There are days new Tennessee athletic director Danny White looks around his office and thinks to himself, “I still can’t believe I left.”
Before coming to Knoxville, White spent six years transforming UCF into a nationally recognized brand — thanks in part to his decision to self-declare a football national championship off an undefeated season in 2017. Orlando became home, and White had made a name for himself as one of the top athletic directors in the country, unafraid to push boundaries even if it rubbed some power players the wrong way.
But taking on the Smoky Mountain-sized task of rebuilding — and reimagining — Tennessee with the same bold strokes that defined his tenure with the Knights became more and more appealing.
So he took the job, and then hired Josh Heupel from UCF to run the football program, believing a player-friendly approach and a modernized, high-flying offense will help revitalize a program that is in its longest stretch between SEC football championships in school history — 22 years and counting.
The job is vastly different than the one White left behind, in which he had a blank canvas to create a standard at a young program looking to leave a mark. At Tennessee, history, tradition and an outspoken fan base with outsized influence often collide with forward-thinking vision, tangling even the best intentions. As a result, the program itself has bent to the will of everybody and nobody all at once.
Now add in an ongoing NCAA investigation into recruiting violations under former coach Jeremy Pruitt, with no timetable for a resolution, and both White and Heupel have a long road ahead. They know they were hired to usher in a new era, one that not only makes the football program relevant again but modernizes Tennessee itself.
The question is whether they can do it, considering three athletic directors and four head football coaches failed to reach that goal over the preceding 12 years.
“We have to build something that’s going to be sustainable,” White said in a recent interview with ESPN. “There are no quick fixes. I think this fan base knows that. Maybe that wasn’t the case 10 years ago, when they weren’t as far removed from the level of success that we all want. But my sense is that people realize that this isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight. We need to build something that’s not just about one season, but about building a new identity for the future Tennessee football.”
To do that, White uses the word “innovate,” but he does not exactly know how to define that just yet — beyond the offense that Heupel brings with him. That offense, which ranked No. 2 in the nation a year ago at UCF while averaging 568.1 yards per game, already has players excited headed into the spring game Saturday. That success was proven on the SEC-level, too. When Heupel was offensive coordinator at Missouri in 2016 and 2017, the Tigers ranked in the top 15 nationally in total offense both years.
A year ago, Tennessee struggled to find any identity on offense, a recurring theme with the instability at quarterback that has plagued the program. The Vols ranked No. 102 in the nation, averaging 346.2 yards per game. The quarterback competition remains an open question heading into the season, but receiver Velus Jones Jr said in an interview with ESPN he believes Heupel and his staff will highlight the players’ talents in the new offense right away.
“A lot of players just felt like they weren’t utilized the way they should have,” Jones said. “Everybody wanted to line up and play, to show the college football world who they are. We wanted a coach that allowed us to be ourselves and play how we feel comfortable. The culture is changing fast. I can’t wait for everybody else to see what we can do.”
Beyond the new schemes, Heupel had work to do building trust inside the locker room, but he also wanted to make it clear beyond new standards and accountability, he wants to listen. His players, for example, asked for music to return to practice after Pruitt stopped it. Heupel said yes.
The proof in what Heupel is building will not show until the season begins against Bowling Green on Sept. 4, and even then, there remains uncertainty about how the NCAA investigation will impact the football program. White said the university is in complete cooperation with the NCAA, hoping that will lead to a speedy resolution.
When Tennessee fired Pruitt in January, university chancellor Donde Plowman said an internal investigation showed “serious violations of NCAA rules, and that these serious infractions warrant immediate action. … What’s astonishing is the number of violations and their efforts to conceal the wrongdoing.” Athletic director Phillip Fulmer announced his retirement at the same time, though Plowman said that was unrelated to the investigation.
Both White and Heupel knew about the ongoing investigation and asked about it during their interview process. Heupel received a six-year contract worth $4 million per year when he was hired, but he will have that deal extended by a year if the NCAA hands down a postseason ban of two or more years and/or reduces scholarships by eight or more.
“This is absolutely going to be a speed bump in doing what we are as a program,” Heupel said. “I believe that the guys we’re recruiting in this class are going to able to chase championships, once they’re here on campus. And we’re going to be able to build it the right way, and don’t feel like there’s going to be long-term effects inside of this program.”
At this point, White is unsure what types of sanctions will be handed down, or when Tennessee will get a resolution on the case.
“Our whole goal is to get through it as quickly as possible,” White said. “We don’t have to close our doors and try to make this thing drag out for multiple years. That’s not who we want to be. We want to be the school that while we’re not happy that it occurred, we don’t want it to happen again. But it did happen, and so we need to deal with it, and try to deal with it as quickly as possible.”
Beyond all that, White has tried to engage the fan base and his donors as much as possible — in as safe a way as possible, understanding he needs them all on board with his vision for change.
“We’re not going to win our next national title doing the same things we were doing in 1998,” White said. “We need to be creating our new reality and innovating what our future looks like. And that’s an unwritten story we need to go write.”
To that end, White is no longer at a school that needs to self-declare itself national champion in order challenge norms and get people to notice his program. White is now inside the power structure, at a school that already has a national brand, with observers beyond Knoxville charting his every move. So his ideas to help push Tennessee forward will look different than they did at UCF. Changing the mindset away from living in the ’90s, at the height of the most recent football success, is a huge part of it.
But so is revamping the fan experience, both inside and around Neyland Stadium, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
“It’s an iconic building, but it needs a lot of work,” White said. “So I’m excited about having a conversation about what the future Neyland needs to look like. I think we can do some cool things that take this historical building, and then maybe weave in some of the more modern things we’re seeing with brand new buildings that are being built across the country.”
Nothing sells a vision like winning, and ultimately, that is what the fan base wants to see out of the football program before its patience starts to wear thin. Heupel notes he arrived at Oklahoma as a quarterback in 1999 in the middle of a 13-year conference championship drought, just as Bob Stoops began his work rebuilding the Sooners’ program.
In 2000, Heupel was the Heisman runner-up and the Sooners won the national championship.
“This is a place that has one of the great traditions in all college football, and because there hasn’t been the amount of success that they’re capable of in recent years, doesn’t dictate or determine our future,” Heupel said. “If we build the foundation the right way, we have a chance to build something really special on top of that. Having harmony and clear vision from the top down, being in sync, we have that. That’s why I believe that we’ll get Tennessee football back to where it belongs.”