BIRMINGHAM, Ala.— First-year Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel faces an uphill battle in rebuilding a program that hasn’t had sustained relevance in over a decade.
The climb back to relevance is even steeper due to an offseason in which the Vols lost 25 players to the transfer portal and the NCAA investigation that provided the death nail to Heupel’s predecessor.
Positivity and camaraderie have been a focal point for Heupel and new director of athletics Danny White since taking over in January, and that message was on display at the Wynfrey Hotel for the 2021 SEC Media Days Tuesday.
“We have an opportunity to celebrate the great traditions while putting a new age approach on it,” Heupel said. “Our kids and our staff, they’re all there because of that. They chose the power of T for those reasons. Our staff chose the power of T for those reasons. We’re going to go out and compete every single day and push forward.”
Heupel frequently referenced that “new age approach” Tuesday.
So, what does that look like?
“It’s going to take a lot of different forms,” Heupel said. “It’s the way that we communicate inside of our building. Every interaction that we have with players, with staff, with janitors, it doesn’t matter who it is, creating and harnessing energy inside of our building. I think that’s a really important thing that we’ve tried to build with our VFLs too is harnessing that energy and creating positive momentum that surrounds our program where our kids feel that every single day. It’s the way that we interact with them outside the game, the things that we’ve talked about and I’ve done with our players in the 5 1/2 months that we’ve been here.”
Interaction, and building a personal relationship, with his players has been at the forefront of Heupel’s energy since arriving in January.
That emphasis is what stood out to Tennessee cornerback Alontae Taylor when he first met Heupel in January.
“The biggest thing was whenever he came to talk to us about what he wanted for this program, what he was going to bring to this program,” Taylor said of Heupel. “The biggest thing we took from that was how he said it took actions and not words. He would show us throughout his actions. Some of his actions are building a team with team activities and things like that and building that family feeling. So that was probably the biggest impression is just him saying that.”
Having relationships with his players isn’t the only thing that goes into Heupel’s new-age approach. Building relationships between his players that make the “we’re a family” cliche more accurate and meaningful is important to Heupel.
From dodgeball games to bringing in ice cream trucks, to arcade trips— there’s a clear emphasis on having fun.
Heupel talked about adding new alternate uniforms that would represent his player-friendly, new-age approach.
“As we move forward, it may be different opportunities as far as what the uniform looks like when you run out on the field,” Heupel said. “Look good, feel good, play well. We want to create a positive player experience from the moment that they step on campus until they’re done but have a long-term relationship with them that lasts forever.”
Building personal relationships, having fun and team camaraderie are all great, but what good does that truly do for Tennessee on the field?
It’s not going to make Joe Milton more accurate and decisive, it won’t give Tennessee an edge rusher that can open up defensive play-calling options and it’s not going to make Darnell Wright more consistent in pass protection.
However, Heupel believes when things go poorly— which is destined to happen in the former UCF coach’s first season— those relationships will loom large.
“That pays forward once we get on the football field,” Heupel said of relationship building. “I believe that connection matters when you face adversity, that you know the person standing next to you, to the left or the right, and you can depend upon those people.
Heupel has a point there, too. Last season, when things went poorly there was very little response.
When Jarrett Guarantano threw his second pick-six in as many possessions in the first half against Kentucky no one came to talk to Guarantano on the sideline. The morale of the team was shot and never recovered after the embarrassing loss.
Jeremy Pruitt doesn’t deserve all the blame for that as COVID-19 restrictions made players spending time together dangerous to teams due to contact tracing. Still, that team building wasn’t a strength of Pruitt’s.
“Without brothers and bonding and connection, you have nothing,” receiver Velus Jones Jr. “You stand no chance. And I feel like our team has come a long way. Everybody interacting with each other, it’s an amazing sight, honestly.”
How much of an impact can better relationships make for Tennessee in one season? Time will tell, especially when losses begin to pile up. However, Heupel is doing all he can to keep his team together when that time comes.