By: Zac Strickland
Junior Staff Writer
The All Vol Call in Show
Since the legendary career of coach Phillip Fulmer ended on a sour note in 2008, five upstart young coaches have been brought in, each with a mission to return Tennessee football to the level of grandeur it had once enjoyed. One of them abandoned ship at the first opportunity. Two of them were simply not good enough to elevate the Vols anywhere near national relevance or title contention.
This leaves two, Butch Jones and Josh Heupel.
After the Vols finished strong in 2015, Butch Jones had everyone buying Tennessee stock headed into the 2016 season. UT was able to deliver on those expectations early, starting the year 5-0 with several memorable wins in big games, including ending a 11-year losing streak to Florida. For a fleeting moment, all felt right again on Rocky Top. Tennessee football was undefeated, in the Top 10, leading the SEC East, and basking in the national spotlight.
Fourteen dark months later, the Tennessee football program was in ruins, Butch Jones was gone, and he had made an enemy out of nearly the entire city of Knoxville on his way out.
What happened? How did the bottom fall out so fast? It seems like the program Jones had spent nearly four years building “Brick by Brick” caved in on itself almost overnight. It turns out that foundations made of Lego bricks don’t stand the test of time in the SEC.
As the coach at Tennessee, Jones had many flaws, but he also had a strength. He was a great salesman. His ability to sell a vision to fans and boosters increased local enthusiasm, and more importantly, his ability to do the same with recruits allowed him to gradually stockpile a roster full of high-level talent. The increase in talent led to more wins, and some national attention, and the wins were able to conceal glaring flaws in Jones’ program, but only temporarily. When the winning stopped (and it did quite abruptly after the miracle in Athens), the façade Jones had put up around the program crumbled. The truth began to spread about Jones, his behavior behind the scenes, and the toxic environment he had created that had trickled down to the team.
Many former players, media members, and others linked to the program have come out with stories from practice and other team functions that reflect poorly on Jones’ character. While I won’t go into detail here for the sake of conciseness, these incidents involved coaches such as John Jancek, well known players such as Pig Howard, Jalen Hurd, and Shy Tuttle, and less prominent players such as Daniel Helm and Drae Bowles.
Like any cunning salesman, Jones loved catchy slogans. He seemed to come up with several new ones each year, but as his team fell apart in his final season-and-a-half, those slogans turned from rallying cries to embarrassing punchline fodder. He would lose postgame press conferences almost as badly as his team was losing on the field.
Jones had the Vols very close to returning to the success of old, but the main cause of his downfall was that he and his program were completely and utterly fake.
Fast forward to the present day. Under Josh Heupel, the 2022 Vols have made it to just about the same point as the high-water mark of the Butch Jones era in 2016. Tennessee is once again 5-0, ranked in the Top 10, with several key wins including a win over rival Florida. Excitement has returned to Knoxville, and UT is once again receiving national recognition ahead of a titanic clash with Alabama.
Yet to some extent, there remains some hesitancy. Sufferers of “Battered Vol Syndrome” and disbelieving media and outside fans have been quick to point out that the start of this season resembles that of 2016, and it was this exact point in the season where things took a turn for the worse. Butch Jones’ program couldn’t sustain success, so people are reluctant to believe that Heupel’s can.
Except, Josh Heupel isn’t Butch Jones.
Heupel is not a man of many catchphrases or slogans, and the staff has used only one slogan that I know of since his arrival at Tennessee.
Fast. Fun. Real.
Much has been said about this Tennessee team being fast paced and fun to watch. While both are true, I would contend that the most important word of that phrase is that last one.
Unlike Jones, Heupel hasn’t gotten this far by using fake promises and shady tactics to stack up elite recruits. In fact, Tennessee’s overall roster talent is not quite what it was in 2016. But the current coaching staff is finding players that fit the scheme and putting them in the best position to be successful. That’s why it has taken Heupel only two years to reach a breakout season, unlike Jones, who took four. At this point in Jones’ tenure at Tennessee, he was busy going 6-6.
Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that this 2022 team, or the Tennessee program as a whole, is held together with duct tape as the Jones edition of Tennessee was. This team is tight knit, celebrates each other’s success, and plays hard for each other and for their coach.
Hendon Hooker says Heupel is “down to earth”, “a great listener”, and “understands what the team needs… not just in [football] but life as well”. RB Jabari Small says that Heupel “instills a lot of confidence” in his players and that he’s a coach that “you’d love to play for”. DT Omari Thomas says that Heupel is “positive” and an “energy giver”, and that he always “pushes us to be better every day”.
There are many other player quotes with similar endorsements, but the real proof is in the way the team plays. They aren’t perfect, but they always bring a spirited effort for all 60 minutes, whether the opponent is Akron or Alabama.
In last week’s 40-13 bludgeoning of LSU, the Vols did something that a Jones-coached team never did once against a quality opponent. They played fairly well in all three phases of the game and did so in both halves. Jones’ teams were notoriously inconsistent. Either they would let go of the rope late in games, or they’d dig themselves into a hole early. The effort seemed to come in bursts, instead of consistently from play to play. Even in the biggest wins of the Jones era, this would happen. In the Heupel era, Tennessee has been beaten by better teams a couple times, and cost themselves with poor execution a couple times, but they’ve never once looked disinterested or not in the mood to play hard.
So no, this is not a repeat of 2016. We have not “seen this movie before”. This team has its own story to write.
We don’t know yet whether or not it will include a win over Alabama, a SEC East title, a New Year’s Six bowl, or possibly even a playoff berth. But even if none of those things happen for the Vols this year, don’t expect the bottom to fall out either.
In other words, if a Sugar Bowl berth is on the line headed into the season finale at Vanderbilt, there’s no way this team would lose that game.
Josh Heupel is too real for that.