NCAA probe is ‘speed bump’ to Vols’ new coach Josh Heupel

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FILE – Central Florida head coach Josh Heupel watches warmups before an NCAA college football game against Tulsa in Orlando, Fla., in this Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020, file photo. Josh Heupel is leaving UCF to become the next Tennessee coach, a person with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

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Josh Heupel believes he can win quickly at Tennessee and position the football program for long-term success. He’s so confident that not even the specter of NCAA sanctions deterred him from joining his former UCF boss in a package deal for the Volunteers.

Heupel was introduced Wednesday as the program’s 27th head coach and fifth, not counting interim or acting coaches, since the end of the 2008 season. He replaces Jeremy Pruitt, who was fired Jan. 18 after an investigation into recruiting issues.

He said he talked “frankly” with Tennessee leadership about what happened and the anticipated punishment.

“I believe that there’s a minor speed bump that we’re going through, but the kids that are in our program right now and the kids that are being recruited are all going to have an opportunity to go play and chase championships,” Heupel said.

His optimism was rewarded with a six-year deal worth $4 million a year. Tennessee will pay half of Heupel’s buyout from UCF, and his contract has a clause extending his deal in case of a postseason ban of two or more years or if eight or more scholarships are cut.

New athletic director Danny White said Tennessee ran an “exhaustive nationwide search” led by the same search firm that helped land White. But he said Heupel was his No. 1 option even after that process.

White was hired last week to replace the retiring Phillip Fulmer and hiring a new coach was his first task. He met with the team to learn what players wanted in a coach, and he pointed to the production of Heupel’s teams as examples of the high-powered style coming to town.

“I just kind of realized that the best option is the guy that I’ve been working with the last three years,” White said.

Heupel was 28-8 in three seasons at UCF, where White hired him to replace Scott Frost after the Knights went 13-0 in 2017. Heupel noted UCF had 10 opt-outs during the pandemic when asked about going 6-4 in 2020.

Tennessee is conducting an internal investigation with outside attorneys hired to look into recruiting issues that Chancellor Donde Plowman called “stunning” after the firing of Pruitt, two assistants and seven others. The NCAA opened a case in December and has had investigators involved the past couple weeks.

Tennessee has had five winning seasons since last winning the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division in 2007. That was also the last time the Vols had double-digit wins. Their last SEC title was in 1998 when Tennessee won its last national championship.

Heupel will have control over his staff, which means deciding what to do with those still under contract — including acting coach Kevin Steele, who signed a two-year deal earlier this month.

He also must put together a team with at least five Vols having entered the transfer portal after Pruitt’s firing, four of them starters. The next signing period opens Feb. 3, and the Vols’ current class is rated 15th nationally by 247Sports.

Heupel’s track record promises lots of offense. UCF ranked second nationally in 2020 averaging 568.1 yards of total offense a game and eighth averaging 42.2 points a game. Tennessee ranked 108th nationally averaging just 21.5 points a game while going 3-7 in 2020 under Pruitt.

Heupel was Missouri’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2016 and 2017, helping Drew Lock, now in the NFL with Denver, lead the SEC in passing yards in 2016 and throw an SEC-record 44 TD passes in 2017. Heupel was assistant head coach and offensive coordinator at Utah State in 2015.

He started his coaching career at his alma mater Oklahoma in 2003 and 2004 before spending 2005 at Arizona. He returned to Oklahoma in 2006 coaching quarterbacks, including Sam Bradford’s Heisman Trophy-winning 2008 campaign, and was promoted to co-offensive coordinator in 2011.

Heupel said Tennessee has all the pieces to win as the biggest show in town with facilities as good as any in the country, including Neyland Stadium.

“I just got goosebumps thinking about it,” Heupel said. “All those things are still here. Trust me. Our leadership, who I’m going to bring in, give us a chance.”

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AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed to this report.

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