As new Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt stood in front of an orange-clad contingent to be introduced Thursday, he told an anecdote about starting his career as an elementary school P.E. teacher in Fort Payne, Alabama.
Pruitt joked that, from a stretch between 2001-04, he taught every kid in that community how to tie their shoes.
Through the past 15 years, Pruitt has experienced a meteoric rise to make it to the top of his own college football program, but his job in Knoxville won’t be too dissimilar to that first one long ago.
It may be more difficult, but Pruitt is going to be charged with teaching the Vols on campus and the ones coming how to win. For a woebegone program, that may sound a lot tougher than tying shoes, but the reason why it may not be for Pruitt is simple:
The man has won football games everywhere he’s ever been, and he’s surged to where he is because of what he’s done.
Yes, to say he “won the press conference” would be the biggest cliche imaginable. After all, they all do, don’t they? But, for Tennessee fans sick of hearing about life championships, five-star hearts and other canned comments from a coach as robotic as Butch Jones, Pruitt is a breath of fresh air.
It’s almost like you expect the man in the bent-billed cap to slip a fishing hook on the bill, slide in a dip, sit there and shoot the breeze with you about a little ‘ball. That’s exactly what he did on Thursday, and he connected with us all.
From the story about his Daddy slipping off his belt and whipping him when he was young and suggested how his dad’s high school team could have won to when he stopped what he was doing to thank his wife because he’d forgotten to do that the last time he spoke in public, Pruitt came off as genuine. It’s because he is. He’s one of us, no matter what color cap he wore growing up or how many “script A’s” he has in his wardrobe.
Growing up on the Tennessee-Alabama line, I’ve got just as many buddies who pull for the Crimson Tide as the Vols. They may be a little misguided, but it doesn’t make them bad people. They’re just a bunch of good ol’ boys like me who want to sit around and talk ball, fuss at each other about it and hold bragging rights. I’m on an e-mail thread with a bunch of them right now, and we argue all day, every day, mostly about UT and UA.
Pruitt would fit right in.
So, when he says: “I’m charging everybody associated with this university to get our hands out of our pockets, let’s roll our sleeves up and get ready to go out in the streets with everybody else in the SEC,” you find yourself believing it, wanting to do it, feeling that’s what it takes to get out there and work hard enough to make what you want to happen, happen.
Of course, for Pruitt and the Vols, that is winning championships. It may seem so far away, but Pruitt didn’t give any time limits on Thursday. There was no, “It’ll take seven years to build a program,” malarky. A man who has been a part of four national championships answered as clearly and honestly as he could when asked what it would take for UT to get back to winning championships and how to get there.
“You’re saying, ‘Can we get there?'” he said to Nathanael Rutherford of Rocky Top Insider, who asked the question. “I wouldn’t be here if I thought we couldn’t get there; I’ll tell you that right now.”
So, how does it happen? If you are a Tennessee fan and listened to Pruitt’s press conference, you know two things: No. 1, MOTHER OF THOR HE SOUNDS LIKE NICK SABAN. How many “aight’s” can you fit into a soundbite? Now, swallow hard and take a deep breath, maybe go wash the taste out of your mouth because No. 2 (and most important is) he works like Nick Saban, too. He learned under Saban in three defensive capacities, and he played for Gene Stallings. He also coached for Mark Richt and Jimbo Fisher. Phillip Fulmer, as Pruitt noted, is just down the hall.
That’s a lot of great minds around him for Pruitt to just sit down and talk ball. You know he has, and you know he will. It’s obvious Pruitt is driven to win, and having been around Saban — no matter what you say about him — there’s no way you can’t be around the greatest college coach of all time and not have some of it rub off.
Sure, that fell through with Derek Dooley, but Pruitt is a laser-focused recruiting machine, intense on the field and off it, and the coaches lining up to coach on his first staff at Tennessee and the top-shelf, elite players he’s recruited in his time as an assistant are clear indicators that this isn’t the same.
“Make no bones about it,” UT chancellor Beverly Davenport said, “he told me he wanted to win championships. And I told him, ‘Make no bones about it, Tennessee expects you to.'”
He expects championships, and that’s what he’s going to try to do at Alabama before he starts full-time in Knoxville. He noted that he’ll coach and recruit for UT until the dead period starts, head back to Tuscaloosa to coach the Tide in the playoffs and then come back to Knoxville after the College Football Playoffs are over.
“I work for the University of Tennessee, I’m all in for the University of Tennessee until the dead period,” he said. “We’re going to recruit, I’m going to work as the head football coach at the University of Tennessee, and we’re going to do what we can do to start going in the right direction.
“Now, I also have a commitment to the kids I sat in their home with their parents and recruited them to go to the University of Alabama. Coach Saban has been wonderful to me; I wouldn’t be here today without his help, so I’m going to go back when the dead period starts, and I’m going to coach those kids.”
In between Pruitt talking about his intensity, we got some glimmers of what he wants to do from a schematic standpoint. He didn’t talk much about it besides being balanced on offense, letting the run dictate the pass, and being aggressive on defense. He also wouldn’t commit to running a 3-4, only saying he’d play to the team’s and players’ strengths.
We all know he’ll run a 3-4 when he gets his players in, but Thursday wasn’t the day to talk about all that. Pruitt said his vision is for Tennessee to be “big, fast, dominating, aggressive, and relentless football team that nobody in the SEC wants to play.” Obviously, that wasn’t the case during the Jones era where players seemed to be made of chipped glass and missed games for the tiniest ailments. The strength-and-conditioning failures under the previous regime ultimately doomed it, and Pruitt seems to understand just how vital that aspect is to winning. Coming from Tuscaloosa where Scott Cochran has the Crimson Tide players looking like cyborgs, would you think otherwise?
We know Pruitt bled crimson his whole life, but he also has Tennessee roots, too. He played briefly at Middle Tennessee State. His father coached for Marion County High School for a span, and though he grew up on Sand Mountain, he mentioned running through the T, Smokey and the coaching tenures of Coach Robert Neyland, Coach Doug Dickey, Coach Johnny Majors and Coach Fulmer. None of that was rehearsed. When you grow up in a football family, you know football.
Pruitt knows football, and while he may have been dyed in the wool Alabama, Tennessee is now “his” program.
“My name will be on this program,” Pruitt said. “If my name’s on it, I’m all in. I’m going to be involved in everything.”
A good, ol’ Southern boy talking about the importance of his name? If that ain’t something we can get behind, what is?
The bottom line is Pruitt can’t win anything on Thursday. It’s crazy to think that he can win the biggest prize for Tennessee’s most hated rival while he’s Tennessee’s head football coach, but that’s the nature of the beast right now. Whether you want the Crimson Tide to win or not in the next month, it’s more “leadership reps” — check that — CHAMPIONSHIP reps for a man charged to lead the Vols out of the doldrums and back into the spotlight.
We can sit here and discuss what all needs to happen, who we need to get, what we have to do and everything that stands in our way of winning big again in the SEC, but that’s not Pruitt’s style. He’s going to get out there and get his hands dirty, go out into those streets and work for it. He’s going to sit down with Tennessee’s players who just endured the worst season in program history, and he’s going to get back to basics.
He’s gonna go tie some shoes.
“Instead of talking about what we want,” Pruitt said, “let’s figure out how to get there.”
Fulmer stood in front of the congregation at the beginning of the press conference talking about how he needed to find the “right person,” the perfect fit for Tennessee.
“My charge from the chancellor, my obligation to our alumni and our great fans and especially to our former and future players who have or will pour their hearts into the program was to go find the best coach to get our proud football program back to the level of its championship tradition,” he said.
That search looked past Pruitt’s crimson and into the core of what makes him a leader, a winner and a builder. He doesn’t need any cliched bricks. Pruitt uses real talk, and he’s backed it up with real results.
It’s UT’s hope that continues as he puts his own fingerprints on a once-proud program.