- The Alabama defensive coordinator won't be a sure thing in Knoxville, but if anyone is ready for the unique pressures of running the Volunteers, it's a Nick Saban assistant.
The ReVOLution rejected the idea of hiring a defensive coordinator from one of the nation’s best programs. Tennessee fans revolted last week—it only feels like a year ago—when now-former Tennessee athletic director John Currie tried to hire Ohio State’s Greg Schiano. The hire was nearly consummated, but the Volunteers ultimately backed off. On Thursday, Tennessee finally hired its coach. And the man the Vols hired was … the defensive coordinator from one of the nation’s best programs.
So why didn’t the hiring of Alabama’s Jeremy Pruitt also inspire a revolt? Two reasons. First, Tennessee fans know Pruitt is one of the best recruiters on Nick Saban’s staff, and the only way a head coach can succeed in today’s SEC is by being his program’s ace recruiter. If Pruitt can bring the kind of talent to Knoxville that he brought to Tuscaloosa, then Tennessee has a chance to compete for the titles those fans crave.
Second, those fans trust the man who made this hire to understand the job better because he held the job for 16 years. Former Vols coach Phillip Fulmer, who replaced Currie last week, put a national title trophy in the case at Tennessee and will get the benefit of the doubt because of it.
Fulmer also will get shredded if this doesn’t work. And hiring Pruitt is a risk. He has never been a head coach at any level, and it’s impossible to know how a person will handle CEO duties until he has to perform them. But unless a school is hiring Saban or Urban Meyer or Dabo Swinney, hiring a sitting head coach carries many of the same risks because each job is so different. And Fulmer made an excellent point last week in a press conference. He also hadn’t been a head coach when Tennessee put him in charge of the Vols’ program. (After a coup to unseat Johnny Majors that wasn’t dissimilar to the one that landed Fulmer in the AD chair last week.) A look at the teams in the College Football Playoff offers more positive feedback. Saban had been head coach at Toledo, Michigan State, LSU and with the Miami Dolphins before taking over Alabama, but he’s the outlier in the group. Swinney was Clemson’s receivers coach before he took over the program. Georgia’s Kirby Smart was Alabama’s defensive coordinator two years ago. Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley was the Sooners’ offensive coordinator at this time last year.
Tennessee has tried to Sabanize before with disastrous results. Derek Dooley, who worked with Saban at LSU, replaced Lane Kiffin after Kiffin left for USC in 2010 and proceeded to run Tennessee’s program into the ground before getting fired following the 2012 season. His final recruiting class, which included zero offensive linemen, is a case study in how not to stock a program. The recruiting piece is the biggest indicator that Pruitt’s hire could work. Take it from the Heisman Trophy winner that Pruitt (as Alabama’s defensive backs coach) landed just before he left Alabama to become Florida State’s defensive coordinator.
The reason it might not work is Pruitt hasn’t always been the easiest coach to work with. As Georgia’s defensive coordinator in 2014 and ’15, he clashed with more entrenched members of Mark Richt’s staff. Chemistry suffered. But Pruitt’s defenses were the best aspects of those teams, finishing 17th and 13th in yards per play allowed. Perhaps he was trying to push many of the changes that his former co-worker Smart eventually enacted when he took over for Richt. This could be a non-issue now that Pruitt will be free to staff his team with like-minded people. But it is something to watch as he enters an athletic department for which dysfunctional would be a kind description.
What makes this hire the most fascinating is that Pruitt is the first to come fully through Saban’s mega-staffing machine and emerge as a head coach. For college football fans between the ages of 30 and 40, the first exposure to Pruitt didn’t come on ESPN. It came on MTV.
In the mid-aughts, the Hoover (Ala.) High defensive coordinator was one of the stars of Two-a-Days, a show that probably came into being when some producer said “Why don’t we make another Laguna Beach, but this time set it in a wealthy southern suburb?” Pruitt didn’t know it at the time, but his life was about to change—and that change would have nothing to do with his air time on a reality show. He was about to start down a path that eventually would lead him to Knoxville as Tennessee’s new head coach.
When Nick Saban got hired at Alabama in 2007, he decided to stock the recruiting office with connected former high school coaches. These people couldn’t recruit off campus, but they could stay in touch with all their friends and get all sorts of information Alabama’s coaching staff considered valuable. One of the people Saban hired was Pruitt, who worked at a Birmingham-area power and was the son of Dale Pruitt, a longtime high school head coach in the state. The younger Pruitt, who had played at Alabama in the 1990s after transferring from Middle Tennessee State, knew everyone. He also was very close with some people Saban really liked. “I played at Alabama. My dad was an influential head coach in the state of Alabama, and I probably know a lot of the high school coaches in Alabama,” Pruitt said at the 2013 Broyles Award ceremony. “But the real the reason coach Saban gave me a job is because I had three [players] he wanted. A lot of folks say ‘How did you get picked out of all those guys?’ Josh Chapman, Kerry Murphy, Patrick Crump.”
The NCAA has since passed a rule that would keep a school from hiring a high school coach and then immediately signing his players, but that wasn’t an issue in 2007. Besides, not everyone would have taken the job Pruitt took. He was hired as the director of player development, a job that didn’t exist at most college programs. Pruitt would have been in demand for some of the best high school head-coaching jobs in the state, but he took relatively low pay for a job that included no on-field coaching.
It took three years, but he eventually parlayed that into a job coaching defensive backs at Alabama. “I was the defensive backs coach at Alabama,” Pruitt said in that Broyles Award speech. “And everybody in the country knows who the DB coach in Alabama is, and that’s Nick Saban.” But Pruitt excelled as the position coach that probably draws more scrutiny from his head coach than anyone else in America. But with Kirby Smart firmly entrenched at defensive coordinator, Pruitt would have to leave to move up. So he went to Florida State to replace Mark Stoops, who had left to become the head coach at Kentucky. The Seminoles won a national title that year, but Pruitt didn’t stick around. He was immediately off to Georgia.
As noted above, Pruitt’s time in Athens was fairly tumultuous, but the next step was fairly clear when Smart was named head coach at Georgia. Pruitt was the ideal candidate to replace him in Tuscaloosa. “There was no doubt who I was going to hire,” Saban told reporters. “Didn’t interview anybody. Didn’t talk to anybody. Just hired the guy.” Pruitt understood every cog in the machine Saban had built. The transition would be seamless. And it was. Statistically, Alabama’s defense was even better in Pruitt’s first year (four yards a play allowed) than it was in Smart’s final season (4.3 yards a play allowed). This season, the Crimson Tide lead the nation in that stat, holding steady at four yards a play.
Now we’ll learn how much Pruitt has been paying attention while working for Saban. Will he be as schematically flexible as his former boss? Another former Saban defensive coordinator, Will Muschamp, torpedoed his tenure at Florida by insisting on an offensive style the players he inherited weren’t built to run and by hiring a coordinator (Charlie Weis) who also didn’t feel the need to be flexible. Muschamp has admitted this was a huge mistake, and after underachieving at Florida he’s now overachieving at South Carolina thanks to a better understanding of how to build schemes around players. Smart hired Jim Chaney at Georgia, and the offensive results weren’t promising the first season. But after shuffling the offensive line, improving the receiving corps and learning what freshman quarterback Jake Fromm does best, the results this season were much better. Chaney called his best game as a Georgia employee against an excellent Auburn defense in last weekend’s SEC title game.
Who will Pruitt hire as his offensive coordinator? We’ll find out. Will it be a buddy, or will it be someone whose schemes drove him crazy as a defensive playcaller? That’s how Bob Stoops selected Mike Leach as his offensive coordinator when he went to Oklahoma, and though Leach only stayed a year, that choice laid the foundation for an offensive philosophy that helped the Sooners win a national title and multiple Big 12 titles. That choice will be the first major challenge for Pruitt as a head coach. There will be many more, and each will be heavily scrutinized by a fan base that opted not to exercise its veto power on Pruitt. But Pruitt should understand the demands of this job. After all, he just came from one of the few places where the head coaching job is more demanding.