Two of the three most irrelevant schools in the SEC East had a huge hand in creating current Tennessee football head coach Josh Heupel. Obviously, Heupel’s time as offensive coordinator of the Missouri Tigers was part of that. However, he has multiple connections to the Kentucky Wildcats that are underrated.
When Heupel and the Vols kick off against UK Saturday night, he’ll be leading his team against Mark Stoops. Obviously, Heupel is connected to Stoops from his time with the Oklahoma Sooners. He was OU’s quarterback when Stoops’ brother, Bob Stoops won his only national championship there, in 2000.
In 2005, Heupel and Stoops actually served on the staff of head coach Mike Stoops, the other Stoops, with the Arizona Wildcats. Afterward, Heupel’s Stoops connection went deeper, as he rejoined Bob Stoops at OU, working his way up from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator.
There’s a deeper connection, though, one that had a huge hand in Heupel running the current offense he does. In 1999, Heupel’s first year playing for OU, he worked under an offensive coordinator you might have heard of, a guy by the name of Mike Leach.
Bob Stoops brought Leach in from, you guessed it, Kentucky. Leach had been Hal Mumme’s offensive coordinator, and his air raid offense led to Tim Couch setting the SEC record for passing yards in a single season, a record that still stands.
Studying that year under Leach was where Heupel received his first introduction to the air raid. Now, he has taken that and developed it into an offense with Tennessee football that is the most cutting-edge in the nation, one that is setting records left and right.
Now, Heupel doesn’t run the air raid. Let’s make that clear. He values the line of scrimmage and actually wants to run the ball more than he passes it. However, some of the schematic advantages he looks for were based in that air raid he first learned all those years ago.
Ironically, the Vols and Wildcats have somewhat switched sides from them. UT was ground and pound and play tough defense with Phillip Fulmer, while Kentucky was air it out all over the field. Now, Kentucky is ground and pound under Stoops, and the Vols are air it out. At least that’s how it seems even if there’s clearly more balance.
In terms of facing Kentucky, Heupel lost to them both years as Mizzou’s offensive coordinator, but he did get a signature win against them last year as head coach of the Vols. Now, he’s got a College Football Playoff appearance potentially riding on it, so it’s bigger than ever.
If Heupel is somehow able to get Tennessee football into that this year, he’ll become a legend in Knoxville, and it’s rooted in this cutting-edge offense he’s designed. It’s crazy to think about how that offense was rooted in a system he learned from a guy who learned it at Kentucky nearly 25 years ago.