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Tennessee Football: Kalen DeBoer has tougher task following Nick Saban at Alabama than Josh Heupel had with Vols back in 2021

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Tennessee Football coach Josh Heupel was faced with a monumental task when he was hired to rebuild the Vols before the 2021 season. That’s nothing compared to what Alabama is going to go through.

Countless players bolted Tennessee when Jeremy Pruitt was fired amidst a nasty NCAA investigation. After four coaches couldn’t deliver at Tennessee, Heupel was hired while the college football world yawned. Maybe Heupel could handle the job. Maybe he’d fail. History suggested the latter. He seems to be proving the doubters wrong, but the jury is still out. 

After four coaches departed on rather poor terms, Tennessee Football fans had all but lost hope by the time Heupel was hired. Fortunately, he has proven worthy of an upper-tier SEC job. Had he not, Tennessee might have been better off building a shopping mall where Neyland Stadium has stood for decades. That might have been a better draw.

By all success markers, Alabama has historically had a better program than Tennessee, which has certainly been the case since the Tide hired former coach Nick Saban before the 2007 season. Saban, who announced his retirement last week, was 201-29 during his tenure at Bama. During that same time frame, the Vols were 115-98. Could those records flip-flop over the next 17 years. It wouldn’t be that surprising given how difficult it is to replace a legend.

Look at the other coaches that have won multiple national championships over the last quarter century. There was Joe Paterno at Penn State, Tom Osbourne at Nebraska, Bobby Bowden at Florida State, Dennis Erickson at Miami, Pete Carroll at USC, Urban Meyer at Florida, and Dabo Swinney and Kirby Smart, who are still coaching at Clemson and Georgia respectively. Only Miami and FSU were able to secure a national championship following those previous runs.

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Tennessee has been through what Alabama is facing before, but you probably don’t remember it. Gen. Robert Neyland won four national championships. Once he left following the 1952 season, the Vols only won seven or more games just twice in the following 11 seasons before hiring Doug Dickey, who resurrected the program.

UT has also had to face a legend in another sport. Lady Vol head basketball coach Pat Summit won eight national championships before retiring following the 2011-12 season. Since then, the Lady Vols have only made the Elite Eight three times since Summit stepped aside.

The Pruitt and Saban transitions that Alabama and Tennessee have undergone, or are undergoing, have one striking similarity that their championship predecessors didn’t have any concern about when they left their respective schools. They both occurred during the era of the transfer portal in which a player can leave in a moment’s notice. The Vols know that all too well.

Tennessee lost players in droves when Pruitt was fired. That very well could occur in Tuscaloosa. Several players have entered the transfer portal since Saban retired. It remains to be seen how many will return to the Crimson Tide. Both situations can throw a massive monkey wrench in recruiting as well. That was certainly the case with the Vols when Pruitt was fired. It remains to be seen if Alabama can recruit at the same level as Saban was able to, but it’s incredibly doubtful.

Saban won seven championships at Alabama. He’s only one of six  coaches that have won multiple championships in the last 25 years, partly due to Saban himself. 

Erickson won two national championships at Miami in 1989 and 1991, which was followed up by a national championship by Larry Coker in 2001. Bowden won titles at FSU in 1993 and 1999, and Jimbo Fisher followed that up in 2013. That’s about as good as it gets.

Osborne won three national championships at Nebraska in the 1990’s. The Cornhuskers played for one title in 2001 but haven’t had a top 10 finish since then. The Trojans have never been the same since Carroll won two titles there in 2003 and 2004.

As for the SEC, Urban Meyer won two national championships in the 2000’s at Florida, which has been a shell of itself after Meyer’s departure..  

Only two coaches with multiple championships are still coaching. Swinney has faced some tough times at Clemson after vaunted defensive coordinator Brent Venables left to become Oklahoma’s head coach. Smart, to be fair, just saw the end of a potential dynasty at Georgia with a loss to Saban in December.

In other words, it’s incredibly unlikely for a school to replicate a legendary run by a legendary coach – and that was before the transfer portal was in place.

Alabama fans have been through this before. Legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant won six national championships for the Crimson Tide. It took more than a decade to replace him with a comparable coach, Gene Stallings, who won a national championship in 1992. Tennessee Football faced a similar situation from 1948 to 1951. It took the Vols 47 years to win another national championship.

Is it easier to rebuild a program under NCAA sanctions with a new coach or is it easier to rebuild a program following a legend’s departure? History would suggest the latter is much more challenging. 

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