Attendance at 102,455-seat Neyland Stadium, one of college football’s most revered venues, has fallen accordingly. In 2019, the last season before the coronavirus pandemic limited the number of fans allowed at games, the Volunteers averaged 87,864 per home game. While that still ranked in the top 10 nationally, it was Tennessee’s lowest average attendance since 1979 and a decline of nearly 6 percent from the season before. Attendance at Vols games dropped 13 percent between 2016 — when Tennessee averaged 100,968 fans per game — and 2019.
Since Tennessee’s last 10-win season in 2007, SEC rival Alabama has won six national titles while Florida, Auburn and LSU have won one apiece. Another Southern school in a different conference, Clemson, has won it all twice. Vanderbilt, that in-state football also-ran that has a fraction of Tennessee’s fan support and resources, has defeated the Vols in five of the last nine seasons, an imbalance that previously existed in the 1920s.
Most recently, the school fired Jeremy Pruitt after three seasons and a 16-19 record. A Tennessee investigation found that Pruitt and his staff committed multiple Level I and Level II NCAA recruiting violations, and Athletic Director Phillip Fulmer — who as head coach led the Vols to their last period of sustained football success — also announced his retirement, saying he wanted his successor to hire the school’s new football coach.
That successor turned out to be Danny White, who oversaw a period of sustained football growth at Central Florida. And even though the architect of that on-field exceptionalism — Scott Frost — left to coach Nebraska after the 2017 season, White apparently thought enough of Heupel, Frost’s replacement, to bring him along with him to Knoxville.
According to ESPN, White either interviewed or reached out to several high-profile coaches, including Penn State’s James Franklin, Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, SMU’s Sonny Dykes, Minnesota’s PJ Fleck and Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, who had serious discussions about the job but decided to stay on Dabo Swinney’s staff.
“We looked at a number of potential candidates,” White said in a statement. “Josh Heupel, who I had the privilege of working with for three years, is everything we were looking for: winning with integrity, a history of championships and the architect of explosive offenses. He is a players’ coach and the kind of person the student-athletes go the extra mile for. I saw that firsthand, and you can see it in his coaching record.”
Heupel hopes to become the first Tennessee coach since Fulmer to experience sustained success. Tennessee hired Lane Kiffin to replace Fulmer after the 2008 season, but he lasted just one 7-6 campaign and bolted to Southern Cal. Three losing seasons under Derek Dooley followed. Butch Jones appeared to have the Vols headed in the right direction, leading them to an 18-8 record in 2015 and 2016, but the school fired him after an 0-6 start to SEC play in 2017. Pruitt, a defensive-minded coach who had learned the ropes on Nick Saban’s Alabama staff, was not the answer, either. He was hired only after the school’s attempt to bring on Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano was met with intense fan opposition.
Heupel, whose teams are known for their flashy offenses, went 28-8 in three seasons at Central Florida, with a 12-1 record and Fiesta Bowl berth in his first season as Frost’s replacement. The 2000 Heisman Trophy runner-up quarterbacked Oklahoma to its last national championship and then spent a sizable chunk of his coaching career as a Sooners offensive assistant under Bob Stoops.