It was 20 years ago when Dabo Swinney and Jeremy Pruitt were laying down their roots as young college football coaches. Swinney was coaching the tight ends in 1997 at Alabama in Mike Dubose’s first year as head coach. Pruitt was even younger, getting his start as a graduate assistant and working with the defensive backs.
Both had grown up in Alabama and come to play for the Crimson Tide as walk-ons. Now they’ve climbed up the coaching ladder after their modest beginnings.
“There wasn’t much ability between either one of us,” Pruitt said. “If you could put us both together, you couldn’t get a player.”
The 1997 season was among Alabama’s worst in the modern era. The Crimson Tide finished 4-7, last place in the SEC West.
But it was a foundational year for both young coaches. Plenty of relationships that came from that team and that era would play a major role in their coaching careers. Four former Alabama coaches from that season will be on the sidelines for Monday’s game. Three of them will be wearing orange.
Neither Swinney nor Pruitt was a star player, but both left an impression. Each of them transitioned to coaching immediately after their playing days ended.
“Those were the kids that were the glue of the team,” said Clemson assistant Danny Perman, who was an Alabama assistant in 1997. “All of them had a role, which I think was important. Even today, for kids to feel like there’s value to what they do. Their job may be covering a kick, their job may be scout team, their job may be isolated but they have value. Jeremy definitely brought value to our football team.”
That staff and team in 1997 was loaded with future coaches. Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians was the offensive coordinator. Former Southern Miss coach Ellis Johnson was the defensive coordinator. Former UAB head coach Neil Callaway was an assistant. Freddie Kitchens, a senior quarterback, is now the Cardinals’ running backs coach. Pruitt just hired Will Friend, an offensive lineman that year, to join his staff at Tennessee. Cornerback Deshea Townsend is now an NFL assistant. Curley Hallman, who had been head coach at Southern Miss and LSU, was the secondary coach.
Plenty of other players and coaches from that team have ties from Alabama to Clemson. Woody McCorvey, an administrator at Clemson, was an assistant coach at Alabama in 1997. Pearman coached the special teams. Clemson safeties coach Mickey Conn was a graduate assistant.
Pearman said Pruitt was “a contact guy.” He was a safety listed at 6-0 and 186 pounds as a senior in 1996. Pruitt’s playing career never overlapped with Swinney, whose senior season was 1992. But Swinney was an offensive assistant when Pruitt joined the program. They also have history from Pruitt’s time as an assistant coach at Hoover High School, which was in Swinney’s recruiting territory.
“Just a very smart player, tough guy, and an excellent young coach when I was around him,” Swinney said. “You could just tell he had a bright future.”
The Sugar Bowl will be the fourth meeting between Swinney at Clemson and Pruitt as a defensive coordinator. They played when Pruitt was defensive coordinator at Florida State in 2013 and at Georgia in 2014 in addition to last year’s national championship.
They also cross paths on the recruiting trail often.
“He has one of these outgoing personalities,” Pruitt said. “When he walks into the room his smile kind of lights up the room. He is who he is. He’s a great guy.”
Pruitt is about to set out on his own as head coach at Tennessee now. Just like Swinney, he’s a former Alabama walk-on who built his coaching career with a start at Alabama.
“Probably 20 years ago, if you had walked around that field and saw us two out there, no one would have thought that,” Pruitt said.
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.