People would ask about the heady Oklahoma quarterback's upbringing as the son of a coach. And they'd hear about the time when Josh, at age 9, or it could have been 10, was riding home with his father after a game. Aberdeen (S.D.) Central High School had lost, and the ride was a silent stew until from the back seat, Josh asked his father, the head coach:
"Did you know the flats were open all night long?"
Yeah, there was never a doubt. Ask Oklahoma's newly minted co-offensive coordinator what he'd be doing if he weren't coaching, and the answer comes only after a long pause to ponder.
"I have no idea," said Heupel, finally. "Something in marketing, I guess. That's what my degree's in, but I never planned on using it.
"This is what I was gonna do."
Heupel is 33 now, 10 years and a few months removed from his playing days -- "a long time ago," he said, though in some ways it still seems like just the other day. But those who knew him then -- never mind when he was a boy -- might have predicted this progression. His promotion last December after former coordinator Kevin Wilson left to become Indiana's head coach was simply a natural ascension.
The next question, of course, is what is Heupel going to do? All winter, fans have wondered about his tendencies, and the direction a former gunslinger might take the offense (which, it must be noted, throws more often and for more yards than Heupel did in his two years running Mike Leach's version of the spread). And will the promotion of a legend alter the love-hate relationship the fans have had with the Sooners' play-callers over the years?
Heupel shares the title with Oklahoma receivers coach Jay Norvell, but Heupel has been given play-calling duties. In his debut, he called 49 passes in Oklahoma's win over Connecticut in the Fiesta Bowl.
"You could tell a little bit he's pass-oriented, but it might have just been the (circumstances of) the game," junior quarterback Landry Jones said. "I didn't feel a huge difference. It's not like we're changing the offense entirely."
Fans will have fun parsing the meaning of the last modifier, but the Sooners aren't going back to Leach's version of the spread. The offensive transformation actually came a few years back when Sam Bradford was quarterback and the Sooners moved away from the run and play-action passing of the Adrian Peterson era. Last season Oklahoma averaged 343 passing yards -- 71 yards per game more than when Heupel was a senior.
Heupel is providing no hints either way, which shouldn't surprise anyone. Publicly, he is quiet, and very careful. When he was a player, his words were measured -- he could have been an extension, during press conferences, of Stoops -- and nothing has changed during his brief coaching career. So we're not going to get much from him as to how the offense might change in 2011 and beyond.
"It won't change a lot," Stoops said, but he offered a hint when he added: "To me, the basis of the offense still revolves primarily around what your quarterback does the best. And from there, your tailback."
DeMarco Murray, the all-everything tailback, is gone; in his place, the Sooners appear set to use a running back-by-committee. Meanwhile, in Jones they've got a third-year starter who'd always had the passing tools, but made great strides near the end of last season in intangibles like leadership and clutch playmaking. He might be Oklahoma's next Heisman candidate.
And in Heupel, they've got a guy who always loved to pass. He arrived in Norman in January 1999, a midyear transfer from Snow Junior College in Utah, and became known for spending hours holed up with Leach, studying what was then a fairly radical passing game. The task was simple: Run (pass) Leach's offense. Bring the Sooners back to prominence. Heupel did both pretty well.
Heupel estimated he checked out of plays almost 50 percent of the time his senior season. That was 2000, his second year in Norman -- Stoops' second season, too. As the Sooners ascended from a decade of decline to the national championship, Heupel rose from obscurity to Heisman runner-up. And when his career ended after beating Florida State in the Orange Bowl, he tried the NFL -- but there wasn't much doubt about his future. Ten years later, here he is.
"It's been a long progression," Heupel said. "You're so involved with the daily grind that you're just kind of pushing and plowing ahead, and one day you look up and you're in the role you're in."
Which, by the way, is how the Sooners prefer to look at their current position. With a loaded nucleus returning from last season's Big 12 champion, Oklahoma will likely be ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls.
"We don't really much care about it," Stoops said. "Around here we're expected to win it every year."
It's instructive to recall the situation when Stoops arrived at Oklahoma, followed quickly by Heupel. Expectations were not high; the proud program had fallen on hard times. Hadn't even been to a bowl in four years. Stoops quickly changed all of that, but no one around Norman underestimates the impact of the unknown junior-college transfer Stoops and Leach found in Ephraim, Utah. And it was more than just being a perfect fit to make all of those quick reads and short passes.
"We all believed in him," said Seth Littrell, the former Sooner fullback who's now Arizona's offensive coordinator. "There were 11 guys on offense that believed in him every Saturday."
Now, with Oklahoma a regular in the BCS Championship game -- but without a national championship since 2000 -- fans are counting on Heupel to help deliver another.
Past glory won't factor much into the equation. Jones, a junior, said he watched the Orange Bowl but doesn't remember much about it; he was only 11. Heupel's not sure how many players remember -- or know of -- his college career, though he jokes about playing highlights on an endless loop in his office.
More important to Jones, and to the Sooners, is Heupel's ability now that he's no longer a "coach on the field." After a couple of seasons working with Oklahoma's offensive line as a graduate assistant, he spent a year with Mike Stoops at Arizona coaching tight ends, then returned to Norman to mentor the Sooners' quarterbacks. The results speak for themselves.
In 2006, he tutored Paul Thompson -- a quarterback turned receiver suddenly turned quarterback again -- as the Sooners won the Big 12 championship. He mentored Bradford, who became the school's fifth Heisman Trophy winner in 2008 while operating an offense that set modern football scoring records. Then, when Bradford was injured in the 2009 season opener, Heupel was tasked with developing Jones -- lots of talent, but not ready for action -- on the fly.
"It's difficult when you get thrust into that role," Heupel said. "He had a lot of success early, then he hit some bumps, as we did as a program. You go back to that time, some of those speed bumps have maybe helped him now, and in the future as well."
Maybe so. But Jones said the presence of "Coach 'Heup'" helped him mature from a scared kid into a leader. He credits much of his transformation, which became evident last season, to Heupel's "open communication" style. Meanwhile, Stoops said Heupel's natural ability to gameplan, evident when he was a player, has been honed through the years on Oklahoma's staff. He won't quite say it, but maybe the head coach always knew the progression was coming.
"I don't know that there was any one revelation, any one day," Stoops said. "Through the years, you could see (growth) happening. It's not surprising. When you look at his leadership as a player, as well, that he has that kind of style to him."
How will Heupel do in the new role? Time will tell. But the pedigree is there. And it's safe to figure he'll know when the flats are open.