Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel has orchestrated one of the greatest turnarounds college football has seen in the past 35 years.
And his first two years at Tennessee compare favorably to the best coaches to ever pace the sidelines at Sheilds-Watkins Field.
No wonder athletic director Danny White didn’t hesitate to bump Heupel’s salary to $9 million a year.
Under adverse conditions, Heupel has exceeded everyone’s expectations and made Tennessee relevant again in the big, bad SEC – where upward mobility is difficult to achieve.
Since 1990, you can find coaches who have managed rapid-fire rebuilding jobs.
Florida had lost five games four years in a row before Steve Spurrier took over in 1990 and went 9-2 then 10-2 in his first two years.
Alabama was 6-7 when Nick Saban assumed control in 2007. The Tide went 7-6 in Saban’s first year, then started his second season 12-0, including 8-0 in SEC regular-season play.
Auburn had back-to-back five-win seasons before Terry Bowden went 11-0 while on NCAA probation in 1993.
LSU won six games in the two years preceding Saban’s arrival in 2000. Saban went 8-4 his first year on the Bayou and won the SEC in Year Two.
No doubt, those were terrific turnarounds – two by iconic coaches.
But none of them faced the hurdles Heupel had to endure. Tennessee went 3-7 in 2020 and Jeremy Pruitt was fired in January 2021 amid an NCAA investigation. More than 40 players left the program in a nine-month period. The cloud of the NCAA probe would continue for more than two years.
But that didn’t stop Heupel. He went 7-6 his first season and averaged over 39 points per game with a bunch of castoffs and heretofore unproductive players. Remember, Cedric Tillman had eight catches in his first three years at UT and Virginia Tech gave up on quarterback Hendon Hooker.
UT also self-imposed a 12-scholarship reduction.
Last year, Heupel guided the Vols to wins over Florida, LSU, Alabama and Clemson in the Orange Bowl while leading the nation in total offense and points per game.
He made Vegas oddsmakers look foolish by going 11-2 in Year Two.
He also made skeptics of his UT hire look foolish.
Could Heupel’s offense work in the SEC? Could he get production from his quarterback? Could he recruit? Could his defense hold up while his up-tempo offense put it in harm’s way?
The answer to each of those questions so far has been a resounding YES.
And what he has done in his first two years at Tennessee borders on historic.
He is 18-8 in two seasons. Only one other UT coach won more than 18 games in his first two seasons on Rocky Top (Bill Battle, 21).
Only one other UT coach had an 11-win season in any of his first two years (Battle).
Battle inherited a great program left behind when Doug Dickey flew the coup to Florida. Battle went 11-1 then 10-2. In the next five years, Battle won 10, 8, 7, 7 and 6 games before being fired.
Phillip Fulmer won 18 games in his first two seasons, but he also inherited a ready-made team and had Heath Shuler and Peyton Manning as quarterbacks.
Bowden Wyatt’s second team (1956) went 10-1, losing only in the Sugar Bowl.
Gen. Robert Neyland inherited a program that had gone 8-7-1 the previous two years and started his UT tenure 16-1-1 – the best two-year start win-percentage wise by any Vols coach. (Battle was 21-3).
In the more modern era, the first two years saw John Majors win nine games, Derek Dooley 11, Butch Jones 12 and Jeremy Pruitt 13.
Only Neyland and Battle had a better start to their Tennessee coaching career than has Heupel.
And as Heupel said in Miami after the victory over Clemson: “The best is yet to come.’’