Shortly after the 2020 college football season, then UCF Athletic Director Danny White wondered if he needed to make a call. That call may have been necessary if his head coach was thinking of leaving. Despite a 6-3 regular season record in a COVID riddled season, UCF's offense still was 8th in the country in points per game, second in yards and fourth in passing yards. Josh Heupel had just finished his third season at UCF and was preparing for a bowl game against BYU. After a 12-1 campaign in 2018 and a 10-3 season in 2019, UCF fell to 6-3(6-4 after the bowl game loss) and while some grumbled about the fall back there was buzz that South Carolina was interested in talking to the third year coach about their vacancy.
The Gamecocks went 2-8 and fired Will Muschamp after he lost five of seven to start the year. Looking to jumpstart their program, the idea was to install an exciting uptempo offense to get fans engaged and Heupel had built a track record of scoring points and piling up yards at UCF. But the story never materialized. The school hired then Oklahoma assistant Shane Beamer as its head coach.
Heupel was staying at UCF, but his AD was about to leave. Danny White had to make a choice of his own. Tennessee came offering him their AD job and the timing may have been perfect as White grew frustrated in his efforts to get UCF to a Power 5 league. Instead of wondering if he needed to call an old friend to ask of his interest in the UCF job if Heupel had left a month earlier, White was torn about leaving a place he fell in love with and had built into a brand recognized across college athletics. He took the job and left for Knoxville. That call to then-Buffalo head coach Lance Leipold was no longer needed in Orlando but perhaps in Tennessee. Leipold was hired by White to come to Buffalo when White was AD at the school and many in the industry believe if Heupel left for Columbia, Leipold was White's first call.
As White did when he arrived at UCF his first job was to hire a football coach. Social media threw out plenty of names including: Gus Malzahn(let go by Auburn), Billy Napier(then at Louisiana), Hugh Freeze(then at Liberty), Jamey Chadwell(then at Coastal Carolina), Bill Clark(then at UAB) and Lane Kiffin(the former Tennessee coach now at Ole Miss). Lance Leipold was also mentioned because he had gone 24-10 the last three seasons at Buffalo. But White, like he did when he hired Scott Frost at UCF, went quiet and had a different plan. White didn't choose someone the media thought he should. He instead hired someone he was familiar with and would deliver exactly what he felt Tennessee needed while it rebuilt- a high powered offense that put up points and yards and would get fans excited. Danny White hired Josh Heupel from UCF.
While the move caught many by surprise and left UCF without an AD and football coach, it made sense considering Tennessee was dealing with a massive exodus of players into the transfer portal and an NCAA investigation hanging over the program with the firing of Jeremy Pruitt as coach.
UCF moved quickly in hiring Terry Mohajir as AD and he turned to someone who worked for him before at Arkansas State and hired Gus Malzahn, whose plan to maybe work as TV analyst was quickly put aside to return to the sideline in Orlando.
Many of the college football media criticized White's hiring even though Heupel had experience in the SEC working at Missouri as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2016-17. Some suggested White settled on Heupel and perhaps was turned down by others because of the unknowns of the NCAA investigation.
White did interview Penn State's James Franklin, Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott and Leipold. But in the end, he picked Heupel. The buyout was $3.45M and White's buyout was $2.5M. That gave UCF's Mohajir a nice pot to go hire Malzahn and pay a staff.
Heupel was signed to a deal that paid him $4M a year. He then hit the transfer portal to replace the large group going out. But the Vols added a quarterback before Heupel arrived. Hendon Hooker left Virginia Tech for Tennessee three weeks before Heupel was hired. But Heupel added another QB when Joe Milton transferred from Michigan in late April.
In his first season at Tennessee Heupel went 7-6 but his offense was 7th in the country in points and 9th in yards. He ended up going with Hendon Hooker, who replaced Milton as the Vols' quarterback. Hooker completed 68% of his passes for just under 3,000 yards and added 31 touchdown passes with only three interceptions.
Heupel added a top 15 recruiting class for 2022 and then started the season beating four opponents who were ranked inside the top 25 at the time they played in his first six games. The last of those games was the dramatic win over Alabama, 52-49. That game saw Hendon Hooker become a real Heisman favorite going 21-30 for 385 yards and five touchdown passes.
Tennessee saw its playoff hopes dashed with their loss at number one Georgia and the loss of Hooker for the season due to a knee injury in a loss at South Carolina. But the Vols still finished 11-2 with a dominating Orange Bowl over Clemson, 31-14.
Despite getting a one year extension and an additional $1M added to his salary after the 2021 season, Danny White rewarded Heupel again after their run this past season.
On Tuesday, Tennessee announced Heupel had signed a deal that extends his contract through 2029 and pays him $9M per year plus incentives. It makes Heupel one of the highest paid coaches in college football.
Just over eight years ago Heupel was fired as the co-offensive coordinator at his alma mater, Oklahoma. Many believe he was a fall guy for then Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who chose to not fire his brother Mark, the defensive coordinator.
That firing still eats at Heupel. He landed at Utah State the following season in 2016 before going to Missouri the following year.
I have said many times, Heupel didn't really get the credit he deserved for the job he did at UCF in 2018. Yes, he took over a team that just went 13-0 and won the Peach Bowl, but he was replacing an incredibly popular coach in Scott Frost. But Heupel adapted and developed a bond with team leaders who he let lead. As the 2018 season went along he inherited the pressures of UCF's win streak. He called for the famous fourth down play Memphis and helped his team deal with the loss of McKenzie Milton to his devastating knee injury. UCF went undefeated in the regular season before falling to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl.
Maybe Heupel knew when to bounce from UCF. The 2020 season was bumpy and maybe Danny White's olive branch was the perfect moment to tackle the next challenge. Well, two years into his time in Knoxville, Heupel has excited fans, rebuilt a once proud brand in the game and has built his program to sustain success. Such a recipe lands one a large contract.
College football's newest big pay coach is a long way from that firing in Norman back in 2015. Some thought Heupel might be tempted when Lincoln Riley left Oklahoma for USC. Would he return to the school he starred as a player? The last UCF coach to make a similar move didn't fare well. Not sure Scott Frost's failure at Nebraska influenced Heupel. My guess is his loyalty to Danny White was a much larger factor and his ability to build something with his fingerprints all over it as well.
Frost is gone from Lincoln. Jeremy Pruitt is out of college football. Gus Malzahn is at UCF. Josh Heupel? He's doing just fine...
Final note: Monowi, Nebraska is the smallest town in the country by population. The population of Monowi is 1. Elsie Eiler is the town's librarian and mayor.