Josh Heupel's motivation is rarely witnessed publicly. There are only brief glimpses of the chip on his shoulder the size of Mount Rushmore. But if you look hard enough, they're as gaudy as the jeweled ring he earned leading Oklahoma to the 2000 national championship.
Amid the subtext of Heupel's hiring at Tennessee five weeks ago was his new gig being some sort of revenge tour.
It has been six years since Heupel was fired as co-offensive coordinator at his alma mater. At the time, in early 2015, Heupel was considered one of OU's top assistants and a possible successor to Bob Stoops at age 36.
Heupel was Stoops' first and only national championship quarterback. He used that knowledge to tutor Sam Bradford to the 2008 Heisman Trophy. It was mesmerizing that year to watch the pair work together in a film session.
In his memoir "No Excuses", Stoops called Heupel the most valuable player he had in his 18 years OU.
"With Josh, it especially killed me," Stoops wrote. "… Firing Josh was [my] worst day … as the head coach at OU."
Stoops would not provide further comment. Tennessee's coach has mostly avoided the question of his firing being motivation at his introductory press conference.
"[The firing] gave me a chance in some ways to restart and relook at what I wanted to do on the offensive side of the football," Heupel said. "As a coordinator, you're always going to try to carry out your head coach's vision."
During his first year as UCF's coach in 2018, Heupel shared his perspective on his firing with the Orlando Sentinel. "Thank God it happened! It's worked out great for me," he said. "If I had stayed there, I wouldn't be here."
Heupel's relationship with Stoops has been labeled as "frosty", according to a report in The Athletic.
Things did ultimately work out -- for everyone. Heupel is running an SEC program. He was replaced at OU in 2015 by Lincoln Riley. Two years later, Riley replaced Stoops as coach and has since taken the Sooners to three College Football Playoff appearances in his first three seasons.
All of it continues to reflect how the entire game -- and part of all our lives -- might be based on proving someone elseOv wrong. It's an inherent element of not only sports' backstage but of the overall human experience. That's why players trash talk, why home-run hitters pose at the plate and why there are more endzone dances than strands of DNA.
Those throughout the competitive food chain let disrespect -- real or perceived -- drive them.
"Think of it: Fired from your alma mater," said Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom, who both played and coached against Heupel while at Missouri. "If you're a competitor, you're going to carry some of those things with you, which is … healthy."
Odom should know. He hired Heupel as his offensive coordinator at Missouri in 2016. Three years later Odom, was fired by his alma mater.
Motivation abounds this 2021 offseason. Eleven FBS schools fired coaches in the last hiring cycle. One-third of the 15 new coaches entering the 2021 season had been fired from head coaching jobs at previous stops.
Nick Saban has built a halfway house of sorts where coaches can remake their careers. The Alabama coach has employed at least eight previously fired FBS head coaches. Among those that are now in new jobs are Mike Locksley (Maryland), Mario Cristobal (Oregon), Kyle Flood (Texas), Steve Sarkisian (Texas) and Lane Kiffin (Ole Miss). All jumped from Alabama to Power Five head coach or coordinator jobs in recent years.
"The old adage is, 'You've never really coached until you've been fired,'" Sarkisian said.
Sarkisian was fired at USC in 2015 after public struggles with substance abuse. After a stay in a rehabilitation facility, he reemerged with Alabama as an offensive analyst in 2016. He won the Broyles Award for nation's best assistant coach in 2020 and has since been hired to lead Texas.
How's that for a comeback? The Longhorns gets Sarkisian at the top of his game. At age 46, Sark is the best play caller in the game. Can he succeed at one of the top 10 jobs in college football?
"When you experience that [downturn in your career], a lot of coaches go one of two ways," Sarkisian said. "It really drove me just to be the best coach I can be. I wasn't worried if I would ever be a head coach again. I just wanted to be the best coach, the best version of Steve Sarkisian every day. … All the sudden, there were opportunities to be a head coach again."
Tony Franklin's has spent his career fighting back. The long-time assistant was essentially blackballed from college football after writing a book in 2001 following his departure from Kentucky. "Fourth Down and Life To Go" was a tell-all regarding the inner workings of the Wildcats program.
It was five years before he worked in college football again.
"I felt like, if I didn't get back in, I would have let the bullies win," Franklin said. "My father taught me when I was a little boy … 'If you ever let a bully bully you, he'll do it the rest of your life. You've got to punch him in the nose.'"
Franklin eventually came back and emerged as Auburn's offensive coordinator. As Louisiana Tech's offensive coordinator in 2012, the Bulldogs averaged 51.5 points. Only two teams since then have averaged 50 points. In 2015, Franklin was Cal's OC during Jared Goff's season in which he set Pac-12 records for yards and touchdowns passing.
Franklin resigned at Middle Tennessee State in December after clashing with coach Rick Stockstill and administration regarding COVID-19 protocols.
"The bullies can usually set the things up where they can win but you don't quit," Franklin said.
He gave up his job and perhaps financial security rather be part of a program that, he said, was cavalier about COVID-19. Franklin continues with his longtime offensive coaching service, TF 365. He claims to have over 400 clients. But at age 63, this might be for him on college football sidelines.
Heupel is just reaching his coaching prime. His 28-8 record at UCF includes an AAC title and Fiesta Bowl appearance as well as two seasons of at least 10 wins.
It's clear by now Heupel didn't fail at OU. Injuries and turnovers -- 17 in the final seven games of 2014 -- did him in. At the end of an 8-5 season, Oklahoma finished unranked after a bowl loss for only the second time in Stoops' entire tenure with the Sooners.
Following his OU firing, Heupel landed as offensive coordinator at Utah State and then Missouri. Heupel replaced Scott Frost at UCF in 2018. Now at Tennessee, being in the right place at the right time has resulted in him earning one of the most challenging coaching assignments in the country.
"It worked out perfect for him because some really big name people wouldn't touch [the Tennessee job] because of the situation," said Mark Mangino, Heupel's offensive coordinator at Oklahoma.
Tennessee is in the midst of an NCAA investigation regarding possible major violations. For that reason, perhaps, Heupel was always in the back pocket of athletic director Danny White who preceded his coach by moving from UCF to Tennessee. White has now hired Heupel twice as head coach of the Knights and Volunteers.
"I understand how Josh feels," Mangino said. "But whether he cares or wants to admit it, he's still held in high esteem at Oklahoma. … If he walked into Memorial Stadium, the fans would jump on their feet. They love him."
It's college football. Layer enough money on top of ego on top of money and somebody is always feeling screwed, oppressed, disrespected or all three simultaneously.
"There is a chip on the shoulder of all of us [coaches]," Odom said. "… Everybody has scars."