With NCAA investigation looming, Tennessee and Josh Heupel play waiting game on sanctions

·4-min read

HOOVER, Ala. — In the wake of the worst season of Tennessee football in nearly a century, first-year coach Josh Heupel has plans to change things fast.

First off, he’s going to modernize the antiquated and unwatchable offense that Jeremy Pruitt’s teams trotted out. He’ll replace it with an up-tempo scheme and a proven track record of prolific offenses and quarterback development.

At his first SEC media days on Tuesday, Heupel painted a vivid picture of what he hopes the Vols can look like in the wake of last year’s 3-7 debacle: electric, physical, and, eventually, an offense that can lead the SEC.

We want to play fast with tempo,” Heupel said, “but as an entire football program, we want to play fast and be physical.”

Jul 20, 2021; Hoover, Alabama, USA; Tennessee Volunteers head coach Josh Heupel talks with the media during SEC Media Days at Hyatt Regency Birmingham. Mandatory Credit: Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports
The Volunteers' Josh Heupel is entering his first season as head coach at Tennessee. (Vasha Hunt/USA TODAY Sports)

How fast can Tennessee take off? Well, the biggest variable transcends the roster, recruiting and scheme. The specter of a significant NCAA investigation looms over the Tennessee program, as the Vols’ self-reported significant violations that eventually ended the tenures of Pruitt and athletic director Phil Fulmer.

The school’s chancellor has said publicly that the investigation involves multiple Level I and Level II violations, and by firing Pruitt for cause the school will attempt to not pay Pruitt’s buyout of nearly $12 million. The school is gambling that self-reporting will bring financial relief and help it in the NCAA’s often-murky process.

Heupel told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday that he’s optimistic the school should know the severity of the sanctions by the end of the year. He indicated there’s hope that Tennessee’s cooperation with the investigation helps lead to a speedy resolution.

“What’s unique in the way that Tennessee has approached this is that it was found by Tennessee, [and we] brought in the NCAA and our law firm all at the same time,” Heupel said. “It has the opportunity to expedite and change what a normal NCAA process looks like. That’s certainly the hope, and it’s the sense that I get.”

As far as timelines go, the old NCAA joke remains that the only reliably predictable thing about NCAA investigations is that they’ll move slowly. But Heupel sounded optimistic Tennessee should have clarity by the end of the year.

“That would be ideal,” Heupel said. “I would say that the hope is that we’re going to know. I believe, right now, if I was guessing, that is where I think we’d land.

“This is a different landscape as far as how it’s been handled. Our university found it. Our university brought in the NCAA and a law firm at the same time. It’s a unique situation from what’s usually happened.”

Heupel said the Tennessee staff has been transparent with recruits and that the school hopes to sign a full recruiting class this winter.

“We’ve positioned ourselves in a way that I feel like those things are going to be handled and taken care of here in this first year,” Heupel said.

When Heupel spoke to Tennessee athletic director Danny White about the job, he asked almost immediately about the NCAA issues. In Heupel’s contract, there’s a clause that extends his deal automatically for a year if Tennessee gets eight or more scholarships taken away or a postseason ban of two or more years.

Heupel painted a clear vision Tuesday of what Tennessee football could look like. He pointed out that the past three national title winners — Clemson (527.2), LSU (568.4) and Alabama (541.6) — all averaged more than 525 yards per game. He pointed out that at Missouri, he inherited a unit that finished 124th in total offense and turned it to the No. 13 unit in the country that led the SEC in offense. At UCF, Heupel’s offenses finished in the top five all three seasons — the only team in the country to do that.

The track record is seemingly there to take off. The vision is set, the scheme is proven. But until the notoriously slow NCAA process moves ahead, uncertainty will loom in Knoxville.

“Everything we’re doing is focusing moving forward, right?” Heupel said. “But the past does impact us.”

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