For over a decade, the Tennessee Volunteers have been in a perpetual state of rebuild after parting ways with Phillip Fulmer.
During Fulmer’s last season as head coach in Knoxville, the Vols slapped together a paltry 5-7 record, and as such the school wanted new blood on the sideline.
In the landscape of college football, there may not be a better example of the “grass is always greener.”
Lane Kiffin arrived in Knoxville and led Tennessee to a 7-6 record before bolting Rocky Top for USC.
From there, Tennessee was in a state of football purgatory for over a decade.
From Derek Dooley, to Butch Jones and Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee experienced its highs and lows for more than a decade.
Dooley was shown the exit after three seasons and never having posted a winning record.
Butch Jones gave the Volunteer faithful a flicker of hope with back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2015 and 2016, but lost the locker room along the way and after going winless in the SEC during the 2017 season, once again Tennessee was searching for a new head coach.
This prompted the Tennessee athletic administration to hire Jeremy Pruitt away from the Alabama Crimson Tide dynasty, and once again, on the surface it appeared that Tennessee may have had its guy.
But after going just 3-7 in a COVID-19 shortened season in 2020, allegations surfaced of recruiting violations and Pruitt was canned.
Furthermore, the Volunteer football program faced severe penalties from the NCAA, pending the outcome of the investigation.
After all that turmoil that spanned over a decade, the university finally made a knockout hire in athletic director Danny White, who helped mold the University of Central Florida into one of the top non-Power 5 programs in the nation.
It seemed only fitting that Knight’s head coach Josh Heupel follow, and that’s just what happened.
What separates Heupel from the previous hires over the last 13 years is he’s been a head coach. Sure, Jones was a head coach for the Cincinnati Bearcats, but Heupel comes without having a huge, outspoken persona.
His teams do the talking for him and the Volunteer fans got a small taste of what’s to come with what should have been a throwaway season in 2021.
Following the exodus of Pruitt, a huge portion of the Vols’ top-end players hit the transfer portal and left the cupboard fairly empty.
But good coaches have a way of getting the most out of their players and that’s exactly what Heupel did.
Tennessee should never have been competitive in 2021 with the lack of scholarship players and the sheer lack of experience.
Yet Heupel and the Vols managed to churn out a 7-6 season, make it to a bowl, and quite honestly should have had a bowl win over Purdue if not for a botched fourth-down goal line call in the Music City Bowl.
Sure, there were the lumps Tennessee took from the usual suspects, including Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
But Tennessee was in a dog fight with Alabama until the fourth quarter.
And the white-hot Vols’ offense put more points on the board against a stingy Georgia defense than anyone else until that point in the season.
Even a non-conference loss to Pitt, who turned out to be pretty good, was just a one-score separation between the two.
Vols fans should consider themselves lucky.
They know all too well that in the college coaching carousel, you sometimes end up with busts.
As long as Heupel is able to recruit at a high clip, he’s shown he can take a ragtag bunch under trying circumstances and make a competitive squad.
Give him two years and the Vols are going to be knocking on the door of a SEC title, if not even higher.
-Chris Siers is sports editor of the Times-Gazette. Email him at email@example.com.