When Tennessee Vols tight end Austin Pope entered the transfer portal in December, he spoke with The Athletic about his time in Knoxville and the biggest issues the program was dealing with under then-head coach Jeremy Pruitt.
Pope told The Athletic’s David Ubben that one of the Vols’ biggest problems was having too many players that didn’t have the right mindset to excel at a high level.
“I think some people in the program lack that mindset (excelling at a high level), as to how hard they’re motivated in terms of why they’re here,” said Pope. “Like running through the T is just enough for them. Or putting a jersey on and taking a picture after the game after we get our eyes beat in by Alabama, that’s cool.”
It’s been a little over three months since Pope spoke to The Athletic. In those three months, Pruitt has been fired, Josh Heupel has been hired as the program’s new head coach, and Pope has returned to the team.
But the issue that Pope mentioned — a lack of accountability among players — is something that can’t be fixed in just a couple of months. That’s a culture problem. And it will take Heupel some time to correct it.
Fortunately for the Vols, it sounds like Heupel is well on his way to creating an atmosphere of accountability in Knoxville.
“We’re learning how to have winning habits inside of our program,” said Heupel last week. “We’re getting rid of a bunch of habits that aren’t going to help us win.”
“The challenge and race against themselves to become as good and as fast as they can, these guys have accepted that in a really positive way,” added Heupel. “They are starting to demand it from the guy next to them inside of the locker room. That accountability has got to come from within. Our group is starting to learn that and take ownership in it.”
If a program is going to be successful, the players on the field have to want it more than anyone. It’s on the head coach to create a winning atmosphere, but ultimately the players have to buy into what the coach is selling or it won’t work.
That means Heupel has to find a way to connect with the players in a way Pruitt couldn’t.
It’s obviously early in Heupel’s tenure, and there’s always a jolt of energy when a new head coach is hired, but it certainly appears that Tennessee’s culture is changing under Heupel.
The good news is that Heupel has done this before. He’s not “learning on the job” like Pruitt was at Tennessee.
It’s going to take Heupel some time to get the program where it needs to be, but so far he’s doing everything right.
Featured images via Tennessee Athletic Communications