Josh Heupel was introduced Wednesday afternoon as the new head football coach at Tennessee, proclaiming the same objectives that predecessors Derek Dooley, Butch Jones and Jeremy Pruitt once desired before their eras yielded a combined 66-69 record.
Heupel spent the past three seasons compiling a 28-8 mark at the University of Central Florida but now takes over at a Power Five school with 13 Southeastern Conference championships and consensus national titles in 1951 and 1998. He also inherits a Volunteers program that has experienced eight losing seasons in the past 13 years, has endured significant personnel losses through the NCAA transfer portal and likely will be dealing with a slew of NCAA Level I and Level II violations left behind by Pruitt.
"All the elements to win here are here," Heupel said. "You are the biggest show. You walk out in that stadium, and there are 100,000-plus fans in there. Your facilities are as good as there are in the entire country, and you're going to get a world-class education.
"A lot of the infrastructure that you need to be successful is absolutely here. Now it's about putting the right people in place to reach our young people so that we can have sustainable success here."
When asked specifically if the looming NCAA sanctions served as a deterrent in any way, Heupel said: "I had a very frank conversation with every person of leadership about what had transpired and what they believe is going to transpire as far as any penalty, and the reason I'm standing here today is that I believe in a very, very bright future."
Heupel agreed to a six-year contract that will begin at $4 million annually, which is up from the $3.85 million that Pruitt made last season but less than the $4.25 million that Pruitt was scheduled to earn in 2021. Tennessee will pay UCF roughly $3.4 million to buy out Heupel, who is making the same relocation from Orlando to Knoxville that athletic director Danny White performed last week.
White was introduced last Friday as Tennessee's AD after a five-year run at UCF, accepting a pay bump from roughly $1.1 million annually to $1.8 million.
"We had an exhaustive nationwide search, and I know that sounds crazy, because I'm hiring the guy I worked with for the last three years," White said Wednesday. "If anything, I was trying not to hire the head coach from UCF. I say that with respect to Tennessee, but I also love UCF, and I hate the transition that this is causing those student-athletes down there.
"You would be amazed at how many candidates we spoke with. We talked to head coaches. We talked to coordinators. Character and integrity were extremely important from the jump, and I have zero questions about that with this guy. He was our No. 1 option, and this job was offered to one person."
Fan reaction on social media was mixed to the hiring, but Vols players were quick to come out in support.
"We got what we needed, not what outsiders thought we needed," cornerback Alontae Taylor posted on Twitter.
Huepel took over a UCF program that produced a magical 13-0 season in 2017 that culminated with a 34-27 upset of Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. He nearly duplicated that success in 2018, guiding the Knights to a 12-0 record before falling to LSU 40-32 in the Fiesta Bowl.
UCF went 10-3 in 2019, which included a 45-27 whipping of Stanford, but last season's team slipped to a 6-4 mark.
"All of our losses but one were one-possession games," Heupel said. "This past year, everybody in America was dealing with COVID. It was a unique situation unto itself in how you brought your football team back, what were their workouts while they were away from you and what your practice habits looked like. We didn't have a full-team meeting until the fourth game of the season that wasn't virtual.
"At the beginning of the season, we had close to 10 opt-outs, and all those came because of different reasons and different challenges that they faced in their backgrounds."
What is undeniable is Heupel's ability to oversee stout offenses, which is reflected by UCF ranking among the top 10 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring the past three seasons. The Knights averaged 43.2 points per game in 2018, 43.4 in 2019 and 42.2 this past season.
UCF also ranked among the top five teams in total offense, with this past season's unit averaging a whopping 568.1 yards a contest.
"We're going to play with tempo here, and we're going to be the aggressor," Heupel said. "We're going to play with our skill players out in space. We're going to give them an opportunity to push the football down the field, and if you've watched what we do, we're extremely balanced from a run/pass standpoint.
"At the same time, that aggressive mentality we have on the offensive side of the football is going to carry over to what we're doing on the defensive side. We will be multiple in our fronts, and we want to create negative plays."
As a player, Heupel quarterbacked Oklahoma to the 2000 national championship and was the runner-up to Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke that season for the Heisman Trophy. Weinke spent the past two seasons as Tennessee's quarterbacks coach.
Heupel was Oklahoma's quarterbacks coach in 2008, when Sam Bradford won the Heisman Trophy and guided the Sooners to the BCS title game against Florida. As Missouri's offensive coordinator in 2016-17, Heupel helped develop quarterback Drew Lock, who set a league record in 2017 with 44 touchdown passes.
2004 - Oklahoma graduate assistant
2005 - Arizona tight ends coach
2006–10 - Oklahoma quarterbacks coach
2011-14 - Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator
2015 - Utah State offensive coordinator
2016-17 - Missouri offensive coordinator
2018-20 - UCF head coach