'Thank God it happened' - Josh Heupel's journey from being fired to coaching the 'national champs'

Josh Heupel (R) replaced Scott Frost as Central Florida’s head coach. Will Heupel keep UCF’s undefeated run going? (AP file photo)

ORLANDO – On a bitter South Dakota night back in the mid-1980s, hay bales stacked the Aberdeen Central sideline to cut down the wind. Ken Heupel recalls the kind of cold that gnaws your bones, with temperatures in the 20s and arctic winds that doubled as a geographic identity. “If you don’t live in the Midwest,” he recalls, “you’d never know.”

After Heupel’s Aberdeen Central team lost in the state semifinals that night, he recalls finally climbing into his 1975 Chevy Monza to start fighting off the dueling sting of defeat and bitter cold. In shotgun sat his young son Josh, who was about 7, and Ken Heupel recalls him being small enough that he had to move the upper strap of the seat belt away from his mouth to talk.

“Do you know they were playing Radar defense?” Josh asked.

Ken nodded in acknowledgement.

“Dad, well, you know the Radar defense has the flats open.” 

Silence.

“Well, dad, you only threw to the flat two times.”

Ken Heupel can now muster a chuckle in re-telling, as his son’s ride into the coaching profession had already begun. “We just lost the game and everyone is down,” Ken Heupel said. “And he’s not afraid to pull the seat belt off his mouth to critique his dad.”

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Josh Heupel, 40, makes his head coaching debut for No. 21 UCF on Thursday night at Connecticut. There’s an inevitability to Josh Heupel taking over a marquee job at a young age, as the coach’s son smashed records as a high school quarterback, led Oklahoma to a national title and became the offensive coordinator there by 32. But Heupel’s linear journey to coaching stardom detoured in January of 2015, when Bob Stoops fired him after an 8-5 season and a 40-6 loss to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

That decision, while crushing initially, is now being celebrated in more places than Norman, where the departure of Heupel and Jay Norvell led to Lincoln Riley’s hire.

“Thank God it happened in a lot of ways,” Heupel told Yahoo Sports. “You can go back and find your identity. Who are you, what are you passionate about? On the offensive side, how do you want to interact with your kids, core values to have, environment to create?”

Few first-year coaches in college football face the daunting expectations of Heupel. He takes over a team that went 13-0 under Scott Frost last season, beating Auburn in the Peach Bowl and creating months of buzz – and derision – by claiming themselves national champions.

Just three years after his firing, Heupel finds himself back atop the profession with a clearer sense of his self-identity and offensive philosophy. Those who know Heupel best say introspection and effervescence aren’t his defining qualities, but his three-season journey through Utah State and Missouri helped him boomerang his career fortunes and find himself in football and beyond.

“This is true to my belief system,” he said of the offense UCF will be running this season. “It’s how I see the game as. Once I was able to do that, I’m grateful for the opportunity. The way you can approach it, it’s different. It feels different when you’re doing what you’re passionate about and want to do it.”

When Matt Wells hired Josh Heupel to run the offense at Utah State a few weeks after the firing in 2015, he found a coach energized by the challenge of coming back. Wells recalled Heupel drinking six cups of coffee by noon every day, scribbling so furiously – and illegibly – on the white board he joked that he couldn’t tell if he were left handed or right handed. In such perpetual motion, Heupel’s desk was always messy, but his vision stayed clear.

“He didn’t talk much about it here,” Wells said of the departure from Oklahoma. “I just knew from being his friend for such a long time, I knew how much that had to hurt. But he went right back to work, trying to make Utah State better.”

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Heupel’s successful season in Logan led to a two-year stint at Missouri, where he engineered one of the most impressive offensive overhauls in recent college football history. Missouri finished No. 124 in total offense in 2015 (280.9), the year before Heupel’s arrival. They jumped to No. 13 in 2016 (500.5) and No. 7 (511.5) last year, as Heupel ran a hybrid of the offense Art Briles made famous at Baylor.

Missouri coach Barry Odom came away as impressed with the approach as the production, as Heupel tailored the offense to the personnel and instilled a daily sense of competitiveness that reverberated through the program. “It didn’t matter if it was practice three of spring [ball],” Odom said. “He wanted to go out and embarrass the defense. That’s the way he was as a player.”

No player benefitted more from Heupel than Drew Lock, the Missouri quarterback who projects as a top NFL prospect at that position. Heupel clicked with Lock right away, as he’d recruited him as an assistant at Oklahoma. The competitiveness matched, too, as Lock had offers to play basketball at Missouri, Oklahoma and Wichita State.

Lock completed just 49 percent of his passes and appeared overwhelmed at times in starting eight games in 2015 as a true freshman. Heupel inherited a quarterback so early in his learning curve that he struggled to recognize defensive nuances on film, never mind live on a field. “One of the things I’m most proud of is that he went through the fire and came out unscathed on the other side,” Heupel said, mirroring the observation many made about his own coaching detour.

Two years later, Lock’s completion percentage leapt nearly nine points – 57.8 – and he set SEC and school records with 44 touchdown passes. He led the league in passing efficiency, passing yards and yards per completion, and more importantly, he guided Missouri to six straight wins to end the season. Heupel summed up Lock’s ascension this way: “You can only play at a high level when you have a total command of what’s going on with all 22 guys on the field.”

Central Florida coach Josh Heupel inherits a quarterback, McKenzie Milton, who finished eighth in the Heisman voting last year after he led the Knights to an improbable 13-0 record. (AP file photo)

UCF athletic director Danny White had some added insight into Heupel as his brother, Brian White, worked closely with the Missouri football program as the school’s deputy athletic director. (Brian is now the AD at FAU.) Danny White turned to his president after the interview and remarked: “Wow, that dude might be a genius.” He added: “It didn’t occur to me until after, but there’s so many similarities to Frost.”

Which brings us to the most intriguing possibility of Heupel’s new job at UCF – inheriting prolific quarterback McKenzie Milton. As a sophomore last season, Milton won the American Athletic Conference Player of the year, finished eighth in the Heisman race and set school records with 37 touchdowns and 4,037 passing yards. With a talented ensemble cast returning around him that Heupel calls “as competitive of skill groups as I’ve been around,” it’ll be fascinating what Milton does for an encore.

Heupel’s offense could be considered a cousin of the Oregon hybrid that Frost ran last year. But there will be differences from the Baylor lineage that wasn’t on display in full at Oklahoma – wider splits, more tempo and likely more downfield shots – that hint at UCF potentially improving on the nation’s best scoring offense (48.2 ppg). “I love it,” Milton said. “It spaces out the defense and forces them to show their hand pre-snap. It’s hard to disguise stuff when the splits are that wide.”

Just three years after the inglorious departure at Oklahoma, Heupel is at the top Group of Five job in the country, the head coach of a nationally ranked team that’s in the heart of a rich recruiting cradle. As his career arc bent, Heupel didn’t break. “He renewed himself and re-energized himself,” Ken Heupel said.

And the old coach, long since retired, can now enjoy a bit of role reversal. Ken Heupel is a frequent visitor at UCF practices and promises to be a regular at their games this season. Far from the hay bales and icy winds on the South Dakota plains, the roles are now reversed. The only difference is that Ken Heupel doesn’t need to remove the seatbelt from his mouth to offer a few unfiltered opinions. “I will certainly get an earful after every ballgame,” Josh Heupel said. “Good or bad.”

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