When Josh Heupel was hired as the Tennessee Vols‘ head coach in early 2021, he walked into an atmosphere that was described by some players as militaristic.

Heupel immediately got to work on changing the culture — which is something that isn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds.

The former Oklahoma Sooners quarterback wanted to create a culture that was centered on working hard while having fun. It’s been a message that Heupel has preached since arriving in Knoxville

This summer, we’ve heard various players talk about the improved atmosphere around the program.

It’s not just the players, though, that are embracing the new culture.

Tennessee’s assistant coaches — specifically the older guys — are approaching the game in a new way because of Heupel.

Vols linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary, who never coached with Heupel prior to joining Tennessee’s staff in 2021, spoke at length this week about the vibe at UT and how it all starts with the head coach.

“I think it always starts with the head coach. It’s the culture he (Heupel) always talked about,” said Jean-Mary to reporters this week. “Before he ever talks about wins and losses, he talks about mindset and how you’re going to go and attack the day. He’s always the first one the players see when they enter the building. I think that means a lot. He always has a smile on his face, no matter what happened the last day. When you talk about culture and positive energy, you really find out how true that is after a player or a unit has a bad day. A position group, unit, or team didn’t do as well as we want, so how do you approach the next day?”

“How do you approach the next team event that you are doing? I think Coach Heupel does a great job of saying, ‘forget the last play, let’s go win the next play’. The kids, they’ve bought into it. Even when us coaches, some of who are old-school guys, say, ‘we have to get this right,’ the kids can still do it with a smile on their faces. They really do believe that the best is yet to come.”

Jean-Mary has been coaching football for over two decades. It says a lot about Heupel that he’s changed the way he looks at coaching because of the way Heupel does things.

Staff harmony is important. In previous years, we’ve seen some extremely dysfunctional coaching staffs at Tennessee. Jeremy Pruitt had a revolving door of assistants. And Butch Jones mostly just hired his buddies — even if they weren’t qualified (what’s up Mike Canales?).

Heupel has hired a nice mix of coaches he knows and coaches he hasn’t worked with before. And he’s managed to blend it all together to create a staff that seems to have incredible chemistry.

That alone tells me that Heupel has what it takes to find major success in the SEC. If he can get a roster of 100 plus kids and a coaching staff full of veterans all on the same page, he can find a way to beat Georgia and Alabama.

It might not happen in 2022, but it’s going to happen soon. Probably sooner than most folks expect.

Featured image via Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK