For football reasons, for human reasons, for dramatic reasons, the most interesting hire of the 2020-21 cycle has to be Tennessee and Josh Heupel.
Here you have a program that’s been rebooted more times in the last dozen years than the Spider-Man franchise, and for good reason. Heupel is Tennessee’s sixth head coach since 2008, a span that’s produced eight losing seasons and two AP top-25 finishes. It’s a vicious cycle: Tennessee loses because it can’t stick to a coach and a culture, and it can’t stick to a coach because it keeps losing.
And now enters a head coach who, let’s be honest, wasn’t the first choice of the fan base. Go find the various hot boards floating around Vol Twitter following Jeremy Pruitt’s dismissal, you won’t see Heupel’s name anywhere.
So here you have a coaching staff that has to fight on three fronts.
They need to win their players over physically. This is the most immediate and most obvious front. For everything that did and didn’t happen in the Pruitt era, Heupel and company simply wouldn’t be here had the 2020 team gone 7-3 instead of 3-7. The new staff has work to do remaking the roster, which means recruiting better players but also means making their existing players better.
The new staff also needs to win their players over mentally. Every player on Tennessee’s roster has been told that they were the ones who would finally flip the script on Volunteer football. The last Vols to produce back-to-back winning SEC seasons are now in their mid-30s. Heupel and his staff have to convince their players that committing to their way of life will be worth the investment.
And the new staff must also do the same with a cautiously optimistic fan base. The players may not know or necessarily care about the last decade, but the fans certainly do. Everything Heupel says publicly, his constituents have heard before, probably a half dozen times. Heupel must also convince the Tennessee faithful that the investment — of their emotions, of their time, of their money — will be different than the time Jeremy Pruitt, and Butch Jones, and Derek Dooley, and Lane Kiffin, asked them for the same things.
He must do all of this while preparing for a schedule that includes Florida, Georgia and Alabama on an annual basis.
That’s a big task, but it’s really a million small tasks that add up to one big one. It’s one good meeting, it’s one good coaching point on a quarterback’s footwork in the pocket, it’s, as Heupel says below, about winning this very moment.
“One of the things that we have to develop here is a 1-0 mentality,” Heupel says. “The ability to understand that when we get into the season, it’s about going 1-0 each week. You only get one shot. We’ve got to have that mentality every day when we wake up. Tomorrow’s not promised, you can’t do anything about yesterday. It’s about today. It’s about winning this period, it’s about winning this rep. It’s about winning right now.”
Like a lot of programs, Tennessee is producing a slick series documenting the behind-the-scenes build of Heupel’s program. This is an in-house production so you’re always going to hear the company line, but it’s an interesting watch nonetheless. With The Juice, we all get to watch as Heupel fights on all three fronts at once.