Hoover, Ala.-- Josh Heupel took the podium at SEC Media Days, and the first-year Tennessee head coach was more than transparent about multiple aspects of his program.
One key point Heupel emphasized during his opening statement was the importance of relationships to the way he desires to build his program.
"The first priority when I and our staff got to Tennessee was about relationships, and it still is today," Heupel stated. "That will be the foundation of everything that we do inside of our program, but that came through a conversation with our players. The first night I got hired, I had about an hour and a half meeting with them, and one of the things that I realized that they recognized that they wanted, that they wanted and needed, was connection. That's why we spent an inordinate amount of time connecting with our players, getting to know them -- their strengths, their struggles, their greatest triumphs, the hardships that they faced -- and have had a lot of fun in doing that."
As Heupel mentioned in his debut press conference at Tennessee, "recruiting is the life blood" of a program of this magnitude, and since that day on January 27th, Heupel's staff has worked relentlessly to build relationships on the recruiting front.
"In recruiting over the last six months, our staff has put a ton of time and energy into developing those same relationships with recruits," continued Heupel. "We've started inside out in our footprint here in Tennessee and then gone across the country. That's one of the great things about the logo is the ability to recruit from coast to coast. Our staff has done a great job of developing those same relationships with parents and families and really got an opportunity to connect with them in June as they were able to get on campus for the first time."
This approach has led to early success on the recruiting trail, as the Vols continue to build off momentum established during June official visits and camps.
The third phase? It is just as important as the next, and it is one that Jeremy Pruitt did not utilize to his advantage most of the time.
"And the third group of people that we've really tried to connect with are our VFLs, our Vols for Life," Heupel said. "When you look at some of the great players in college football, they've worn the Power T, and the ability to welcome them back, embrace them, and for them to give back to our current players and know that this is their home forever has been something that's been fun to start building again. You're talking about some of the great players that have ever played the game in Reggie White, Peyton Manning, Tee Martin, Alvin Kamara, Charles Davis. Those are just a handful of guys that are celebrated at Tennessee, and for those who are still living, are able to come back and be part of our program."
In and around the program, from speaking with varying sources, there is undoubtedly a new level of energy because of the way Heupel & Co. have worked to establish relationships, which he also touched on.
"That ties into the program that we will have and we want to have at Tennessee. We want to be innovative, but we want to have fun," Heupel concluded. "I believe in the player experience, having played the game at the highest level and being able to hoist the trophy as a player, chasing that championship is something that you'll never forget. It's a journey that you'll never forget. But those relationships are really important as well, and we want to live those things out every single day. That's why we've spent so much time building that inside of our program, inside of our walls, from the time that I've gotten there, if you followed us at all, you've seen us, whether it's dodgeball after a 6:30 morning workout on a Friday afternoon, whether it's a crawfish boil followed by kick ball after a summer workout on a Tuesday evening, you've seen us spend time with our players. That pays forward once we get on the football field. I believe that connection matters when you face adversity, that you know the person standing next to you, to the left or the right, and you can depend upon those people."