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Vols coach Josh Heupel ready to lead Tennessee despite tough loss

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Forget about the expectations, the star quarterback or the young roster loaded with talent for just a moment and ruminate on what this season must mean for Tennessee coach Josh Heupel.

Entering his fourth season as the Vols’ head coach, the former Heisman Trophy finalist will face a return to his alma mater without his biggest fan to root him on. Heupel’s mother, Cindy Heupel, passed away in May at 69-years-old. Like many football families, the Heupel household was a bit untraditional. While Heupel’s father was spending long hours preparing his team as Northwestern State’s head football coach, most of the household duties fell on Heupel’s maternal influence.

“A huge part of who I am,” Heupel told Jimmy Hyams of WNML when asked about what his mother meant to him. “Her leadership, seeing her in those roles, how she communicated, how she handled difficult situations. She has been as instrumental as anybody in my life, as to who I am today.”

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It’s a shame that Cindy Heupel won’t be present to see her son’s return to Norman, Okla., where he once coached and played for the Sooners. Despite the long history, there are almost certainly some strained feelings between the two parties. Heupel was fired by Oklahoma following the 2015 season in what most considered a very questionable move.

Heupel has already changed the narrative on his career since that time. He’s proven to be one of the hottest, young coaches in the nation. The South Dakota native hopes to make a triumphant return to the Sooner State when the Vols play at Oklahoma on Sept. 24. Of course, Heupel will be asked about playing for the Sooners more times than the Vols will have passing yards this season, but don’t expect much in the form of hot takes or sizzling hot Heupel quotes. 

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Heupel is already known for being well guarded in media settings. That should only amp up when his homecoming is upon him. The hush rule may be in effect. Heupel said he hasn’t been to Norman in about a decade. That will all change in a just about three months.

“So many great memories as a coach and as a player, the relationships with teammates, coaches, um, you know, administrators. It’s a huge part of who I am today,” Heupel said.

Heupel has plenty of reasons to not be a big fan of those “um, you know, administrators.” After all, they were the ones who replaced him despite a prolific offense.

The way Heupel left Oklahoma – or was forced to leave – surely has Heupel motivated to beat his old team, which is entering the SEC this season. Heupel has shown he likes to score points, sometimes even when the game is no longer in doubt. Therefore, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Vols pull out a few special wrinkles for the Sooners.

It may take something special to upend Oklahoma. The Sooners are expected to be one of the better teams in the nation and have been designated as a five-point favorite against the Vols. A road win against a quality opponent in September would be a huge win for the Vols. It would also mean quite a bit to Heupel, for more than just one reason.

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