Josh Heupel Had Some Tough Decisions At Tennessee After Taking Job, While Embracing The Change In CFB

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KNOXVILLE — It’s not everyday that you walk into a head coaching job on the college level and immediately have to deal with NCAA problems that were left on your front porch as a welcome gift. It’s also not everyday that six months into your tenure, the college football world would completely change because of new legislation and a thing called ‘NIL’.

But this was the job that Josh Heupel took and he wasn’t running from the challenge. So rather than waiting on the NCAA to hand down a bunch of penalties on the Tennessee football program, Heupel and the administration decided to get out in front, hoping it would pay off in the end. We are talking about recruiting restrictions, scholarship numbers and much more. There was no sense in waiting two or three years, so Heupel decided to take it on the chin immediately.

I sat down with Josh Heupel on Friday to discuss this matter and he said they were able to put themselves in some unique positions, but that it wouldn’t have been possible without the cohesion of everyone involved.

“For me, our administration, from our president to our chancellor to our athletic director, being able to have a real communication with them, it allowed me as the leader of this program to kind of see where we were at and where we think it’s gonna be. I’ve said from the very beginning I thought it was a small speed bump for this program.

“Because of that trust with them, we’ve been able to navigate those waters really efficiently I think,” Heupel added. “We were able to put ourselves in some unique positions that I think are going to pay dividends for this program moving forward, some things we were able to swallow up in year one and we’re kind of off and running, full steam ahead at this point.”

For the full interview, scroll down to the bottom.

Some of the restrictions that have not been announced by the school pertained to not being able to host official visitors during a number of home games or playing with a certain amount of scholarship players, keeping them below the NCAA approved number. These are just a few examples of how Josh Heupel and the staff decided to take the punishment now, rather than wait on the NCAA. It should be noted that the school has been working with the NCAA on their case during the whole investigation.

But walking into a new job with an NCAA cloud hanging over the building wasn’t enough for the football gods and Tennessee, they had to throw in a wrinkle called NIL into the fray. We all knew this was coming, but it went into effect during the summer of 2021, only six months into the Heupel era. But this hasn’t detoured the staff or administration in any way, they’ve embraced the change and Josh Heupel understands it was a seismic shift in college football that he better embrace quickly or be left behind by other schools.

“At the end of the day, it’s a complete landslide, a shift in college football that happened last summer. I think everybody is still continuing to figure out how to navigate those waters and do it in a way that allows you to build your team to the best it can be and become the best when you get on the field. I said from the very beginning that I think Tennessee is uniquely situated in the NIL landscape because of the power of our fan base, the size of it and the unique place that we reside in Knoxville. I see our biggest thing we are responsible for is conintuing to educate them and put them in a position of understanding the global landscape of it and making sure they’re doing things in the right way. 

“We’ve completely embraced it, it is the culture that is in college football at this point,” Heupel added.  “I’ve said it, I look back on my playing career, wish I was able to take advantage of some of those things to. The positive nobody is talking about with this is the maturity and focus on the future that young people are coming into the program with understanding that everything they do on and off the field effects their brand. Our kids have handled it in a really positive way up until this point.”

But there were a number of situations that came within the new landscape of college football and NIL, one being how much money one player might make, compared to another. The friction in the locker room that this might cause has been something Josh Heupel has tried to stay in front of, not letting it effect his locker room.

Heupel also understands that this is almost like a professional locker room now, knowing that these young men have to uphold themselves, not only for their brand, but for their teammates.

“It is different for college athletes to have to deal with that. In some ways it’s really similar to a professional locker room. At the end of the day it’s important that you educate them, that you talk about that we’re still a team. I think it’s really important you build a really strong culture and they understand the sense of brotherhood thats gotta reside inside the locker room. 

“Up until this point, our guys have handled it in a really mature way, but you want to be open, transparent and have an open dialogue with them as well and make sure that our football team stays cohesive and together,” Heupel added. “That we continue to grow and push on the things that matter the most. Those things haven’t changed inside college football, you wanna make sure they’re growing, academically, socially and then at the same time you’re trying to push together and grow on the football side of it.”

He hasn’t been on the job for a very long time, but Josh Heupel seems to get the ever-changing landscape of college football and knows that if he wants to succeed at Tennessee, he had to adapt with the changes. He’s building something at Tennessee. How big will it be? That’s up to him and the administration.

Written by Trey Wallace

Trey Wallace is the host of The Trey Wallace Podcast that focuses on a mixture of sports, culture, entertainment along with his perspective on everything from College Football to the College World Series.

Wallace has been covering college sports for 15 years, starting off while attending the University of South Alabama. He’s broken some of the biggest college stories including the Florida football “Credit Card Scandal” along with the firing of Jim McElwin and Kevin Sumlin. Wallace also broke one of the biggest stories in college football in 2020 around the NCAA investigation into recruiting violations against Tennessee football head coach Jeremy Pruitt.

Wallace also appears on radio across seven different states breaking down that latest news in college sports.

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