Obviously, as we wrote here, stability was the biggest reason for Tennessee football promoting Joey Halzle to offensive coordinator to replace Alex Golesh, who took over as head coach of the South Florida Bulls. After all, there were people who had more experience.
To be more qualified than Halzle, a candidate had to have more on-field experience while also being familiar with Heupel’s offense. Using those metrics, here are five potential offensive coordinators Tennessee football passed up.
Here’s a current offensive coordinator who worked under Heupel, meaning he checked all the boxes. Anthony Tucker was the UCF Knights’ running backs coach in 2018, added passing game coordinator to his title in 2019 and became co-offensive coordinator in 2020.
Tucker has spent the past two years as OC and quarterbacks coach for the Utah State Aggies, where Heupel was in 2015. He would obviously be a perfect fit for Tennessee football given that resume.
However, results matter, and Tucker’s offense sputtered this year, averaging just 22 points a game, outside of the top 100 nationally. As a result, despite already serving with Golesh and under Heupel as co-OC, he’d be a hard sell.
In 2020, with the FCS season postponed, then Fordham Rams OC Kevin Decker went down to UCF and studied Heupel’s offense. He brought in UCF student assistant quarterbacks coach David Weeks as an offensive quality control coach.
They installed the system in the spring of 2021 and had the top FCS offense this past year. Decker is now OC of the Old Dominion Monarchs heading into 2023, but he could’ve landed with Tennessee football.
Decker was also a tight ends coach in the past, so he could’ve filled both voids. Okay, so FCS on-field experience isn’t the same as FBS on-field experience, but Decker’s experience still technically outweighed Halzle’s, and he’s an OC running Heupel’s system.
Joe Jon Finley
The only candidate on this list without OC experience, Joe Jon Finley has everything else. He worked under Heupel as the Missouri Tigers’ tight ends coach in 2016 and 2017.
Finley was there until 2018 and then went to the Texas A&M Aggies in 2019. In 2020, he joined the Ole Miss Rebels and worked as a passing game coordinator under Jeff Lebby, who was Heupel’s OC in 2018 and 2019.
This past year, Finley was associate head coach for offense and also the tight end and h-backs coach. That’s a level of experience that would’ve made him beyond qualified for Tennessee football despite no OC experience.
Being a coordinator in some capacity with the offense is why he had a case over Halzle rather than somebody like Jon Cooper, who was Heupel’s tight ends coach at UCF in 2018 and 2019. Cooper hasn’t had any roles beyond a position coach yet.
It would be a reversal of fortunes, but so what? Butch Jones did that with Tennessee football in 2015 when he hired Mike DeBord as his OC after serving as DeBord’s OC from 2001 to 2003 with the Central Michigan Chippewas.
Heupel joined Matt Wells as Utah State’s OC in 2015 after OU fired him. He then went to Mizzou in 2016. Wells left Utah State and became the Texas Tech Red Raiders head coach in 2019, but he was fired in 2021.
Before taking over as Utah State head coach in 2013, Wells was their OC, so he has experience in the role. He was an offensive analyst at OU this past year. As a result, he would’ve easily taken the job and been qualified for it.
Every other coach has a drawback to the role that Halzle doesn’t have. Jeff Lebby is the one candidate on here who has none and would have easily seemed like the better hire on paper for Tennessee football.
Why? Well, Lebby was already Heupel’s OC. He held that role in 2018 and 2019 when UCF was explosive offensively. Heupel hired Golesh because Lebby left to become Lane Kiffin’s OC with the Ole Miss Rebels.
This past year, Lebby was OC of OU. Given the trouble that program’s in under Brent Venables, he likely would have been eager to jump ship and rejoin Heupel, and there is already ample evidence it would’ve worked out.
That Tennessee football hired Halzle over Lebby is the biggest testament to Heupel’s commitment to stability and the potential Halzle brings. Those factors should serve the Vols well in the future.