By JOHN ZENOR, AP Sports Writer
HOOVER, Ala. (AP) — The Southeastern Conference’s four new head coaches inherit very different situations but sport the standard new regime optimism.
Tennessee’s Josh Heupel is trying to rescue a proud program whose struggles now include an NCAA investigation into potential recruiting violations. Vanderbilt’s Clark Lea returned to his alma mater after the Commodores failed to win a game. Auburn’s Bryan Harsin shed his Boise State roots for the SEC and the Southeast. South Carolina’s Shane Beamer, like Lea, is a first-time head coach, but he’s the son of a highly successful one.
They all spent SEC media days — and much of the offseason — touting their programs’ potential and-or tradition.
Heupel was hired in late January amid an NCAA probe after the firing of Jeremy Pruitt for cause when an internal investigation uncovered serious rules violations. A number of key players bolted during all the turmoil.
But Heupel is focusing on the history and promise of the Volunteers program.
“This is one of the great and iconic logos in all of college football, steeped in tradition,” the former UCF coach and Oklahoma quarterback said. “It’s a great honor to be the caretaker of Tennessee football at this time and really proud of what our players and our staff have done in six months.”
Heupel, who joined former UCF athletic director Danny White in Knoxville, went 28-8 in three seasons at their former school.
The Vols haven’t won the SEC East title since 2007. Heupel’s UCF offense ranked second nationally last season, stirring some excitement among offensive players like wide receiver Velus Jones.
Heupel’s personality has also won over Jones.
“He really interacts with the players a lot, always around us, whether it’s like tossing the football or coming in the weight room, checking on us, asking us about our personal lives,” the Tennessee receiver said. “Like he’s just an amazing guy. He’s always involved, he’s always around, you’re always seeing his face, so he’s a really likable guy.
“I’m so proud to go to war for that man this fall.”
Auburn’s Harsin replaces Gus Malzahn, who was paid a $21.5 million buyout following a 6-5 season but never had a losing record. Harsin was 69-19 in seven seasons at Boise State, winning at least nine games in every full season and three outright Mountain West Conference titles.
He’ll have to compete against defending national champion and in-state rival Alabama.
“As a football coach, when you come into the facility you have 250 people at a place like this, and we’re all charging towards one goal,” Harsin said. “We want to win championships. We want to get better every single day. All the things you hear from every single coach that’s been up here and has talked.”
Harsin plucked two of Beamer’s new assistants from South Carolina, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and offensive line coach Will Friend.
The 49-year-old Beamer’s father, Frank, was a longtime head coach at Virginia Tech. The younger Beamer is coming off a stint as Oklahoma’s assistant head coach. He insists the Gamecocks have everything in place to build a championship-caliber program, and that he wants to put down some roots.
“My wife and I bought a house. We haven’t moved in. We’re renovating it,” Beamer said. “We’re still living in a condo 100 yards from my office. So all I do is wake up early each morning and go into that facility, and I can’t wait to get to work each day and move this program forward and try and make this program better.”
Lea finished his college career as a fullback at Vandy from 2002-04. The Nashville native spent the past two seasons as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator.
The Commodores went 0-9 last year and haven’t had a winning season since 2013. Lea knows taking over a rebuilding job is hardly unique in coaching.
“But what is unique to us is the history that our players have experienced within the program,” he said. “The challenge of holding people to different standards and expectations in the same spaces that they occupied before is real. Everything they confront needs to be different, and we can’t be afraid to be drastically different.”
Missouri’s Eliah Drinkwitz, one of four second-year SEC head coaches, had some words of caution for his newest counterparts.
“There’s eight new head coaches in the last two years,” Drinkwitz said. “It’s not for the faint of heart. Be careful what you wish for.”