In 2004, the Tennessee Vols finished with a 10-3 record, won the SEC East, and beat Florida, Georgia, and Alabama in the same season.
It was one of the last really fun seasons of the Phillip Fulmer era. Since that 04 season, the program has been trending downward. And the atmosphere around the program has never returned to what we saw in the late 90s and early 2000s.
In the 16 seasons since 2004, the Vols have had seven winning seasons and nine losing seasons. They’ve won the SEC East once (in 2007), and they’re on their fifth post-Fulmer head coach.
“Is Tennessee back?” is a question that’s seemingly asked every few years when a new head coach is hired. So far, the answer has been no every time.
I don’t know if Josh Heupel, who was hired in late January to replace Jeremy Pruitt as the program’s head coach, will be the guy who manages to return Tennessee to the top of the SEC East. It’s far too early to know how Heupel’s teams will fare on the field.
But I do know he’s taking the first step toward making the program successful. Heupel is completely changing the atmosphere at UT.
And I think he’s the coach who can finally restore the tight-knit atmosphere that we saw under Fulmer.
Heupel is big on the “brotherhood” aspect of football. That’s something that feels like it’s been missing from Tennessee for the last 10-15 years (since Fulmer left, essentially).
You see that connection with the Fulmer-era guys, but it feels like it’s lacking with the players who played for Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Butch Jones, and Jeremy Pruitt.
That connection starts when players are on campus together. And if that connection isn’t made, then the play on the field is going to suffer.
There are obviously many reasons why Tennessee football has struggled over the last decade. But I think the lack of a connection between players — because the Vols have certainly had the talent to compete in the SEC — is one of the key reasons why Tennessee hasn’t found success lately.
Heupel, however, is making that connection between players one of his main priorities as the head coach at Tennessee.
The first-year Vols head coach appeared on 104.5 The Zone on Tuesday morning to speak with J-Mart and Ramon and he talked about the family connection he wants at Tennessee.
“Building that trust, building that atmosphere, you have to spend time together,” said Heupel. “Going to a baseball game to hang out and have some hamburgers and some hot dogs, and some candy, and to be able to hang out after you just got done with meetings that evening, getting yourself ready for a Saturday scrimmage.”
Heupel isn’t just trying to build that connection between the football players, either. He wants that family atmosphere to extend through the entire building.
“Building a community here inside the building with other student-athletes, developing that relationship,” explained Heupel.
Heupel’s approach is working. There’s been a big change in the mood around the program. Under Pruitt, it felt like there was a dark cloud constantly hanging over the program. It was a somber feeling — even when the Vols were winning in 2019.
That’s no longer the case under Heupel.
“The energy, effort, and the way the building exists every single day, there’s a dramatic change from when we first started,” said Heupel during his appearance on 104.5 the Zone.
Heupel wants his players to have fun. He wants them to be energized every day. But that doesn’t mean Tennessee’s coaches will be taking it easy on the players. They’re still going to be coached hard.
“Everyone started playing sports because they had fun doing it,” said Heupel. “You can compete really hard, be coached really hard, be pushed to be your best, while you’re having fun.”
So far, Heupel’s pushing all the right buttons. And he’s pleased with where the atmosphere of the program is after nearly three months on the job.
“You come to our practice, you see the energy from our players, they’re competing and having fun with each other. There’s a ton of energy. I like where we’re heading in that direction.”
Featured image via Tennessee Athletic Communications