterbacking, which he once did on behalf of Oklahoma.

And he has more going for him than offensive success. He will have the support of Tennessee's best leadership team in many years in White, chancellor Donde Plowman and UT president Randy Boyd.

He also has an accomplished defensive coordinator in Kevin Steele, whom Tennessee hired a few weeks ago to manage the program on an acting basis.

Nonetheless, I can understand why Tennessee fans would be skeptical about the hire. With all they have been through, why wouldn't they be?

If they want to convince themselves that UT finally has hired the right football coach, a leap of faith is required. White's résumé should help. He hired good coaches in football and basketball as an AD at Buffalo and Central Florida.

Fans can only hope that he just did the same at Tennessee.  

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or Follow him at: