Josh Heupel ready to chase titles with Vols

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Josh Heupel made clear when hired at Tennessee he saw the NCAA investigation hanging over the program as a mere speed bump.

With the probe now concluded and his Volunteers escaping a postseason ban, it’s full speed ahead.

“It’s great to have it in the rearview mirror and not something that you’re driving by all the time,” Heupel said Thursday as his Volunteers wrapped up the fourth and final day of Southeastern Conference media days.

Tennessee concluded an investigation that started in November 2020 last week. The NCAA issued a scathing report outlining more than 200 infractions that included 18 Level I violations and approximately $60,000 paid out to athletes and their families in recruiting infractions under former coach Jeremy Pruitt.

The NCAA also punished Tennessee with scholarship reductions and imposed an $8 million fine without a postseason ban. The NCAA cited Tennessee’s cooperation with the investigation involving violations described as “egregious and expansive.”

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On Thursday, Heupel credited Tennessee administration for backing him in his first season by refusing self-impose a bowl ban in his first season. Tennessee fired Pruitt and nine others in January 2021, athletic director Phillip Fulmer retired and new athletic director Danny White hired Heupel.

Tennessee started cutting scholarships in Heupel’s first season, leaving him with 65 players on scholarship. Heupel noted other programs also beat up on the Volunteers in recruiting, often “sensationalizing” the punishments the program could face.

“There was huge hurdles in our first two years to get to this point that we’ve had to climb out of. And, you know, the easiest thing would have been for our administration and for me is to take the bowl ban in year one,” Heupel said. “But that wasn’t right. The guys that were left were were innocent guys.”

Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin’s first question Thursday was about Tennessee’s NCAA penalties. He coached the Vols to a 7-6 record in 2009 before leaving for Southern California and noted that didn’t take long. Kiffin noted he read Heupel was “ecstatic” about the penalties and the fine.

“So that kind of probably tells you about how severe the penalties are in their eyes,” Kiffin said. “I’m happy for them that they don’t have to go through what we went through. So good for them.”

Even under the NCAA cloud, Heupel went 18-8 at Tennessee. He and his Vols are coming off an 11-2 record in 2022 that was their best since 2001. Tennessee beat Alabama, LSU and routed No. 10 Clemson in the Orange Bowl — programs that won six of seven College Football Playoff national titles.

The Vols ranked No. 1 at one point during last season for the first time in more than two decades and finished sixth in the country.

Heupel understands championships are what’s expected with Tennessee’s last national title in 1998. The Vols haven’t played in the SEC championship game since 2007 despite ranking second in the league with 13 championships.

Vacating Pruitt’s 11 wins in 2019 and 2020 dropped the Vols’ 867 total that had ranked them 10th all-time in college football.

“The standard is to compete at the highest level and win championships,” Heupel said. “You know for us that starts in the Eastern Division, which everybody knows that there’s a lot of good football that’s played in that division.”

The East has been dominated by back-to-back national champ Georgia, and the Bulldogs will visit Knoxville on Nov. 18.

Heupel has to replace Hendon Hooker, now in the NFL with the Detroit Lions. But he has Joe Milton III who took over when Hooker tore an ACL last November and guided the Vols to a rout of Vanderbilt and that Orange Bowl victory. Milton has thrown for 1,346 yards, 12 touchdowns and “zero interceptions.”

Tennessee had to replace offensive coordinator Alex Golesh, who was hired before the Orange Bowl as the new head coach at South Florida. Joey Halzle was promoted to coordinator, and Heupel returned everyone else on his coaching staff. Halzle also coaches quarterbacks.

The Vols set 15 school records with 599 total points and points per game along with 6,832 yards total offense, total touchdowns and fewest interceptions with three. Nothing is expected to change when Tennessee opens the season Sept. 2 hosting Virginia in Nashville.

“It’s Coach Heupel’s offense, so whatever he wants is going to get done that way,” Milton said. “I don’t see it no different being a change of offensive coordinators.”

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