Gene Frenette: Hiring Heupel no guarantee for Vols to stop being irrelevant

Gene Frenette

| Florida Times-Union

In what is becoming an NFL-like spin of the coaching roulette wheel, Tennessee’s football program turned to former UCF head coach Josh Heupel on Wednesday to stop its decade-plus slide into oblivion.

To say the hire means the Volunteers will soon begin challenging Florida and Georgia for Southeastern Conference East division supremacy, never mind scaring Alabama, would almost be the equivalent of suggesting the next Halley’s Comet appearance is imminent. I don’t think 40 years meets that definition.

Not that Tennessee is four decades away from becoming relevant again, though it does feel like forever since the Volunteers were on any kind of national radar. The U.S. has put nearly as many astronauts on the moon (12) as the number of weeks UT spent residing in the AP Top 25 since Phil Fulmer retired after the 2008 season.

During his 17 seasons, UT was 96-34 in conference play, 152-52 overall and captured six SEC East titles. Bad ol’ Rocky Top is 33-65 in SEC play since Fulmer’s departure and has an overall losing record (73-75).

Go ahead, blame the Nick Saban dynasty. It’s as good an explanation as any for why Tennessee and much of the SEC has been churning through football coaches lately as if they’re Taylor Swift recycling boyfriends.

Heupel becomes the fifth full-time UT head coach since Fulmer was pushed out and settled in the athletic director’s chair, a record-high for the SEC over that span. After the 2009 season, the first of Saban’s six national championships in Tuscaloosa, the SEC has had a combined 33 coaching changes (excluding interims) or 2.75 per year over 12 seasons. With 150 combined coaching seasons for each of those years, that translates to 22 percent turnover of the work force.

That’s right on par with the ax-wielding NFL, which has seen 81 coaches dismissed from 2009-20. In a 32-team league, which amounts to 384 combined permanent head coaches roaming the sideline over a 12-year period, the NFL turnover average is at 21 percent.

It’s no shock the resource-heavy SEC has this kind of upheaval within its coaching ranks. Given the pressure to win, plus the buyout money available to send underperforming coaches to the unemployment line, nobody should be surprised that consistently successful programs like ‘Bama, LSU and Georgia are the only schools to make just one or zero changes in the last decade.

In fact, Tennessee’s revolving door of football coaches is probably the best example of how unstable the SEC has become in terms of job security. UT was easily a Top-15 national job, maybe top 10, when Fulmer was in his heyday and the Vols were a consistent league contender. Given how much Tennessee has fallen, and the limited number of top-level recruits staying within the state border, it’s now a stretch to call it a top 25 FBS position.

Within the last week, UT hired former UCF athletic director Danny White, an accomplished administrator, to the same post. Though he said at Heupel’s introductory press conference that the former Knights’ coach was the Vols’ top choice, that was preceded by this contradictory statement: “If anything, I was trying not to hire the head coach at UCF. I know I have some people mad at me right now.”

White was in a time crunch, pressed to hire a coach with another Signing Day coming and the transfer portal filling up. It’s no secret Heupel was a fallback choice, that his boss kicked the tires on several higher-profile coaches, including Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell and Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott.

In what universe would a coach from Cincinnati or the Clemson OC not want the Tennessee head coaching job? Well, for one, the current college football landscape.

Elliott has two national championships on his resume, so he can afford to be choosy. Cincinnati might have the best non-Power 5 program at the moment. Taking over a UT program facing the specter of an NCAA investigation — due to alleged recruiting violations by fired coach Jeremy Pruitt – has to give any coach of considerable pedigree at least some pause.

But Heupel jumped all over the opportunity to double his salary. While he has put together creative offenses at UCF and Missouri, where he served as a coordinator, his Knights’ program has regressed the past couple seasons because it can’t stop opponents from running all over them.

That might be why Heupel’s hire was met with much skepticism on social media by Vols’ supporters, who were admonished by White for throwing some cold water on what is normally an uplifting occasion. Bringing Heupel aboard was lampooned a lot more than it was celebrated. One Twitter response called it a “lackluster, unimpressive hire. Being a Vol sure is hard. Only Michigan feels worse than us.”

The truth is UT doesn’t have the leverage it once did to execute a home-run hire, especially with the NCAA ready to administer the white-glove test. Pruitt was fired for cause, which allowed UT to avoid paying a $12 million buyout, though it could be legally challenged.

Heupel tried to gloss over the potential damage, saying: “I believe that’s a minor speed bump we’re going through.”

True or not, what remains undeniable is Tennessee has fallen off the map more than any Power 5 program in recent memory. Yes, Michigan had parts of a seven-year stretch under coaches Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke that were far below program standards, but the Volunteers have fallen off a cliff like nobody else.

UT fans have a right to be dismayed because they’ve been through eight losing seasons in the last 13 years. Do you know how many losing records Tennessee had in the previous 43 seasons? Only four.

So, to some degree, it’s understandable why the Heupel hire is being met with skepticism because Volunteer supporters have seen coach after coach vow to turn things around and nothing really changed. They’ve lost 14 straight games to rival ‘Bama by an average score of 38-12. Since 2010, UT has a combined record of 3-19 against Florida and Georgia.

Heupel, 42, surely understands the risk of taking the UT job. If he meets the same fate as Pruitt, Butch Jones or Derek Dooley, this could be his last major head coaching job. Only Lane Kiffin, who abandoned the same position after one year in 2009 to take the USC job, was able to get back into the SEC head coaching ranks at Ole Miss.

Tennessee didn’t make a bad hire with Heupel. It just had to settle for a third, fourth or fifth choice because this simply isn’t as good a job as it once was. Plus, the path to becoming an elite, or even a competent, SEC program is harder than ever.

Welcome, Josh Heupel, to the NFL of college football. Don’t be surprised if your term in Knoxville lasts about as long as Joe Biden.

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