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Tennessee football: Is Josh Heupel pay increase to keep him out of NFL?

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A pay raise for Tennessee football head coach Josh Heupel on its own is no surprise. Heupel just led the Vols to their first 11-win season and their first top 10 finish since 2001 in just his second year on the job.

He also led them to their most prestigious bowl victory since the 1998 national championship, and he led them to wins over both the Florida Gators and Alabama Crimson Tide. Simply put, he deserves more money.

However, the amount of Heupel’s increase is, well, shocking. According to ON3, the Tennessee football head coach’s salary went from $5 million to $9 million. The deal runs through January of 2029.

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That’s nearly double his salary for one great season. He’s also now the fifth highest-paid SEC coach. Ahead of him are Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide, Kirby Smart of the Georgia Bulldogs, Jimbo Fisher of the Texas A&M Aggies and Brian Kelly of the LSU Tigers.

All four of those coaches have made the College Football Playoff, three of them have won national championships, and two of them have won SEC Championships. That’s the company he’s in now.

On a national scale, this makes Heupel among the 10 highest paid coaches. Although there is reason to believe in his future given his offensive creativity and how he’s overachieved after receiving a rough hand, this is still shocking.

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At the end of the day, Heupel still has just one top 10 season with Tennessee football to his name. He went 7-6 the previous year. We still have no idea how the Vols will perform without Hendon Hooker.

Evidence suggests there is still plenty of reason to believe in them, but paying Heupel with the likes of those coaches seems a bit of a stretch, even Fisher despite how he’s struggling right now. What could be the motivation?

It can’t be the fear of another college calling. Heupel isn’t Lane Kiffin. Only the Oklahoma Sooners could lure him away, and as long as Bob Stoops is there, he likely has no desire to return.

Instead, this move is to keep him out of the NFL. Make no mistake, Heupel’s creative offensive mind is going to generate the interest of NFL teams. To keep him away, Tennessee football had to pay him.

With his new salary, Heupel is making more than all but four NFL head coaches, and he’s tied with two others. Honestly, college coaches should have greater market value anyway, and UT sees that.

Given what he’s doing right now, Heupel is likely to have a few NFL suitors soon. Far less successful coaches have gotten jobs in the pros because of their offensive minds. Heck, Kiffin was one of them back in 2007.

Recently, though, Sean McVay’s success with the Los Angeles Rams set off a firestorm of NFL franchises desperately looking for the next creative offensive mind at that level. Kliff Kingsbury, Matt Rhule and Urban Meyer all got jobs because of that.

All have failed, but the NFL is still looking, and Heupel’s offense could be the next big thing. Similar to Steve Spurrier, who was also hired in the pros for his offensive mind, Heupel has a system that nobody has figured out.

Heupel combined the late great Mike Leach’s air raid with the Art Briles RPO offense. He spreads the field with his receivers but maintains a balanced attack. Defenses have no way to disguise coverage because of that.

Beyond just not figuring it out, coaches are going out of their way to embrace it. Kiffin, a pro-style guy, hired Jeff Lebby, Heupel’s offensive coordinator with the UCF Knights, to head up the Ole Miss Rebels’ offense in 2020. Brent Venables has since hired Lebby to OU.

Alex Golesh, who was the offensive coordinator for Tennessee football the past two years, has just taken over the South Florida Bulls. Lincoln Riley is running a similar system, first with OU and now with the USC Trojans.

At the FCS level, Kevin Decker, while he was with the Fordham Rams’ OC, went to UCF during the pandemic just to study Heupel’s offense. He turned Fordham into an offensive machine and is now OC of the Old Dominion Monarchs.

Everywhere you look, Heupel’s offense is taking off, but nobody is figuring it out. That’s why the NFL is going to come calling soon enough. It’s important for Tennessee football to keep them away, which explains this pay raise.

In addition to that salary, Heupel will receive a $50,000 bonus for a top 25 finish, a $100,000 bonus for making a bowl game, $100,000 for a top 10 finish and $150,000 for a top five finish. He’ll get $1 million for winning a national championship.

There are also incentives for making the SEC Championship game, earning coach of the year and academic progress achievements. Assistant coaches are also in the midst of restructuring their deals.

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