Updated with more information at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 27, 2021.
New University of Tennessee athletic director Danny White said Wednesday afternoon that he never planned to hire Josh Heupel away from the University of Central Florida when White moved on from the Orlando school last week.
And maybe he didn't. White had been AD at UCF since late autumn 2015. His success there allowed him to create the kind of résumé that could land him a $1.8 million annual salary from a Power Five program such as UT. As White introduced Heupel as the 27th head football coach in Volunteers history on Wednesday, he said more than once: "I was trying not to hire the head coach from UCF."
He also said: "I love UCF, and I hate the transition that this is causing for the student-athletes down there."
But to return to White's introductory news conference last Friday in Knoxville, you also can't help but wonder if a different story wasn't unfolding all along, if only the Big Orange Nation had paid attention.
At the 30-minute, 47-second mark of that 42-minute conference, longtime Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi asked White via Zoom if Heupel would be a candidate to replace the recently fired Jeremy Pruitt. You can check it out for yourself at utsports.com.
To be precise, Bianchi asked: "You've said everybody is a candidate. Is Josh Heupel a candidate?"
White never answered. At least not the Heupel portion of the question. No one else brought it up. The new AD's portion of the conference ended two questions later.
Now we know why. The famously secretive White already had Heupel at or near the top of his list. Now he's the Vols' new coach.
Was the fix in? Could no one better, or at least a coach who has been tested as part of a Power Five conference — and to be fair, Heupel's résumé at UCF is pretty dang good — be lured to Rocky Top during an ongoing and possibly serious NCAA investigation into recruiting violations?
Can the Big Orange Nation, especially the social media-addicted portion of it, somehow keep from imploding long enough to give Heupel a fair chance? (Early returns in that department are not encouraging.)
Assuming the coronavirus doesn't get much worse between today and September, we're about to find out. We're about to discover if White is as good as his track record says he is at hiring coaches. We're about to find out if Heupel is the coach who won his first 12 games on the job at UCF or the one who went 6-4 during the pandemic-altered season just past.
That will all sort itself out in good time, as coaching hires always do.
Regardless of how popular or unpopular a hire this may be at this moment, though, there is much to like and feel hopeful about regarding Heupel, including that the three UCF teams he oversaw as head coach never averaged fewer than 42.2 points a game.
To put that in perspective for Volniacs the nation over: The past three years under Pruitt have delivered three total Football Bowl Subdivision victories with 40 or more points scored, five more games (including a loss to Georgia State) with 30 or more points scored and a whopping 15 games with 19 or fewer points scored.
No wonder that Heupel's first year in charge at UCF — when the Knights won their first 12 games before a 40-32 loss to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl — led to the Football Writers Association of America awarding him as the nation's top first-year coach for 2018.
And for those who rightly argue the previous four Vols head coaches without prior Power Five head coaching experience didn't work out so well — Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Butch Jones and Pruitt, just in case you've forgotten them all — none of those arrived, not even Kiffin, with the offensive reputation of Heupel. With possibly severe NCAA penalties on the horizon for the Vols, that skill of turning out high-octane offenses can't be overstated. Defense may win championships, but offense sells tickets.
Moreover, given that defense typically requires more elite athletes, especially in the Southeastern Conference — because you can't cover a hare of a wideout with a tortoise of a cornerback — putting a high-powered offense on the field that gobbles up 500 or more yards a game and scores 40 or more points usually allows your defense some much-needed rest.
In announcing the hire through an early-morning news release, White said that Heupel "is everything we were looking for: winning with integrity, a history of championships and the architect of explosive offenses. He is a players' coach and the kind of person the student-athletes go the extra mile for. I saw that first-hand, and you can see it in his coaching record."
Certainly Heupel will more than earn his six-year contract with an annual salary of $4 million if he succeeds where the past four Vols coaches have failed.
And to help him in that endeavor, White asked the entire Big Orange Nation — which seems divided at best over the strength or weakness of the Heupel hire — to become a little more enthusiastic in order to encourage recruits to call Rocky Top home.
"Some of you are awesome," White said of many of the social media posts. "Some of you are failing right now. Why would we be negative?"
It's a good point, especially for an AD who has been on the job for less than a week. Then again, the UT football program has pretty much been failing its fan base for most of the past 15 or so seasons, having posted nine losing seasons from 2005 to now after recording nine losing seasons total from 1924 to 2004.
Who couldn't be forgiven for being a bit negative after a wretched run such as that?