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Josh Heupel is paid like one of the big boys, which means he has to recruit like them too

On3 imageby:Jesse Simonton01/27/23


Josh Heupel is college football’s latest $9 million man, as Tennessee rewarded its second-year head coach with a $5 million raise and extension after leading the Vols to their best season in close to 20 years. 

While Tennessee was expected to make a leap in 2022, no one predicted that the Vols would be among the most fun teams in the country — leading the nation in scoring (46.1 points per game) and total offense (525.5 yards per game) and upsetting Alabama and LSU. 

UT capped its storybook season with a cathartic Orange Bowl victory over Clemson. 

Tennessee has handed out premature extensions before, but Heupel’s bump is oranges to rotten apples compared to the raise Philip Fulmer gave Jeremy Pruitt

Volquest’s Brent Hubbs explained why Tennessee gave Heupel the extension now instead of later — noting that student enrollment is up and the university wants to keep capitalizing on the program’s PR boon. 

“The results over Josh’s first two seasons speak for themselves,” Vols athletic director Danny White said. 

“He and his staff have energized both our football program and our fanbase with an aggressive brand of football, a competitive culture that creates leaders and a relentless approach to raising the bar every single day. Despite a brief period of dormancy, Tennessee never surrendered its status as a college football powerhouse. We just needed an innovative leader like Josh Heupel to reignite the spark. 

“It’s been fun to crash the party, but as Josh said after our Orange Bowl triumph, the best is yet to come.”

We’re about to find out. 

Heupel is now the fifth highest-paid coach in the SEC, trailing only Alabama’s Nick Saban ($11.7 million), Georgia’s Kirby Smart ($11.25 million), Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher ($9.5 million) and LSU’s Brian Kelly ($9.5 million).

Two years ago, he took over a program many thought was a smoking crater with looming NCAA sanctions. There was little pressure on Josh Heupel to win instantly, but he did.

And he did so with a lot of Jeremy Pruitt’s players. 

Pruitt was a terrible head coach, but the guy has always had an eye for talent. His staff wasn’t the beacon of development either, and that’s where Heupel and his assistants deserve due credit. 

But the backbone of Tennessee’s key contributors in 2022 were Pruitt signees: Four of the five starters from the Vols’ veteran offensive line. Tailback Jabari Small. Wideouts Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt. Starting linebackers Jeremy Banks and Aaron Beasley. The entire starting secondary sans corner Kamal Hidden. Defensive linemen like Omari Thomas, Roman Harrison and Tyler Baron. 

Quarterback Hendon Hooker was a Pruitt signee, too, but again, he never would’ve become a Heisman Trophy contender without working with Josh Heupel & Co. 

Many of those pieces are off to the NFL, and the Vols also lose top pass rusher Byron Young (12.0 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks) and other valuable depth pieces. 

So circle back to that list of SEC salaries. What do Saban, Smart, Fisher and Kelly all have in common?

They’re elite recruiters. 

Or at least they recruit the most elite talent to their programs. Some questioned Kelly’s recruiting chops when he arrived at LSU, but he just inked the nation’s No. 5 class and has raided the transfer portal, too. 

Heupel has done a nice job working the transfer portal, but he isn’t considered a recruiting ace.

He’s an offensive savant. His staff’s player development is a strength. The program’s culture and chemistry are at an all-time high. 

But if Tennessee wants to compete for championships on an annual basis, the Vols must start recruiting at an elite level. 

And Heupel isn’t there yet. 

The plan can’t be “we’re going to out-develop Kirby Smart and Nick Saban.” That’s not a winnable strategy. Just ask Dan Mullen or Bryan Harsin. 

Tennessee landed the nation’s No. 1 player in 2023, per On3, in quarterback Nico Iamaleava, but the 5-star prospect wasn’t quite the pied piper many expected. The Vols’ No. 11 ranked class is good, but not good enough compared to their rivals. 

The Vols signed just four Top-100 prospects, only one of which was a receiver. Both Alabama and Georgia signed 12. Texas (9) and Oklahoma (8) — set to join the SEC in 2024 — both doubled up the Vols in Top 100 prospects, too. 

This is Tennessee’s new reality. 

Josh Heupel made the Vols relevant again. 

But if UT really wants to be — as Danny White called it — “a college football powerhouse” — then it has to start recruiting like one, which means stacking consecutive Top 5 classes on top of one another. 

Everything — from a competent athletic department, to a strong NIL Collective, to Heupel’s scheme of putting players in positions to succeed — is in place. 

Josh Heupel earned his fat raise, but the ante’s been upped now.

He’s being paid like one of the big boys, so he needs to recruit like one, too.