In high school Josh had the good fortune to have a football coach, Steve Svendsen, who was uniquely qualified to harness Josh's gifts as a passer. Svendsen had recently finished a two-year stint as a graduate assistant at Houston, where coach John Jenkins was minting NFL quarterback David Klingler with the run-and-shoot offense. In the second half of the first game of his sophomore season, Josh took over Aberdeen Central's scaled-down run-and-shoot. "He was just a skinny little thing," says Svendsen, now the coach at Rapid City (S.Dak.) Central High, "but he had a great understanding of what we were trying to do. Even then he checked in and out of plays at the line."
Svendsen still has the "goal sheet" that Josh filled out before his senior season. He could think of only 20 goals before some-one, perhaps his dad, said, "That's probably plenty, Josh." Heupel's aims included: 40 at or below 4.75 (since arriving at Oklahoma, he's dropped his 40 from 5.06 to 4.75); Improve long ball (keep working, Josh); and Play great in big games (done that). In an endearing flash of self-awareness he also wrote, as his final goal, Learn to relax a bit.
As a senior he was named South Dakota's player of the year. He got feelers from Houston, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Wyoming—"but it seemed I was always the second or third guy on their list," he says. That led to a three-year detour in Utah.
Approaching Ephraim, Utah, from the north, one can't help noticing the profusion of squat structures on both sides of Route 89. They're turkey shacks. Ephraim, site of Snow College, is also Utah's turkey capital, where the beauty of the surrounding Wasatch Mountains is compromised, alas, by the ever-present funk of turkey leavings. It was in this unlikely setting, sharing an apartment with seven other guys and subsisting on dinners of rice and gravy, that Heupel enjoyed, in his words, "one of the best times of my life."
His Utah interlude had begun at Weber State, in Ogden, in '96. The Wildcats' coach at the time, Dave Arslanian, had never recruited a player out of South Dakota, but he saw one tape of Heupel and called him. (This would become a pattern.) Heupel redshirted his first season at Weber State and then, on the last day of spring practice, tore an ACL. He played in four games the following season, after which he learned that Arslanian was leaving Ogden to coach at Utah State.
Not long after, Heupel announced that he intended to follow Arslanian, but rather than transfer immediately to Utah State, where he would have been required to sit out a season, he enrolled at Snow in January 1998. After winning the Badgers' starting job in the spring, Heupel was told that a former Snow quarterback, Fred Salanoa, had decided to rejoin the team after briefly transferring to Hawaii. Heupel, it was decided, would play the first half of games, Salanoa the second. Cindy remembers Josh trying to break the news gently to Ken: "There's one other thing, Dad. Fred's brother is the offensive coordinator."
No matter. Even splitting time with Salanoa, Heupel flat-out tore opponents up, throwing for 2,308 yards and 28 touchdowns with only five interceptions and earning recognition as a junior college All-America. This wasn't good news for Arslanian, who expected Heupel to join him at Utah State. "What happened," says Mike Leach, a former Oklahoma assistant and now the coach at Texas Tech, "is that Josh went to Snow and did too well."
In the same week that Heupel finished that season at Snow, Sooners coach Bob Stoops hired Leach to be his offensive coordinator. When he arrived at Oklahoma, Leach discovered mat not a soul on campus was capable of running the spread offense he'd been brought in to install. He saw one tape of Heupel and got on the phone.
Heupel's was not the typical recruiting visit. Like two bears in a cave, he and Leach holed up in Leach's office, ordering takeout and watching tape. Strength coach Jerry Schmidt recalls being introduced to Heupel. "He wanted to know how I could help him increase his speed, his quickness on his drops," says Schmidt. "Usually we interview the recruits, but Josh was the one asking the questions."
Heupel broke the news to Arslanian: He was going to Oklahoma. "I was crushed," says Arslanian, who was fired by Utah State after the 1999 season. "I tried to change his mind. Seeing how it's turned out for Josh, I'm thankful he didn't follow me."