Dan Fleser: Heupel's Big Pay Hike; Zeigler Comes Through

  • Wednesday, January 25, 2023
  • Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser

Some thoughts and observations pertaining to UT athletics:

The price you pay: When Tennessee announced Tuesday that football coach Josh Heupel was receiving a contract extension through 2029 and subsequent reports put its value at $9 million per year plus incentives, my first thought was: Whoa.

That makes two salary increases in two years for Heupel. He was bumped to $5 million last summer, which amounted to a million-dollar increase of his opening salary. Furthermore, this sort of escalation hasn’t always worked out so well. The haunting memory of Jeremy Pruitt still lingers.

But this coach and these circumstances seem different. Heupel ushered a transfer-ravaged team to a 7-6 record in his first season. And then there was this fall’s magical 11-2, UT’s best record in 21 seasons. Heupel already is fielding one of the nation’s top offenses. There’s also encouraging signs regarding overall player development, team culture and recruiting – both at the high-school level and from the transfer portal. 

All things considered, Tuesday’s announcement seemed inevitable. Since everything means more in the SEC, this sort of success, particularly with football, is going to cost more as well.

Salary increases of this nature, though, also raise expectations. Given the turnover in talent, eight victories next season is a more realistic objective than anything approaching this season. But fans, by nature, aren’t always realistic. And now they have a much bigger number to affix to any frustration they feel.

From my press conference vantage point, Heupel comes across a down-to-earth fellow. He seems guarded (aren’t all football coaches?) but likeable. He’s gone out of his way to thank the fans for their support. The sight of Heupel firing up a cigar amid the on-field revelry following the Alabama victory is one of the best images of 2022. But this sort of pay raise will change the dynamics between coach and fans and might create some “whoa” moments for Heupel.

On point: Remember when Zakai Zeigler got yanked from the starting lineup after a November loss to Colorado and got blistered – arguably a bit too severely – by coach Rick Barnes? If not, you’re forgiven.

Zeigler, Tennessee’s sophomore point guard, has started the past two games and produced 36 points, 14 assists and eight rebounds. In SEC play, he’s leading the conference in assists at 7.3 per game. 

“Really proud of him and what he’s doing,” Barnes said on Monday. “Just watching him really starting to understand the game and what that position calls for. The fact that he’s embraced it. He’s doing a great job and he’s going to get better at learning how to manage games and manage his teammates.”

 So close: Former Vol Todd Helton finished just 11 votes shy this week of the requisite 75 percent needed for induction into Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Helton played first base for the Colorado Rockies for 17 seasons.

I’ll recuse myself from lobbying on Helton’s behalf because of my rooting interest. I’ve known him since he was a teenager at Central High School. In my years at the Knoxville News Sentinel, he gave many great feats and quotes to write about. I covered his final home game with the Rockies. I’d love to be there in Cooperstown, N.Y., with him someday.

More contract news: UT announced Wednesday that athletic director Danny White has agreed to a contract extension with a six-year rolling term and an annual salary of $2.2 million.

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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 1988. He is a 2022 inductee to the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.

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