Even amidst a pandemic, as schools across the nation are struggling to make ends meet, the coaching carousel keeps on spinning.
South Carolina became the first Power Five team to make a coaching change this season on Sunday, firing Will Muschamp after five years on the job. And guess who has already come up as a potential candidate: UCF’s own Josh Heupel.
The Athletic reported that, with his buyout finally dropping in December, Heupel could be a coach the Gamecocks will take a look at. This is bad, bad news for UCF.
Yes, I know. Many UCF fans unhappy with Heupel’s performance are eager for him to move on. They see it as a chance for the Knights to get back to the undefeated days we saw under Scott Frost, or to find a new up-and-coming coach unafraid to run up scores and drop 70 on unsuspecting opponents.
Now let’s come back to reality and go over why Heupel leaving would be a devastating development for UCF.
The first reason is by far the most obvious, and yet somehow the least considered, by fans: the pandemic has devastated UCF. AD Danny White has made clear that the school is suffering severely financially. Various construction projects are on hold. The athletic department is projected to lose as much as $14 million this year, is under a hiring freeze and cut $1.6 million from its budget.
I truly can’t imagine a worst time for the Knights to have to try to hire a new coaching staff. And you can’t even fall back on the argument that UCF would get lots of money from the buyout, since it reportedly drops dramatically in December as part of Heupel’s contract.
And then there’s the other big reason Heupel moving on could be catastrophic for UCF: the simple fact that coaching changes are volatile, risky and often don’t work out. There’s a big chunk of Knight Nation that would argue this most recent coaching change didn’t work out. So, let’s take a look at perspective over reality.
In three years as head coach, Heupel has taken UCF to the same number of New Year’s Six Bowls as Frost did. He has won as many conference championships as Frost did. The team has finished in the Top 25 every year that he has been at the helm. His 27-6 record is the best ever for a UCF coach.
That being said, it certainly has not been a perfect tenure. That overall record drops to 17-6 when excluding games that McKenzie Milton played in and the Knights are just 2-6 in single possession games under Heupel (after going 5-3 in such games under Frost).
You can pretty much pick out whichever stats fit your Heupel narrative. Maybe he’s the best coach in UCF history. Maybe he’s the worst coach since 2003. You can find stats to back up both claims.
But about the worst thing you can realistically get away with calling the Heupel hire is average. Perhaps Frost was a better coach, but Heupel certainly is not bad. There’s simply no evidence, on-field results or otherwise, to support that argument. I’m sorry Knight Nation, but not making a New Year’s Six every year does not make a coach bad. Leading a team to a Top 25 finish multiple years in a row (with four different starting QBs) is not bad.
So here’s the problem. What happens if UCF fans get their wish, Heupel leaves for South Carolina… and the Knights make an actual bad hire? Have fans forgotten what that could look like?
From the UCF perspective, a new coach coming in and, within two years, turning a 13-0 team into a 10-3 team makes him a bad coach.
What does that make Charlie Strong? He took over a USF team that had just had its best season in history. Two years later, they were 7-6. By the time Strong was finally fired, they had become the worst program in the AAC. And he was considered a no-brainer hire!
If Heupel is so bad, then how would you describe Major Applewhite? In Tom Herman’s two years, Houston won a Peach Bowl, a conference title, beat No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 3 Louisville and went 22-4. Applewhite never won more than eight games in a season. The Cougars are still trying to claw their way back.
Memphis has gone from 12-1 to 4-3 since Mike Norvell left. Cincinnati spent a whole era struggling under Tommy Tuberville, going seven years between Top 25 seasons.
Knight Nation needs to understand that UCF’s “drop-off” under Heupel is nothing. The Knights lost a generational, nationally coveted coach in Scott Frost. Since he left, they’ve been back to the New Year’s Six and have never finished outside the Top 25. That is a miraculous blessing.
Heupel may not be Frost. But rolling the dice, in a cashless pandemic year, and hoping to somehow find three straight head coaches that can keep UCF at the Top 25 level is not an easy, or enviable place to be. Heupel’s name showing up in coaching rumors shouldn’t elate you. It should terrify you.