The most staggering number in Tennessee football head coach Josh Heupel’s contract is obvious. Heupel just received a $4 million raise. That’s a pretty good day at the office.
The contract upgrade, which bumps Heupel from $5 million annually to $9 million, is full of extra benefits such as private personal flights, a car, a housing allowance and more Tennessee athletic tickets than he’ll ever need. The extension also falls back on what is often overlooked, but extremely important.
If Heupel left for another job before Dec. 15 of this year he would owe the university $8 million. He would owe them at least $6 million if he left before Dec. 15, 2024.
Now, that’s not enough to stop some free-spending NFL team or upper-level college team to pry Heupel away by paying his buyout, but it certainly makes it difficult for most teams and programs to make a serious move on Heupel. It also shows he’s dedicated to the Vols and rebuilding the Tennessee football program.
Heupel had all the leverage in the world with his newest contract extension. He could have asked for the raise, which he got, and for the buyout on his end to be wiped out. Given the success he’s had in such a short time, I’m guessing that UT’s athletic department would have begrudgingly agreed to removing the buyout.
That would have allowed Heupel to go back to Oklahoma – his home school – if the administration changed drastically in Norman or head off to the NFL with no financial strings attached. That’s not the way Heupel is playing the Vols. In fact, it doesn’t seem like he’s “playing” anyone at all. From his original contract to this extension, it seems Heupel is incredibly content at Tennessee. That’s good for the Vols.
UT hasn’t always put themselves in that position. Tennessee chose to fire one of its most successful coaches in school history in 2008 and replaced him with Lane Kiffin. How much was Kiffin’s buyout when he bolted from Knoxville after one season? $800,000. That wasn’t nearly enough to stop any deal from getting done. Southern California was glad to pick up such a small tab for a coach it thought would be successful. The low buyout considering Kiffin’s issues with the Oakland Raiders was disgraceful.
Tennessee athletic director Danny White can’t keep Heupel from leaving if he ever decides to. There will always be someone to pay any buyout if Heupel turns out to be the next Nick Saban or Bill Belichick. However, it’s still enough money to consider. It also demonstrates Heupel’s willingness to include a substantial buyout on his end speaks to his loyalty. The Vols haven’t had a relationship this good in football since Tinder became a thing.
The relationship is further strengthened by the tie that White and Heupel have going back to Central Florida. Both have both felt the struggles of being at a smaller school when there aren’t as many private jets to recruit with and the facilities aren’t up to snuff with other Power Five schools. Simply put, Heupel and White get it. They’ve got something good at Tennessee. Really good.
It’s fun to go through the 2023 schedule and predict how many games the Vols might win. With a brand new lucrative contract in place that is fair to both parties, Tennessee football fans can start to look even further. Instead of counting wins, it might be time to start counting championships in the 2020s.
Things certainly need to change before anyone starts designing championship rings, such as overcoming Georgia coach Kirby Smart in the SEC East. However, that seems at least possible given how fast Heupel has built a program that has drawn national respect. Smart shows no signs of stopping, but neither does Heupel.
It’s important to remember that Heupel has done most of what he’s done with other people’s players, not his own. Certainly, the transfer portal has expedited Tennessee’s rebuild, but there’s no questioning that Heupel can coach individuals and scheme at a high level. The Vols haven’t had that since 2009.
There used to be a debate about whether or not Tennessee football was a “destination” job. Would there ever be another Phillip Fulmer, a coach who wouldn’t leave Tennessee for all the oil in Dubai? Let that debate die. Based on the most recent contract extension, it seems Heupel has found his coaching destination.