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Josh Heupel leaves UCF to become Tennessee’s new coach

Heupel was 28-8 with the Knights and reunites with his former UCF boss, Danny White.
Josh Heupel, seen here at right during the 2019 Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa, is reportedly heading to Tennessee.
Josh Heupel, seen here at right during the 2019 Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa, is reportedly heading to Tennessee. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Jan. 27, 2021
Updated Jan. 27, 2021

UCF’s Josh Heupel has left the Knights to become the new head coach at Tennessee. The Volunteers announced the move Wednesday morning.

The move reunites Heupel with former Knights athletic director Danny White, who took over the Volunteers last week.

“I am thrilled to be coming to Tennessee,” Heupel said in a statement. “I understand that Volunteer fans are hungry for a return to the top that they so richly deserve, and it is my goal and commitment to bring a championship back to Rocky Top.”

Heupel’s success in Orlando depends on your perspective. His 28-8 record over three seasons was strong, but the program was sliding the wrong way. He went 12-1 in his first year with a loss to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl. He followed that with a 10-3 record in 2019 and a 6-4 mark this season. He was only 2-7 in one-score games.

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Tennessee has been looking for a new coach after dismissing Jeremy Pruitt last week because of reported NCAA recruiting violations. The unknowns surrounding that issue made the coaching search especially interesting, even by Tennessee standards.

“We looked at a number of potential candidates,” White said in a statement. “Josh Heupel, who I had the privilege of working with for three years, 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.”

Heupel played quarterback at Oklahoma and led the Sooners to the 2000 national championship with a 13-2 win over Florida State in the Orange Bowl. The 42-year-old South Dakota native has some ties to the SEC. He was Missouri’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2016-17, when he helped Drew Lock have a historic season.

He has developed quarterbacks well over his coaching career, including Lock, Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford and UCF stars McKenzie Milton and Dillon Gabriel.

His job at Tennessee will not be easy. Although Tennessee is a storied program, it has struggled for much of the last two decades. The Volunteers haven’t compiled a 10-win season since 2007 and have only one bowl appearance over the past four seasons.

Heupel’s departure leaves UCF without a full-time athletic director, which complicates its coaching search. Scott Carr is serving as the interim athletic director, but UCF said it won’t hire a new coach until it names its new AD.

Some coaching names to know:

·UCF defensive coordinator and interim head coach Randy Shannon is an easy, logical choice. He was the head coach at Miami from 2007-10 (going 28-22) and was also the Gators’ interim coach after Jim McElwain’s departure during the 2017 season.

· Miami offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee revitalized the Hurricanes’ offense in one season. The former Auburn assistant and Gus Malzahn disciple also has ties to the AAC; he was on SMU’s staff in 2018-19.

· Ole Miss offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby was a key assistant on UCF’s high-scoring offenses in 2018-19.

· Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott has been picky about his options and might not want to leave the Tigers for a Group of Five job. But he would spice up the War on I-4 with his former Clemson colleague, USF coach Jeff Scott.

· Coastal Carolina coach Jamey Chadwell made the Chanticleers the sport’s darling this season. UCF would be a clear step up for the 44-year-old Tennessee native.