KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — It is crazy to think how one year can make all the difference. In 346 days the University of Tennessee’s athletic department administration terminated head football coach Jeremy Pruitt after three seasons at the helm, uncovered wrongdoings that broke NCAA rules, and hired a coach who led the Vols to a bowl game in his inaugural season.

On Jan. 18, 2021, Pruitt was fired and nine other staff members following an investigation that began in November 2020.

“If you can’t win the right way, you don’t belong here,” said UT President Randy Boyd during a somber press conference.

Nine days later, Tennessee announced the hiring of UCF’s Josh Heupel as Tennessee football’s 27th head coach.

Heupel quickly assembled a staff that bred success including a Broyles Award nominee in defensive coordinator Tim Banks. Heupel and his staff changed many aspects of Tennessee football. Heupel installed an exciting brand of football that broke eight single-season program records.

  • Total points scored in a season (511)
  • Total yards of offense (6,174)
  • Touchdowns (67)
  • Total first downs (316)
  • Point after attempts (67)
  • Fewest interceptions thrown (3)
  • Passing efficeny (167.10)
  • Rushing first downs (164)

“There are good players in there,” said Heupel when he was formally introduced as head coach. “It’s our job as a coaching staff to get them ready to play their absolute best and go compete every Saturday.”

He helped do just that. Multiple players made marked improvement in 2021 recording career seasons including wide receiver Cedric Tillman, running back Jabari Small, tight ends Jacob Warren and Princeton Fant, and defensive lineman Matthew Butler.

Heupel also changed the culture in the locker room, creating a family atmosphere. Before the Vols season finale against Vanderbilt, Butler recalled when his daughter was in town he made it a priority to introduce her to his position coach Rodney Gardner. He said he brought her to his office to have the two meet.

“It really does mean a lot knowing it’s more than football,” Butler said.

Tennessee finished the season 7-6 after Jaylen Wright’s forward progress had been ruled stopped, robbing the Vols of a touchdown in overtime against Purdue in the Music City Bowl. While the ending was a sour note to a promising season, the future still looks to be bright on Rocky Top under Heupel and his staff.

Heupel’s success in year one was culminated with winning his second Steve Spurrier First-Year Coach Award. He is the first two-time winner of the award.