Tennessee Vols head coach Josh Heupel has (so far) managed to avoid a major red flag that his predecessor Jeremy Pruitt never avoided.
One of the biggest things that Heupel was praised for in 2021 — outside of the Vols’ potent offensive attack — was the major culture change that took place at Tennessee.
We heard numerous players this season talk about the poor culture under Pruitt and how it’s improved under Heupel.
Pass rusher Tyler Baron made some revealing comments in August while discussing the culture change under Heupel.
It’s a totally different atmosphere,” said Baron while discussing the program. “I tell everybody coming in from our season last year to this year, you almost can’t even call it the same program. It’s a totally different mindset. People are taking more advantage of everything and it’s going to be really positive.”
“The biggest thing for me is the mindset of the team and the mindset in the building,” added Baron. “Everybody is looking for how they can improve more so than just getting through. Everybody is determined. All the new guys are buying into the program. Coach Heupel is leading us in the right direction and we’re just happy to follow him.”
A great culture starts with the coaching staff. If a staff isn’t sending a unified message, then the culture probably isn’t going to be great.
Staff continuity is a big part of building a great culture, too. If there’s a lot of staff turnover, it’s going to be tough to send that unified message and create a strong family-like atmosphere.
There was very little staff continuity under Pruitt. By his third season, Pruitt only had three assistant coaches remaining from his original staff. And only one of those coaches — offensive line coach Will Friend — coached the same position all three years.
(Friend ended up leaving Tennessee after the 2020 season before Pruitt was fired.)
Pruitt’s extreme staff turnover started after his first season in Knoxville. He lost offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton, safeties coach Charles Kelly, and cornerbacks coach Terry Fair. He also demoted defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer, meaning he had all new coordinators in 2019 (including special teams coordinator, which shifted from Kelly to Sherrer).
Not an ideal situation for a program going through a rebuild.
Fortunately for the Vols, it doesn’t appear that Heupel is dealing with the same staffing issues.
So far this offseason, Heupel hasn’t lost a single on-field assistant coach — even though some programs have tried to lure a couple of assistants away (Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin tried to steal offensive coordinator Alex Golesh. And defensive line coach Rodney Garner is always going to be an in-demand assistant.)
Heupel is eventually going to lose some assistants. Some attrition is normal. Guys move up the coaching ladder. And other guys move down the coaching ladder. It’s part of the college football circle of life.
But the attrition we saw under Pruitt wasn’t normal. It was a sign of an unhealthy program.
What we’re seeing under Heupel is how a healthy program should operate. Players, for the most part, are sticking around. Coaches aren’t in a hurry to leave for other jobs.
Heupel is elite when it comes to X’s and O’s. He understands how to treat people while holding them accountable. And he comes across as extremely genuine.
You couldn’t ask for much more in a head coach.
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