Jeremy Pruitt is good at building relationships. The former Alabama player and assistant coach is now trying to build a program at Tennessee.
The 44-year-old coach from Rainsville played defensive back under Gene Stallings in 1995-96 and got his start as a graduate assistant the next season. He returned to serve under Nick Saban from 2009-12 and again in 2015-16 as defensive coordinator. He will coach against the Crimson Tide as a head coach for the first time Saturday when his Volunteers host Alabama.
His ties to UA, from the recent and more distant past, are still strong. Stallings still calls him “almost every week,” Pruitt said.
“As a first-time head coach … you can have your own ideas, which I do, but … I work for some really good men and have played for some really good coaches. You try to draw on those experiences from over the years and in the past on how to handle situations. To me, if (Stallings) ain’t calling me I’m probably calling him.”
Pruitt forged strong bonds with Alabama players who will be playing against his team this weekend.
“I was pretty close with him,” linebacker Christian Miller said. “ He was always a great coach; he’s definitely a players’ coach.
“He’d always have the players’ best interest (at heart), he looked out for us in terms of if we were ever down, you could talk to him. He’s one of those kind of guys. You could reach him on a personal level. He did a lot for us. And like I said, a great coach.”
Said fellow linebacker Mack Wilson, “When he was here, we were very close. He coached me hard so I know he’s coaching them hard over there.
“It’s not going to be anything personal. I’m going to hug him before the game, hug him after the game. So, I’m just going to play the game, basically.”
Pruitt may be at Tennessee now, but he hasn’t forgotten his past.
“I have lots of good memories of the guys I’ve coached at Alabama,” he said. “The relationships that we have will last together, just like the ones at Florida State and Georgia and the ones I had in high school and the guys we have here at Tennessee. I think it’s what coaching’s all about and, to me, it’s why I’m in the business.”
But once the whistle blows, that’s what it will be: just business.
“It’s just a football game,” Miller said. “Football’s football. Obviously I want my team to win, so I’m going to do what I can to help my team win.”
Ben Jones contributed to this story.