June 12, 2024

Vol football equipment staff grinds on after another ‘start over’

Equipment managing under coach Josh Heupel is yet another change for a football managerial staff that has weathered five coaching changes since 2008.

Tennessee coach Josh Heupel watches quarterback Hendon Hooker (5) warm up before Tennessee played Tennessee Tech in Neyland on Sept. 18, 2021. Photo/Christian Knox

Look close enough at the sidelines and you may see it — the swag trunk, or, the box filled specifically with flashy gear at the players’ disposal. This “swag trunk” is one of the many new faces on the sidelines of Tennessee football this season.

Coach Jeremy Pruitt was fired from his position as the head football coach at the University of Tennessee on Jan. 18, 2021; nine days later, on Jan. 27, Josh Heupel was hired as the head football coach at the University of Tennessee. In the midst of the changes, one particular staff corps stood strong under the stress, as they have done many times before.

The equipment staff for the football program at UT has seen five coaching changes since 2008.

Composed of 19 student managers and three head staff, the equipment team is responsible for numerous behind the scenes tasks from gear and equipment to practices and games.

“If you’re hearing about us that means something has happened that affected a game,” Kirby Simpson, a graduate assistant manager, said.

One role of the department is the upkeep of equipment. A rusty helmet screw could take a key player out of a play or a forgotten jersey could affect the way the team looks.

“We aren’t really noticed unless we mess up,” Thomas Wharton, a second year manager, said.

Much goes into making sure the program runs smoothly. Simpson spends 12 hours a day in the facility. Under the new football staff, he wakes up at 5:00 a.m. and heads home in the evening. Pouring so much time into the team means forming relationships, understanding coach expectations and perfecting routine. So, when the news broke on Jan. 18, the equipment staff prepared for yet another adjustment.

“Change is hard and we were stubborn at first,” Simpson said. The sixth-year manager has seen two changes himself. “Now, [we] have to figure out how exactly they want things to go.”

Learning new names, figuring out the flow of practice and adapting to a new philosophy comprise only some of the changes. Pruitt administered tradition: X’s and O’s and black cleats. Heupel’s philosophy has been predominantly player-oriented. Music is played at practice, players are allowed white cleats, the uniform rotation may include alternate jerseys, and of course, the “swag trunk.”

The practice schedule has also seen modification. Heupel slates morning practices compared to Pruitt’s 4:00 p.m. practices. The equipment staff students are forced to adjust by enrolling in afternoon classes.

These changes place a large responsibility on the equipment staff — a group that works tirelessly to stay a step ahead and remain prepared. Earning the trust of new coaching staff and trying to align with their ideology is no easy task for college students. However, they seem to be doing their job well because they have not been noticed.

The managers also remain optimistic. When asked about the future of the program, Wharton said, “I like winning and I am going to give these guys a chance. They are genuine, good guys.”

“Coaches are put into tough situations coming into a new program. You have to be patient because programs are not built overnight,” Simpson added.

The Vols are 2-1 under Heupel and will play Florida in Gainesville on Saturday.

Edited by Christian Knox

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