Calling it the “fulfillment of a lifelong dream,” Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel is leaving the Tigers to become the next coach at Central Florida.
Heupel replaces Scott Frost, whom Nebraska hired as coach after he led Central Florida to a 12-0 record this season, including a win over Memphis in the American Athletic Conference championship game last weekend.
‘We’re sitting in a program that is and will be one of the elite programs in the entire country, not every other year, but on a consistent yearly basis,” Heupel said Tuesday at his introductory news conference in Orlando.
Heupel’s departure complicates Missouri’s efforts to recruit a quarterback for its 2018 class — which still lacks one — and it leaves Mizzou without coordinators for either side of the ball. Coach Barry Odom took over defensive playcalling duties last season and fired defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross earlier this season.
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The move also exacerbates the question of whether Mizzou junior quarterback Drew Lock will stay for his senior season and play under a third offensive coordinator and third quarterbacks coach in four years.
This week, Lock earned first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors from The Associated Press and the league’s coaches, and he leads the country in touchdown passes with 43, which has made him a candidate to leave school early for the NFL. In 2016, Lock’s first year under Heupel, the quarterback threw for 3,399 yards and 23 touchdowns.
“Frankly, this doesn’t really affect Drew’s decision much at all,” Andy Lock, the quarterback’s father, told The Star. “I feel like Drew is going to be successful whatever route he takes and whoever he plays for. … Coach Heupel has done an awesome job with Drew. I’m appreciative for all the work he’s done for him.”
Andy Lock said his son wouldn’t make a decision on whether to declare for the NFL Draft until after the Tigers’ play Texas in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 27 in Houston. The Locks want to receive a grade from the NFL Draft advisory board first. The board is historically conservative with its grades, and it only tells players whether it believes they will be first- or second-round picks. Otherwise, it will tell them to return to school.
“We’ve heard a lot of things from a lot of people,” Andy Lock said. “Until you get that grade, you can hear what you want.”
Heupel, a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 2000 when he was a quarterback for Oklahoma, came to Missouri from Utah State, where he was offensive coordinator in 2015. Prior to that, Heupel coached at Oklahoma from 2006-14. He was the Sooners’ offensive coordinator during his final four years at the school.
Oklahoma fired Heupel after the Sooners’ 8-5 2014 season, despite the offense averaging 36.4 points per game. During his time as a coach at Oklahoma, Heupel worked with two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks, Sam Bradford and Jason White.
At Missouri, Odom has given Heupel almost autonomous control over the MU offense. Heupel said Tuesday that his two seasons with Odom helped prepare him for his first head coaching job.
“I will forever be grateful and indebted to you guys,” Heupel said of coaches he has worked with in the past.
Last season, the Tigers led the Southeastern Conference in yards per game with an average of 500.5. Missouri ranks No. 7 in the country in total offense this year, and the Tigers are averaging 39.3 points per game during a season that has seen them go on a six-game winning streak after starting 1-5.
Central Florida ranks first in the country in scoring offense at 49.4 points per game.
“That’s the style they want, that’s the style that’s true to me,” Heupel said of his fast-paced spread offense. “That’s how I want to play.”
Missouri spokespeople said they were not sure if Heupel would coach the Tigers in their bowl game. The Omaha World-Herald reported that Frost intends to coach the Knights in the Peach Bowl against Auburn on New Year’s Day in Atlanta. Heupel said Tuesday that he will be at that game to watch UCF.
At Missouri, Heupel earns an annual base salary of $700,000, the largest of any MU assistant. His contract with the Tigers was set to end Feb. 28, 2019.
According to a memorandum of understanding with UCF, Heupel will make $1.7 million guaranteed per season for five years, can pay nine assistants from an annual salary pool of $2.5 million and would owe a $10 million buyout for leaving UCF before a 2020 bowl game. Frost made $2 million at Central Florida, according to USA Today.
Soon after announcing Heupel’s hiring, Central Florida revealed that Randy Shannon will be the Knights’ defense coordinator. Shannon is the former head coach at the University of Miami and the defensive coordinator at Florida under now-fired coach Jim McElwain. Shannon served as the Gators’ interim head coach after Florida fired McElwain during the 2017 season.
Heupel said he will hire more staff in the coming days and will begin recruiting immediately.
AL.com had previously reported that Heupel expressed interest in the head coaching job at South Alabama, but that likely would have come with a significant pay cut and a large downgrade in conference prestige.
Instead, Heupel accepted an offer for arguably the best available head coaching job outside of the Power Five conferences.
“I really do believe this is one of if not the most elite job in America,” Heupel said, sitting alongside his new athletic director, Danny White.
White is the brother of Missouri deputy athletic director Brian White. Additionally, Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk’s daughter, Amy, began working as an assistant director of administration in the UCF athletic department in March 2017.
“The great thing we’ve got going here, we’re extremely confident Josh Heupel can continue that momentum,” Danny White said.