By Mark Nagi
No matter the success you have had as a head coach in the past, transitions typically present some challenges.
New Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel is learning that firsthand.
He’s been on the job for over two weeks and his coaching staff is still a work in progress.
Let’s look at the hires we know about.
Not surprisingly, Heupel had raided his old staff at Central Florida, bringing in former Auburn standout Kodi Burs to coach wide receivers, Alex Golesh to be in charge of tight ends and Glen Elarbee to work with the offensive line.
The coaching community is a close-knit group. Having people he already knows well will assist Heupel greatly, especially in his first season, which likely will be a rough one.
Heupel got some Tennessee blood on the staff with the hiring of longtime SEC assistant Rodney Garner to coach defensive line. Garner was a member of Phillip Fulmer’s coaching staff in 1996 and 1997, and a key recruiter for some of the best Tennessee teams in the program’s history.
In addition, former Rice offensive coordinator Jerry Mack will be the running backs coach.
As of the writing of this article, those are the names we know about. We don’t know who the offensive coordinator will be, but that’s not a huge deal as Heupel will be the one calling plays.
The major concern is with the lack of hiring of a defensive coordinator.
Does Tennessee already have a defensive coordinator on campus? Why yes! Yes, they do. A highly respected one in Kevin Steele. He knows the SEC after decades working in the conference. Steele knows Tennessee after serving as an assistant at UT twice. Oh, and Tennessee was already paying his $900,000 over the next two years.
Of course, none of that resume (and financial commitment) has anything to do with Heupel, so he is under no obligation to keep him around. And barring some major change, Steele won’t get the job.
Tennessee has been turned down multiple times, including a polite rebuke by Ohio State linebackers’ coach Al Washington. Football Scoop’s John Brice reported that Heupel approached Louisville defensive coordinator Bryan Brown and University of Southern Cal defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, only to be told “no thanks.”
The Vols are ready and willing to pay big bucks to make that hire, in the range of $1.5 million annually over three years, but so far Heupel can’t get anyone to sign up.
Things move quickly and maybe by the time you read this, Heupel has his man. But the fact that his top choices weren’t interested shows you his dire things are on Rocky Top.
Heupel’s offensive system can in turn be difficult on the defense. They work quickly, which means the defense doesn’t get as much rest. The Vols defense was already pedestrian and has seen a bunch of transfers this offseason. Whoever gets the job has their work cut out for them.
Coordinator hires are among the biggest decisions a head coach can make. It can catapult your program to new heights or accelerate your dismissal.
Fulmer hired Dave Clawson to replace David Cutcliffe in 2008 and the program never recovered. Derek Dooley’s decision to bring in Sal Sunseri as defensive coordinator doomed him in 2012. Butch Jones promoted Larry Scott to be offensive coordinator in 2017 and would be fired later that year.
Certainly, Heupel doesn’t have to worry about being on the hot seat right now… but that doesn’t mean he can afford to make the wrong choices.