KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Jeremy Pruitt’s dad says his son suffers from the “coaching disease.” It’s a 24-hour-a-day, 365-days-a year bug.
Tennessee’s first-year football coach is good at what he does, and he is used to winning. The Volunteers haven’t won nearly enough lately. Something has to give.
Pruitt faces his toughest test rebuilding a Tennessee program that went 4-8 and set a school record for losses last season . The last time Pruitt worked with a team coming off a losing season was in 2007, the first year of Nick Saban’s Alabama tenure.
Over the last 11 years as a college assistant coach or director of player development, Pruitt has been part of five national championships and his teams have won 86 percent of their games.
“If you’re going to play, you want to win,” Pruitt said. “I’m always excited to have an opportunity to see what our team’s going to be like. It really doesn’t matter what’s been done in the past anywhere. You kind of hit the reset button each year, and what you put on the field as a coach is really who you are right now.”
Tennessee hasn’t won the SEC since its 1998 national title and hasn’t reached the conference championship game since 2007. The road back to contention could be a long one. Pruitt, who replaced the fired Butch Jones , has taken his own circuitous journey to reach this point.
As sons of a longtime Alabama and Tennessee high school coach, Pruitt and his brother Luke spent their childhood watching their dad work and talking football.
Dale Pruitt said he didn’t push his kids into coaching and even suggested they consider something else. It didn’t matter. Luke coaches Pisgah (Alabama) High School. Jeremy makes his head coaching debut Saturday against No. 17 West Virginia in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“My opinion is if you can do something besides coaching, that’s what you need to do,” said Dale Pruitt, who now coaches Albertville (Alabama) High. “Coaching is a disease. I have it bad — and both of my children have it bad.”
Jeremy Pruitt played defensive back at Middle Tennessee before transferring to Alabama. He started coaching as an Alabama graduate assistant in 1997 before entering the high school ranks. He returned to Alabama in 2007. He also worked at Florida State and Georgia.
Athletic director Phillip Fulmer said Pruitt’s “phenomenal” interview and championship connections made him an ideal choice to coach Tennessee.
“He’s a darned football coach,” Fulmer said. “That means he knows all the positions, he can talk to anybody, has high expectations. He knows how to call on them and be tough, but he also knows how to hug their neck when they need (it) or compliment them in a way that makes them feel good about themselves.”
The Vols say Pruitt still has a player’s mentality.
“I can genuinely tell as a player that he plays through us,” defensive lineman Paul Bain said. “I bet any amount of money that if he could come out and play with us, he would do it in a heartbeat.”
Pruitt was defensive coordinator for national championship teams at Alabama last season and at Florida State in 2013. Pruitt also was on Alabama’s staff when the Crimson Tide won titles in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
He brings high standards to Knoxville.
He opened his introductory press conference by noting “there was a time and place that this university was feared among the SEC teams” and how he planned to get Tennessee back to that point. After the spring game , Pruitt complained that some players “flat-out quit.” His expectations were evident as he discussed preseason position battles, too.
“I hope their No. 1 goal is not (just) to be the starter at Tennessee,” Pruitt said. “I hope that’s not their goal. That’s not much of a goal, in my opinion. I hope their goal is to be the best player at their position out there.”
At least for now, Pruitt’s style is popular.
He has delighted a fan base tired of the frequent catchphrases used by Jones , who once called his players “champions of life” after Tennessee’s elimination from the SEC East race. He is assembling a 2019 recruiting class ranked ninth nationally according to composite rankings of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports , though it’s not uncommon for new coaches to have success landing players. In his first full recruiting season at Tennessee, Jones signed a class ranked seventh according to the 247Sports Composite .
But it’s the way current players have responded to Pruitt that could have the biggest impact. Senior outside linebacker Jonathan Kongbo says discipline and accountability are “at a whole new level.”
“The culture is completely different,” Kongbo said. “Like I keep telling my parents, it doesn’t feel like the same place.”
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A high school assistant coach just 12 years ago, Pruitt’s coaching ambitions began long before that.