ATHENS – I have to admit, I was pretty taken aback when I saw that Tennessee hired Jeremy Pruitt as head coach on Thursday. Surprised? For sure. Shocked? Probably not.
After viewing the Vols’ coaching search from afar, I was resigned that anything could happen. For what it’s worth, from the beginning, or at least from the point that major candidates started turning them down, I always thought Tennessee would do well to hire Tee Martin. And I was certain that’s what they’d end up doing after they made Phillip Fulmer their new athletic director. You know, he’s one of Phil’s players, a beloved Vols’ figure, minority coach, national champion, offensive coordinator at USC. If anybody could heal the Big Orange Nation, he’d probably do it. Made sense.
Or certainly Kevin Steele. More polished resume’, defensive guy, former UT player, connected to the Nick Saban tree. A lot of checks there.
Heck, Georgia’s Mel Tucker looked like a fine candidate to me. I didn’t want to see the Bulldogs lose him, either, but that kind of comes with the territory when you start winning championships.
So when I saw Pruitt was being interviewed, I thought to myself, “good for him. That will be good experience for when he’s ready to make that move to a mid-level program and probably get him a little bump in pay.”
It never occurred to me the Vols would actually hire him.
Let me back up here. I always thought that Pruitt would one day be a college head coach. He told me he wanted to be. Just not this soon, and certainly not at an SEC institution like Tennessee as a jumping off point. That’s why I think for the Vols this could be a home run or a disaster. Can’t wait to see which.
One thing I learned about Pruitt in his tumultuous two-year run at Georgia as Mark Richt’s defensive coordinator is the man knows his football. He’s good football coach. Specifically, he’s a good defensive coach.
Pruitt came to Georgia in 2014 to succeed Todd Grantham and immediately went to work, both on the defense and in recruiting. On the heels of a national championship run in his only season at Florida State, Pruitt moved quickly to simplify the Bulldogs’ defense. Georgia had been good on defense in four years under Grantham, but also prone to giving up explosive plays because it his system was complicated and called for a lot of different blitzes, coverages and sets. In the press box, we used to refer to it as “third-and-Grantham.”
Pruitt immediately implemented the defense he’d learned from Saban at Alabama and had carried with him to FSU. He used to refer to it as “aggressively simple” or “simply aggressive” or something like that. The point he made was he didn’t want his guys slowed down by thinking too much. He wanted fast guys who would react quickly to whatever it was they saw and, of course, to attack the football.
And that’s pretty much what Georgia got. The Bulldogs as an overall team weren’t great in 2014 and ’15 – they won 10 games both years — but they weren’t awful and few of their problems had to do with defense. In the end, Richt got fired at the end of the 2015 regular season, Kirby Smart got hired as head coach and he elected to not retain Pruitt, even though Pruitt had worked on his defensive staff just a few years earlier at Alabama.
No, Smart chose to bring Tucker, his secondary coach, with him from Tuscaloosa and make him defensive coordinator. Saban, in turn, brought Pruitt back to Bama as defensive coordinator just four years after he’d left there as secondary coach.
And Pruitt has done a great job there. The No. 4-ranked Crimson Tide (11-1) has led the SEC in scoring and total defense the last two seasons just like they have pretty much every year since Saban has been there. The only blemish, if one can call it that, is Bama hasn’t won the national championship with Pruitt as the d-coordinator.
Maybe it yet will. Pruitt negotiated with Tennessee to let him coach the Tide in the national playoff semifinals, just as Smart did with Georgia. The Tide faces No. 1 Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, and the hope for both the Vols and Bama is that it will end similarly.
But where Pruitt is concerned, I’d also advise UT to proceed with caution. One can use a lot of words to describe his management style, but subtle wouldn’t be one of them. Pruitt is brash and abrasive at times, he can be brazen on the field and off, and he could definitely be described as arrogant. This is man who seems to know what he wants and know how to get it, whether it be a cornerback with “good hip turn and foot speed,” as he used to say, or an indoor practice facility.
Where Pruitt’s tenure is going to be most interesting to be me is going to be in the area of decorum and politics. At Georgia at least, he wasn’t just a man who didn’t mind stepping on toes, he might put his pickup truck in reverse and roll over them again just to make sure you felt him.
Pruitt is best known at Georgia for his tirade at the end of the 2014 season about the Bulldogs’ desperate need for an indoor practice facility. Unbeknown to any one at the school, namely Richt, he told reporters after another rained out practice how ridiculous it was that they didn’t have one and how he was here to tell folks that they were going to get one and he happened to know one was going to be built and ready for the next season.
As we’re all well aware, UGA know has its coveted Indoor Athletic Facility, though Pruitt’s timeline was off by a year. To this day, us beat guys joke that they should call it the “Pruitt Practice Facility.”
I joke because the machinations to have it built were already underway behind the scenes. But, by golly, Pruitt had seen enough and he wanted Georgia’s recruits to know right then and there this was about to be done, protocol be damned.
And that’s kind of how the man rolls. So while Pruitt is a coach that gets things done, he’s also one that rubs a lot of others the wrong way. That certainly was the case between him and Richt but, more importantly, between him and his fellow coaches.
People have always been guarded about details but it’s no secret that Pruitt’s presence had contributed to some dissension on Richt’s staff. Specifically, it created a divide kind of along the lines of the “Alabama boys” versus everybody else. Pruitt was tight with outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer and defensive line coach Tracy Rocker not so much with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and inside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler and a few others.
It’s funny how things get exaggerated over time. Two different Tennessee reporters asked me Thursday if it was true that Richt and Pruitt had gotten into an altercation of some sort in the coaches’ offices. I laughed, because it isn’t. But I do happen to know that one of Georgia’s assistants that year had to be held back from going after Pruitt because of what he said in one of those meetings late in the 2015 season. One former assistant coach did talk to a little about it a little in the wake of that messy breakup, but without great detail.
So, yes, I’d say it’s safe to say that Pruitt had a polarizing effect at Georgia. But he also helped expedite the building of an indoor facility, the players who played for him loved him and he certainly knew what good players looked like. Not only did he reel in 5-star prospects like Mecole Hardman for the Bulldogs, but he also had a knack for finding the hidden gem. Pruitt gets credit for Dominick Sanders coming to UGA. A 3-star prospect at Tucker High, Sanders is a four-year starter at safety for the Bulldogs.
And that, more than anything else, should serve the Vols well. There has been a four-alarm, tire fire burning up on Rocky Top for a while now, and that’s likely to keep UT out of the living rooms of the most elite recruits for the time being. But Pruitt knows where and how to find some good ones who may have been overlooked, not to mention all the prospects and coaches with whom he has built a relationship at Alabama, Georgia and Florida State these past four years.
So I understand what Fulmer and whoever else is meeting with candidates saw in Pruitt. I heard he “blew away” his interview. Must have, for the Vols to choose him over Steele and Martin and whoever else they might have talked to. But it’s a risky hire. Riskier, I’d say than some of these other first-time head coaches who have been brought in after long tenures as coordinators at major programs, such as Georgia’s Smart.
Whatever happens, the Bulldogs are going to feel an impact. It’s either going to be a tremor or an earthquake. Initially, you can be certain that Pruitt is coming after Sherrer, possibly as his defensive coordinator, and Rocker, the former d-line coach who took this season off after being dismissed by Smart. And there could be others.
Pruitt is going to know where the soft underbelly is at Georgia and at Alabama, if there is one. Same thing with Florida State. I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to whether this will be great hire or an awful one. I just know it’s one that one that bears watching with great interest.