Sidelines with John Clay

Jeremy Pruitt is a smart finish to the crazy Tennessee football search

Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, shown here working with his players during practice at the Thomas-Drew Practice Fields in Tuscaloosa, Ala. last season, has been hired as Tennessee’s new football coach.
Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, shown here working with his players during practice at the Thomas-Drew Practice Fields in Tuscaloosa, Ala. last season, has been hired as Tennessee’s new football coach. Associated Press

In the market for a new football coach after the 2012 season, Kentucky pursued then Cincinnati coach Butch Jones. Unable to work out a deal, UK hired then Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops.

Five years later, Tennessee fired Butch Jones and now, finally, the Volunteers are reportedly hiring a new football coach, who just happens to be the guy who replaced Stoops at Florida State.

Jeremy Pruitt, currently the defensive coordinator at Alabama, has reportedly agreed to take over the Tennessee program. A press conference is tentatively schedule for Thursday evening.

Pruitt’s hire brings to a close one of the most bizarre coaching searches in some time. After firing Jones, Tennessee AD John Currie was set to hire Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, only to pull out of an agreement after strong protests from Tennessee fans over Schiano’s record and his time on the Penn State staff with defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, now serving jail time after being convicted on 45 counts of sexual abuse.

After that, Currie reportedly contacted and was turned down by several coaches, including Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, Purdue’s Jeff Brohm and North Carolina State’s Dave Doeren. After interviewing Washington State coach Mike Leach, Currie was relieved his duties and replaced by former Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer.

Rather than pursue current head coaches, Fulmer focused his search on three current SEC defensive coordinators, interviewing Auburn’s Kevin Steele, Georgia’s Mel Tucker and Pruitt before deciding on the 43-year-old Rainsville, Alabama native who played collegiately at Middle Tennessee before transferring to Alabama.

After a year as a grad assistant at Alabama under Mike Dubose in 1977, Pruitt was an Alabama high school coach before being brought back to Tuscaloosa by Nick Saban in 2007 as director of player development. Two years later, Pruitt was promoted to defensive backs coach.

When Stoops left Tallahassee for Kentucky, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher hired Pruitt to be his defensive coordinator. The Seminoles went 14-0 and won the national championship as Pruitt’s defense was ranked No. 3 nationally in total yardage allowed at 281.4 yards per game. (The previous year under Stoops, FSU was second in total defense at 253.8 yards per game.)

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The following season, Georgia coach Mark Richt lured Pruitt to Athens as the Bulldogs defensive coordinator. Georgia was 17th in total defense in 2014 and seventh in 2015. When Richt and the Georgia administration agreed to part ways, Georgia hired Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart as its head coach. And Saban re-hired Pruitt to replace Smart.

Alabama and Michigan led the nation in total defense last season at 261.8 yards per game as the Tide lost to Clemson in the national title game. This season, Alabama is No. 2 in total defense behind Wisconsin.

Ranked fourth, the Crimson Tide will play No. 1 Clemson in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day.

So how will Pruitt do? He has been a successful coach and has the reputation of being a terrific recruiter. Pruitt’s father, Dale, was a legendary high school coach in Alabama. Pruitt has plenty of recruiting connections throughout the south that should help Tennessee.

His two years at Georgia included rumors of discord on the Bulldogs’ staff. Rumors that Richt and Pruitt did not get along reached the point where Richt had to tweet that Pruitt was “in his office working diligently” to squelch speculation that the defensive coordinator had been fired.

Pruitt’s hire means that six of the seven head coaches in the SEC East made their names as defensive coordinators. Stoops, Pruitt, Smart, South Carolina’s Will Muschamp, Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason and Missouri’s Barry Odom were all DCs. The exception is new Florida coach Dan Mullen, who was an offensive coordinator at Florida before his run as a successful head coach at Mississippi State.

Pruitt has never been a college head coach. But then neither had Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley or Georgia’s Smart. All three are in the College Football Playoff.

The guess here is that after all the controversy and mocking, Tennessee came up with a good head coach, one knows defense, the SEC and how to recruit.

FBS coaching changes for 2018

School

Out

In

Arizona State

Todd Graham

Herman Edwards

Arkansas

Bret Bielema

Chad Morris

Florida

Jim McElwain

Dan Mullen

Florida State

Jimbo Fisher

Willie Taggart

Georgia Southern

Tyson Summers

Kent State

Paul Haynes

Louisiana

Mark Hudspeth

Miss State

Dan Mullen

Joe Moorhead

Nebraska

Mike Riley

Scott Frost

Ole Miss

Hugh Freeze

Matt Luke

Oregon

Willie Taggart

Oregon State

Gary Anderson

Jonathan Smith

Rice

David Bailiff

Mike Bloomgren

South Alabama

Joey Jones

Tennessee

Butch Jones

Jeremy Pruitt

Texas A&M

Kevin Sumlin

Jimbo Fisher

UCF

Scott Frost

Josh Heupel

UCLA

Jim Mora

Chip Kelly

UTEP

Sean Kugler

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