When Josh Heupel was hired as the Tennessee Vols‘ head coach in early 2021, I mostly just knew him as the former Oklahoma quarterback who seemed to be doing a decent job at UCF.
As Heupel has led the Vols for the last two seasons, we’ve started to learn more about who he is as a person, what he’s about, and how he handles certain situations.
In 2022, we’ve learned that Heupel hears the jabs from the media and other coaches/players. And instead of pouting or getting into public arguments, Heupel responds on the field. It’s a level of petty that reminds me of Michael Jordan and the now-famous scene from The Last Dance documentary where the legendary basketball player describes how he would use small slights as motivation.
The story of the 2022 Vols is basically this: pic.twitter.com/YmFaIrrAD2— zach ragan (@zachTNT) December 1, 2022
We saw several examples of this from Heupel and his team this season (and there were probably other examples we didn’t see).
There was the way Tennessee’s players reacted to former Vol linebacker turned Alabama linebacker Henry To’o To’o talked about returning to Neyland being “not personal, just business”.
Vols tight end Princeton Fant admitted after the Vols’ win against Alabama that the team heard To’o To’o’s comments and used it as motivation.
Princeton Fant on Henry To’o To’o and the “it’s just business” comments. pic.twitter.com/THHg7Vr9AF— zach ragan (@zachTNT) October 17, 2022
When it comes to Heupel, we’ve seen a few examples of this “petty approach” (and I use the word petty as a compliment here…it’s positive in this sense).
First, there was the way he casually said Tennessee’s players played some “real ball” after blowing out Kentucky in late October.
In the week leading up to the game, Kentucky quarterback Will Levis suggested that Tennessee didn’t play “real football”.
Tennessee’s players heard the noise as well and it was apparent from the comments after the game that it was used as motivation.
The latest example of Heupel hearing the outside noise came during the final week of the regular season.
ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit went on national television after the Vols lost to South Carolina and spread rumors about Tennessee players “fighting amongst themselves”.
Heupel didn’t take too kindly to those rumors and he addressed them several times after the Vols’ 56-0 win against Vanderbilt (Herbstreit also picked Vandy to beat UT because of the bogus rumors).
“There were a lot of questions about the culture of our program from some media that don’t understand who our kids are and what this program’s built on” pic.twitter.com/ihCbn5qQdR— zach ragan (@zachTNT) November 27, 2022
Heupel knows that ignoring the outside noise isn’t possible. So instead of pretending that it can be ignored, he’s used it as a weapon for his team. He’s told them to embrace the big stage, but to also understand why the team is on the big stage. The added motivation — making it personal — has been a fun subplot of the 2022 season. And I think it’s helped the team play with a different level of intensity at times.
Of course, listening to the outside noise doesn’t always go to plan. I think that’s part of the reason Tennessee was boat-raced by South Carolina — no one gave the Gamecocks a chance (not even the local media in Columbia). And the Vols heard that and didn’t have the right level of intensity that night.
I’ve loved Heupel’s approach this season. I’ve loved the way he’s handled adversity and outside noise. It hasn’t been perfect, and he’ll be the first to tell you that, but the results speak for themselves — 10 regular season wins for the first time in nearly 20 years is all the proof we need to know that Heupel is the right guy for Tennessee.
Featured image via Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports
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