One of the most sure aspects of a coach’s success is the leap they take in their second year. Josh Heupel took over a 3-7 program and took Tennessee Football 7-6 in 2021 before going 11-2 and finishing in the top 10 in 2022.
Make no mistake, this is a huge deal. Only two coaches in UT history have had more successful second seasons: Robert Neyland won the Southern Conference in 1927, going 8-0-1, and Bowden Wyatt won the SEC with Johnny Majors as a Heisman runner-up in 1956, going 10-1.
That’s pretty great company to be in. Other elite seasons by second-year head coaches in Tennessee Football history were Bill Battle, who went 10-2, Doug Dickey, who went 8-1-2 in 1965 and John Barnhill, who went 9-1-1 in 1942.
All three finished in the top 10. Barnhill won UT its first Sugar Bowl. If you count 1993 as Phillip Fulmer’s second season since he was interim coach in 1992, you have a guy who went 9-2-1, which was retroactively changed to 10-2 because of Alabama Crimson Tide sanctions.
This is pretty great company to be in. Dickey and Fulmer won national championships. Neyland won four national championships. Barnhill maintained elite success through World War II.
Only Battle and Wyatt would be considered coaches who didn’t work out long-term. However, Wyatt lasted six more years and was running the single-wing, which was outdated at the time. Battle’s 10-2 campaign was a downgrade from 11-1, and he was rolling from what Dickey built.
Heupel is clearly not running an outdated offense, and his second season clearly wasn’t worse than his first. As a result, neither coach’s long-term failures apply to Heupel when you really break it down.
Second-year leaps are generally more important than first years when you look at head coaches. First-year success can often mean just living off of what the previous coach left you.
Consider the fact that Nick Saban went 7-6 his first year at Alabama but then 12-2 his second year. Urban Meyer went 9-3 his first year with the Florida Gators but won the national title his second year.
On the other side, Gus Malzahn played for the national title and won the SEC Championship his first year with the Auburn Tigers in 2013. He never recreated that magic and was fired after 2020.
Simply put, the second year is generally considered the first year that’s a majority reflection on the coaches of the program, so what they do that year is the most important barometer of their careers. Heupel passed easily with Tennessee Football.