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Tennessee football, Jeremy Pruitt have finalized deal

Tribune News Service • Dec 7, 2017 at 1:38 PM

Finally, the search is over.

Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and Tennessee have finalized a deal to make Pruitt the Vols' coach, University of Tennessee officials announced Thursday. Pruitt will be introduced at a news conference at 6:05 p.m. Thursday.

Bruce Feldman of FOX Sports and SI.com reported that Pruitt will receive a six-year deal.

Pruitt and fellow defensive coordinators Kevin Steele of Auburn and Mel Tucker of Georgia were considered finalists for the job, which has been open since Tennessee fired Butch Jones on Nov. 12.

Pruitt is in his second season as Alabama's defensive coordinator after two years in the same position at Georgia. His first year as a defensive coordinator was in 2013 at Florida State. The Seminoles led the nation in scoring defense that season en route to a national championship. Pruitt was a finalist that year for the Broyles Award, given to the nation's top assistant.

"Six days ago, I mentioned several attributes that I sought to find in the next leader of our football program, and Coach Pruitt meets all criteria" Vols athletic director Phillip Fulmer said in a news release. "I'm certain he appreciates the unique opportunity to lead a program of Tennessee's caliber. He's driven to win at the highest level. He will honor our university's values, operate with integrity and be a role model for our student-athletes.

"I know Coach Pruitt will hit the ground running and go to work restoring our program to a championship level."

During Pruitt's five seasons as a defensive coordinator, he's never presided over a defense that ranked lower than 16th nationally in scoring defense. Alabama has ranked first nationally in scoring defense the past two seasons.

Nick Saban tapped Pruitt to be his coordinator after Georgia hired Kirby Smart off Saban's staff in December 2015.

"There was no doubt who I was going to hire," Saban said of Pruitt then, according to Al.com. "Didn't interview anybody. Didn't talk to anybody. Just hired the guy."

"It was a no-brainer for me to bring Jeremy back," Saban added. "He also did a great job of recruiting while he was here."

Pruitt is in the midst of his third stint as an Alabama assistant. He was a graduate assistant for the Crimson Tide in 1997. He rejoined the staff in 2007, serving three seasons as Saban's director of player development before working as his defensive backs coach for three seasons.

One question regarding Pruitt pertains to when he'd be able to start at UT, with Alabama in the College Football Playoffs.

Pruitt, 43, is under contract at Alabama through the 2019 season. He's making $1.3 million this season, a figure that was set to increase to $1.4 million in 2018.

Pruitt has never been a head coach at any level.

The Alabama native played his final two college seasons with the Crimson Tide under Gene Stallings. He started his college career at Middle Tennessee State, where he was a two-year starting defensive back for longtime MTSU coach Boots Donnelly.

Pruitt is a coach's son. He was a two-time all-state defensive back for his father, Dale, at Plainview High School in Alabama.

Pruitt's hiring caps a chaotic coaching search that spanned 26 days.

The search became such a black eye that it cost athletic director John Currie his job. Currie was suspended with pay on Friday, as the university tries to fire him for cause. Fulmer was appointed as AD and tasked with completing the search.

Fulmer reportedly conducted interviews in New York this week while he was there for Peyton Manning's College Football Hall of Fame induction.

By hiring a coordinator, Tennessee follows a road map many other SEC schools have used. Eight of the league's other 13 SEC coaches were coordinators or position coaches immediately before becoming the coach at their current school.

Pruitt will be tasked with uniting and energizing fan base left frustrated by a 4-8 season and a coaching search that morphed into a national punchline.

Tennessee was finalizing a deal with Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano Nov. 26 that would have made Schiano the next coach. News of the pending hire leaked, and it was met by a wave of backlash from some fans, state politicians, business owners and donors. The deal unraveled.

The blowback centered, in part, around testimony released in 2016 regarding Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State defensive coordinator who was convicted in 2012 of 45 counts of sexual abuse of boys.

Schiano was on staff at Penn State from 1990-95. Former Penn State staffer Mike McQueary testified that fellow assistant Tom Bradley told McQueary that Schiano was aware of a child sexual abuse incident by Sandusky.

Schiano and Bradley denied having knowledge or witnessing any of Sandusky's abuse. McQueary's hearsay claim remains unsubstantiated.

After backing away from the deal with Schiano, the Vols were spurned by four coaches – Duke's David Cutcliffe, Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy, Purdue's Jeff Brohm and North Carolina State's Dave Doeren – in as many days. One of Currie's final acts as AD was interviewing Washington State coach Mike Leach in California. The Leach-to-Tennessee talks never regained momentum following Currie's ouster.

After snatching the reins of the search from Currie, Fulmer turned his eye toward the coordinator ranks, and he selected one from one of Tennessee's top rivals.

Fulmer was Tennessee's coach when Pruitt and the Crimson Tide played UT in 1995 and '96. The Vols won each of those games.

Pruitt will pick up the pieces left by Jones, who restored Tennessee's program to respectability with consecutive nine-win seasons in 2015 and '16, only to watch it regress to a historic low this season. The Vols experienced their first eight-loss season in program history.

Pruitt becomes the 24th full-time coach in program history and the fourth hire since Fulmer's firing in 2008. None of the past three coaches led Tennessee to a division title.

The Vols last won the SEC East in 2007 and haven't claimed the conference championship since 1998. Tennessee culminated that '98 season with a national championship.

Tennessee won at least eight games in every season during the '90s, reaching double-digit wins five times during the decade under Fulmer. Tennessee hasn't been a dominant program this millennium, though.

— Blake Toppmeyer, The Knoxville News-Sentinel

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