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Former Georgia and Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt made his debut at SEC Football Media Days as Tennessee's head coach on Wednesday. His has been a rapid but tumultuous ascension to that post.

Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt a good coach, still working on those people skills

Chip Towers

ATLANTA –By the way, Jeremy Pruitt responded Wednesday to those critical remarks made by former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray yesterday. He didn’t really address them directly, per se, but he did sort of respond to them.

Asked by Tennessee beat writers for a response before his appearance in the main room at SEC Football Media Days on Wednesday, Pruitt offered this reply: “Well, first of all, I haven’t exactly heard what it was, but I’ll say this: I don’t really know Aaron … but I have a lot of respect for what kind of player he was, and I coached against him. But I look at it like this: Fifteen years ago I was a kindergarten teacher, and today I’m the head football coach at Tennessee. You probably don’t make that ascension unless you know how to treat people.”

Pruitt has ascended for sure. Whether he knows how to treat people is a matter of debate.

Suffice it to say, Pruitt didn’t treat some people very well in his short, tumultuous tenure in Athens. That is, of course, where Aaron Murray’s sentiments originated. David Pollack’s, too.

No, Murray wasn’t playing for Georgia when Pruitt was with the Bulldogs. But he left Athens a month before Pruitt’s arrival and had been there five years prior. Murray remained close to head coach Mark Richt and Georgia’s coaching and support staff after he left. So he was in the loop, so to speak.

So Murray knew about the explosive coaches’ meetings, where one time fellow assistants had to hold back an offensive coach to keep him from punching Pruitt. He’d heard about the derogatory remarks Pruitt made about Richt in front of the team on the practice field in the spring of 2015. He knew about the blow-up in the dining hall and the complaints lodged in the athletic directors’ office.

And while Murray was not inside the football complex daily at that time, Hutson Mason was. He succeeded Murray as Georgia’s starting quarterback in 2014 and witnessed Pruitt up close that season.

“People in the locker room saw those situations, the blowups and antics; those things happened,” said Mason, who’s now doing sports radio in Atlanta. “That was disrespectful and he crossed the line. But part of that was also, why doesn’t Coach Richt stick up for himself and put (Pruitt) in his place. He was the head man.”

I knew about a lot of those things, too. That’s why I share some of the same skepticism that Murray does about Pruitt being a good fit for the job of head coach at a major college football program. At the end of the day, protocol, decorum and subordination are all part of that vocation, and Pruitt clearly was deficient in those areas.

That shouldn’t be confused as my final assessment of Pruitt’s coaching ability. As Mason intimates, some of those very traits might be what makes Pruitt successful at Tennessee.

“This conference and this league is cut-throat and it’s a bottom-line business,” Mason said. “Whether you’re talking about CEOs in the business world or head football coaches, you have to be able to delegate and motivate people. But Aaron and (David) Pollack threw out the word disrespectful when it came to Pruitt, and I would agree with that.”

Without a doubt, the man knows how to coach. He knows what good players look like, regardless of how many stars are next to their recruiting profile, and he knows how to get them into his school. He can scheme up on defense as well as anybody and he’s well-schooled in the intricacies of the game on both sides of the ball. We’ll find out in a few months how Pruitt is at in-game strategy, clock management and the like.

Meanwhile, Pruitt some good work in Athens. On the field, Georgia finished sixth and fifth, respectively, in the SEC in total (337.2 ypg) and scoring defense (21.7 ppg), and it was third on both fronts in 2015 (305.9, 17.8). The Bulldogs won 20 games his two seasons in Athens.

And Pruitt also had a profound and lasting effect on how Georgia conducted their practices, and some of their strength and conditioning methods as well. Much of it he brought from his days under Nick Saban at Alabama, and so a lot of it remains in place under current Georgia coach Kirby Smart, also a Saban disciple.

Pruitt should not, however, be given credit for the Bulldogs now having a state-of-the-art indoor practice facility on campus, as some like to think. He famously — or infamously — groused about Georgia not having one in November of 2014 when thunderstorms forced the Bulldogs into the inadequate (and now razed) Nalley Multipurpose Facility. But he was reprimanded for that. Meanwhile, documents show that project was already planned in the laps of the Board of Regents at that point. The Payne Athletic Facility opened in January of 2017, or about year  and half after Pruitt said it would be. So he tends to exaggerate.

Meanwhile, Pruitt wasn’t exactly the No. 1 choice in Knoxville. Depending on how one wants to quantify it, at least nine individuals were contacted about succeeding Butch Jones as the Vols’ head coach and four of them were offered the job before Pruitt was. So he wasn’t an obvious or even the overwhelming choice.

Again, none of that is to say he won’t successful up on Rocky Top. He well could. Like Smart, he’s the son of a high school coach (Dale Pruitt of Albertville, Ala.), so he grew up around football and knows the game inside and out. He’s wily and fiery and has trained under some of the best in the business, including Smart, Saban, Richt, Jimbo Fisher and Rush Propst.

“He’s very, very, very bright within the game tactically,” was the way Smart described him yesterday.

I asked Pruitt how his stint at Georgia may have helped him in his quest to become a college head coach. He really didn’t answer that one directly either.

“Coach Richt, … the biggest thing [learned] from him was probably there’s more to life than football,” Pruitt said. “I know that sounds [odd], but there is. One of these days, it won’t matter how many championships you win and all that. But I enjoyed my time in Athens, I loved it, built a lot of great relationships. Now obviously we play them in the fourth week and Kirby’s there. So I’m sure I want to beat him and he’ll want to beat me.”

No, I’m absolutely fascinated with Pruitt’s tenure at Tennessee. It’s like I’m walking into a cold, dark theater, popcorn in hand, and getting ready to watch a mystery/thriller. You don’t really know how it’s going to turn out, but you know it’s going to be good.