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Could Tennessee coach Josh Heupel bolt for the NFL? It’s complicated

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If there is one thing that should be learned over the last decade of Tennessee football, it’s that Battered Vol Syndrome can show up in many forms.

The latest came via a comment made by CBS analyst Tony Romo during the Pittsburgh Steelers-Philadelphia Eagles’ game on Sunday. The timing by Romo, as usual, wasn’t great as the Vols are preparing to play No. 1 Georgia on Saturday.

Before panic sets in, let’s go through some reasons why Tennessee fans should and shouldn’t be concerned that Tennessee coach Josh Heupel might leave for the NFL in the near future.

Heupel is smart

NFL teams will want Heupel because he’s far ahead of the curve and open to altering what he once thought was gospel. No scheme will work forever, not even the one that Heupel is currently running at Tennessee. Defensive coaches will catch up and probably do so faster in the NFL than in college.

Heupel knows that. He adjusted his offensive approach after leaving Oklahoma. He’ll do the same if his offense starts to stagnate at Tennessee or elsewhere. Mississippi State coach Mike Leach knows one offense. Leach will coach the “Air Raid” and have success as long as he wants to coach. However, he hasn’t done anything different since he was coaching for Hal Mumme at Kentucky in the late 1990’s.

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Heupel won’t be locked into one system for his entire career. He’s already shown that. That makes him a jewel for Tennessee and a coveted asset for NFL teams. There is one other coach in the SEC that is similar in that regard. You might know him. His name is Lane Kiffin. He once ran a pro-style offense at Southern California. Now, he runs a very similar offense to what the Vols are currently running.

Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher hasn’t evolved. We’ve seen where that got him. He’s on the verge of being fired despite a massive buyout, which leads too…

Money Matters

It’s estimated that Sean McVay is the highest-paid coach in the NFL and pulls in over $15-million per year as the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams. Nick Saban is reportedly the highest-paid coach in college football at approximately $11-million. I’m not in that tax bracket, but for a 30-percent difference, most would choose happiness over that kind of pay bump, especially if you take cost of living into account. It’s much more expensive to live in L.A. than Tuscaloosa.

Money was a big factor for college coaches in the 1990’s and 2000’s. However, it’s not as much of a difference as before. In fact, it’s pretty much a non-factor. No athletic director is going to let a championship-winning coach walk in the current economic climate.

Dave Hooker, Amanda LaFratta and Chris Landry discuss why Josh Heupel will be coveted by the NFL

Heupel has to do more

This cuts both ways. First, the NFL isn’t going to come calling in droves for Heupel unless the Vols go undefeated and win a national championship. Sure, it only takes one team to show interest in Heupel, but most teams will be more wary of the new hot, young offensive coach than before.

Why? Look at Kliff Kingsbury. He was hired by the Arizona Cardinals for his offensive prowess and has gone 27-29 in the NFL. The Cardinals were 11-6 and made the playoffs last season, but were bounced out of the playoffs in the wild card round. Now, Arizona is 3-5 and had to deal with drama surrounding quarterback Kyler Murray before the season. That surely affected the team’s focus. Heupel doesn’t have those headaches in college. He can just part ways with any player that needs mandated practice time, as Murray reportedly did. That leads to…

Mentoring matters

It sounds cliche, but shaping the futures of young men seems important to Heupel. That’s not as much of a factor in college as it used to be with the loose transfer rules and the looser NIL rules. College football players are much more like pros than ever before. However, Tennessee’s players have shown a maturity level that Heupel is greatly responsible for. That should mean something to Heupel and I’m sure it does. Also, as mentioned above, dealing with Murray-like issues doesn’t seem all that grand.

Heupel’s house

There is no question who runs the ship at Tennessee when it comes to football. UT athletic director Danny White can tweet all he’d like and pose for post-Alabama victory celebration shots, but Heupel calls the shots in UT’s football program. To use NFL terms, Heupel is the coach, general manager and personnel director – or anything else he’d like to be called. After having the rug pulled out from him at Oklahoma because of decisions made above him, there’s some security in that.

Final call

Tennessee fans shouldn’t worry about Heupel leaving anytime soon. Think of Heupel as Steve Spurrier at Florida in the early 1990’s. Eventually, after dominating college football and growing tired of recruiting, Spurrier went to the NFL and, although he won’t admit it, probably regrets the decision. Spurrier returned to college to head up a South Carolina rebuild and did an admirable job. However, he could have more than one national championship in his pocket had he remained in college.

Heupel could get to that point. However, that could be 10 years from now so this isn’t the time to fret. Heupel also has something that Spurrier didn’t in recruiting – NIL money. NIL isn’t supposed to be used a recruiting inducement, but it is and Tennessee has plenty of NIL money to throw around. Recruiting is more of a business decision than it used to be, staking your hopes and dreams on what a 17-year-old prospect might think on National Signing Day just before he signs a National Letter of Intent. Recruiting burnout can still be a factor, but it doesn’t seem like it will be for the Vols.

Prediction: Heupel is with the Vols until at least 2030 unless something goes terribly awry in the interim.

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