NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Just moments after blasting instate rival Vanderbilt, 56-0, at FirstBank Stadium, Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel told SEC Network sideline reporter Cole Cubelic that it was a “culture win” for his program.
Heupel soon made his way to his postgame press conference where he echoed the same message.
“I know there’s been a lot of talk outside of our program from different people about what the culture is inside of our locker room,” Heupel said. “When I got here two years ago nobody thought we’d win 10 by this point and there were 30-plus kids that left this program.
“This group chose to stay. They bought into me. They bought into our staff. They bought into the culture and connection inside of our locker room, what we’re going to build inside of our program and they built it. They only did that by working hard, competing together and then competing for one another. … I’ll tell you what this group loves one another and that’s why we’ve turned this program in the right direction. The future is bright and I’ll go to battle with these guys any day, anywhere.”
There were plenty of shots taken at the culture in Heupel’s program following linebacker Jeremy Banks’ absence in Tennessee’s blowout loss at South Carolina a week ago. Banks allegedly was involved in a locker room incident with quarterback Hendon Hooker and while Tennessee didn’t comment on the incident, Heupel didn’t deny it either when asked about it.
The lost chance to play in the College Football Playoff combined with Hooker suffering a season ending injury against South Carolina made the Vols trip to their state capital much dicier than it appeared a month before.
Vanderbilt entered the game red hot, coming off back-to-back SEC victories with a chance to gain bowl eligibility with an upset win. Heupel credited Hooker’s leadership this week for helping calm the ship.
“I think it’s important for our football team that Hendon’s around,” Heupel said. “Leadership doesn’t change just because you’re not the guy taking the snap. Your influence doesn’t change.”
But Hooker’s efforts could only go so far against Vanderbilt. With six starters out and Tennessee’s biggest goals unachievable the Vols easily could have folded and found themselves in a tight game.
More From RTI: Four Quick Takeaways On Tennessee’s Win Over Vanderbilt
Instead, Tennessee used one of its most complete performances to annihilate Vanderbilt. The Vols won by 56 as 14-point favorites and recorded the first shutout in the series since 2003.
“There’s a bunch of guys that spearhead that (culture win),” Heupel said. “At the end of the day the culture is everybody. Like I said, we’re not perfect. I’m not perfect but we are true to that— compete man. This is a group that cares. They’re prideful in how they play but they’re prideful in what they’ve built too.”
There’s no overselling the importance of Tennessee taking care of business to improve to 10-2 (6-2 SEC). It marks the Vols first 10 win regular season since 2003 and was an unthinkable year two result when Heupel took charge of the Volunteer program 22 months ago.
A loss against the Commodores would have halted the program’s positive momentum and cast a dark shadow around what once appeared like a phenomenal season.
Instead, Heupel can tout Tennessee’s best season in two decades when talking to recruits and players in the transfer portal.
“Two years ago we talked about what we were going to do,” Heupel said. “They (recruits) can see what the culture is. They can feel it. They see the connection inside the building and understand what our coaching staff is all about. They understand that this program is on solid ground but is only going to continue to get better.”
Tennessee players, coaches and fans won’t soon forget the opportunity Tennessee missed by losing at South Carolina. Heupel admitted Saturday that he was “disappointed” after that loss and that they missed an opportunity.
However, the win over Vanderbilt keeps the positive vibes and ascension of Tennessee’s program as the Vols prepare for a bowl game and Heupel and his staff look to upgrade the talent within the program.