- There's plenty of precedent for a coordinator bound for the top job elsewhere balancing both titles as his former team plays for a championship, but not every transition works out. Alabama defensie coordinator Jeremy Pruitt would prefer to be more like Kirby Smart than Lane Kiffin.
NEW ORLEANS — As the Alabama coaching staff wrapped a meeting Thursday, outside linebackers coach Tosh Lupoi ran down a list of recruits head coach Nick Saban needed to call. Lupoi rattled off a few names. Then he stopped. “We’ve got a couple more that you need to call, Coach,” Lupoi said. “Well, who?” Saban asked.
Lupoi looked at defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who also happens to be Tennessee’s new head coach. “Tosh, do you need me to leave the room?” Pruitt said.
We could frame this exchange as an example of the tension created when the coordinator on one staff takes the head coaching job at a rival and then double-dips in an effort to finish the season with his old team. Or we could explain it the way it actually happened. Lupoi laughed. Pruitt laughed. Alabama rolled merrily along in its preparation for the Sugar Bowl against Clemson on Monday and in its preparation for the 2019 recruiting cycle. Meanwhile, Pruitt managed to help prepare the Crimson Tide defense for the Tigers’ offense and prepare to recruit players he won’t coach in Knoxville until January 2019 at the earliest.
The 24/7/365 news cycle tends to encourage recency bias, so don’t worry if the anecdote above seems surprising. Lane Kiffin failed last year at being Alabama’s offensive coordinator and Florida Atlantic’s head coach, and Saban wound up jettisoning Kiffin between the Peach Bowl and the national title game. But the last thing that happened isn’t the only thing that ever happened, so perhaps it’s best to consider a few more recent instances of these arrangements.
Two years ago, Kirby Smart ran Alabama’s defense while recruiting for Georgia. Alabama won the national title. Two years later, Smart has coached the Bulldogs to an SEC title and a playoff berth. Three years ago, Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman took the head coaching job at Houston. He still helped the Buckeyes beat Alabama and then Oregon with their third-string quarterback to win the national title. The next season, Herman’s Cougars won the American Athletic Conference and beat Florida State in the Peach Bowl. At the end of the 2008 season, Dan Mullen took the Mississippi State job and still coached Florida’s offense against Oklahoma in the BCS title game. The Gators won the national title. Mullen, who just left Starkville to become the head coach in Gainesville, might be the best coach Mississippi State ever had. In 2004, Urban Meyer helped Utah become the first program from outside the BCS power structure to make a BCS bowl. He took the Florida job after the regular season and recruited for the Gators all through December, but he still coached the Utes to a 35–7 win against Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl.
Other than Kiffin last year, we have to go back to 2000 to find an instance where such an arrangement didn’t work out quite well for all parties involved. After that regular season, Florida State offensive coordinator Mark Richt was named the head coach at Georgia. The Seminoles’ offense sputtered in a 13–2 BCS title game loss to Oklahoma. But that also may have had a lot to do with the fact that Oklahoma had an excellent defense.
Yes, the Kiffin situation last year was a disaster. He struggled through meetings and practices for the Peach Bowl while also trying to put together a staff at FAU. (That said, Kiffin bounced back from his unceremonious exit from Alabama with an outstanding first season at FAU.) But Pruitt, like Smart two years ago, seems to have no such issues. In fact, Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick said the two situations feel almost identical. “They were gone for a couple weeks,” Fitzpatrick said. “They missed one or two practices, and now they’re back. It’s like they were never gone.”
The much bigger issue for Pruitt is slowing a Clemson offense that gained a combined 1,061 yards and averaged 5.8 yards a play against the Tide in the past two national title games. More specifically, Pruitt needs to find a way to get his (thinned by injuries) defense off the field so it doesn’t have to face 99 plays the way it did in last season’s 35–31 loss to the Tigers.
During an interview Friday, Pruitt asked that questions be focused on Alabama. He answered a few about the two-job juggling act, but he wanted to keep the attention on the players he’ll coach Monday. This is the correct attitude. If his defense can handle Kelly Bryant and Travis Etienne—and maybe finally cover Hunter Renfrow—and Alabama can win and advance to a third consecutive national title game, that only helps his cause at Tennessee. Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos has said new Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost’s decision to coach Central Florida against Auburn in the Peach Bowl will essentially create a three-hour commercial for Nebraska football. If Pruitt coaches a great game and gets some help from his co-workers on the other side of the ball, Tennessee might get six hours of free airtime for its new head coach.
Also, Pruitt understands that helping the Alabama players succeed can only strengthen his sales pitch to potential Tennessee players. “I’m employed by Tennessee, and I’m recruiting for Tennessee,” Pruitt said Friday. “But when I get here, I owe it to these guys that I helped recruit to Alabama. We always talk about wanting to finish what you start. I’m excited to try to help give these guys an opportunity to get what they want, because that’s what we talked about when we recruited them. So I owe it to these guys to do the best I can to help them. There’s plenty of hours in the day to balance it.”
And if Pruitt can balance it correctly, he’ll aid both sides of the Third Saturday in October rivalry.