ATHENS, Ga. ― As Rush Propst remembers it, the call came sometime around 11 p.m. It was his wife and this guy Jeremy was standing at the door.
Propst, back then in 2004, was building a high school empire at Hoover High School. After winning two consecutive state titles, he had a defensive back coaching vacancy and a stack of impressive résumés. In fact, they were about to pull the trigger on a top candidate when Jeremy Pruitt made a house call.
It was the first of many moments Propst says he knew this young coach from Rainsville, Ala., would be special. Now, Propst says, it’s a matter of time before the country boy lands a big-time head coaching job in college football.
For now, Pruitt’s a budding star as Georgia’s defensive coordinator preparing to face his alma mater that gave him his college coaching start. Alabama (3-1, 0-1 SEC) heads to No. 8 Georgia at 2:30 p.m. CT Saturday as the former Crimson Tide walk-on will face his old team for the first time. A Georgia (4-0, 2-0) win would effectively end No. 13 Alabama’s hope of winning its first national title since 2012, Pruitt’s last year as a Tide assistant.
At Georgia, Pruitt has helped turn around a slumping defense since arriving in 2014, fresh off winning a national title in his only year as Florida State’s defensive coordinator. The Bulldogs were 45th in total defense in 2013. Through four games this fall, they’re 14th, and doing it with a younger group.
Colquitt County Coach Rush Propst is shown before their game at the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Ala. Friday, Aug. 30, 2013.
“They were a little bit more country club and lackadaisical, in my opinion, at Georgia before Jeremy’s arrival,” Propst said. “I know they had some successful teams, but the last several years, the weight room wasn’t very tough, practice wasn’t very tough. Jeremy has a way to make things tough and make kids enjoy playing for him. He makes no bones about it.”
Pruitt’s a country boy who became a fast-riser in this business with an obsessive work ethic and a unique ability to relate to players. He did it all at Alabama, first hired in 2007 as director of player development after three years at Hoover. That led to an on-field job coaching the secondary with Nick Saban in 2010. Three years later, he had a coordinator’s job in Tallahassee.
Now making $1.3 million a year in Athens, Pruitt’s a long way from Propst’s front steps. At Hoover, Pruitt got his first taste of the national spotlight as his career track quickly accelerated.
Pruitt, now 41, was no coaching rookie when he pursued the assistant job at Hoover. He grew up in a football family, the son of longtime Plainview and current Albertville coach Dale Pruitt. After playing two years at Middle Tennessee State, Pruitt transferred to Alabama and briefly started at safety in 1995. A season as a Tide graduate assistant in 1997 was followed by six years of assistant coaching jobs at Plainview and Fort Payne high schools with a year leading West Alabama’s secondary in the middle. By 2004, Pruitt had his eye on the powerhouse in suburban Birmingham.
He was smart and persistent, but there was a short list that didn’t include Pruitt. Propst estimated receiving five to six calls a day from Pruitt as he pursued the assistant’s job. When the messages went unreturned, Pruitt went to Propst’s home. Asked about that move after Georgia’s Tuesday practice, Pruitt grinned slightly.
“Ah Rush,” he said, “I don’t believe I did that.”
Either way, Hoover already had someone picked out for the job Pruitt wanted. Propst still invited Pruitt to the school the next morning for an interview. He made sure Pruitt knew the score, this probably wasn’t going to work out. An hour later, the job was practically his.
Walking the 30 steps down the hall to his office, Propst just knew.
“I mean, I’ve interviewed hundreds of coaches and hired so many dang people in my career,” Propst said. “He just had the ‘it factor.'”
Then-Hoover defensive coordinator Todd Watson, now on Troy University’s football staff, was equally blown away. Pruitt was a wiz drawing schemes on the board. That forced Propst to call the other guy originally in line for the job to explain it just wasn’t going to work out this time.
The job was coaching the secondary but Pruitt wanted more responsibility. So he was given the special teams to coordinate. A year later, Watson left to coach Foley High School and Pruitt was bumped up to defensive coordinator. His first opponent: Tim Tebow and Jacksonville, Fla., power Nease live on ESPN. Hoover won, 50-29.
Hoover players gravitated to the young coach.
Propst, now the head coach at powerhouse Colquitt County High School in Moultrie, Ga., recalled the contrast between Pruitt’s no-nonsense coaching and his softer side.
“His players respect him and they fear him but they also know he loves them and cares about them,” Propst said. “It’s not just about wins and loses with Jeremy.”
Perhaps nobody knows that better than Max Lerner. The former Hoover defensive back’s senior season was featured on MTV’s popular Two-A-Days documentary series. A prominent storyline was his player-coach relationship with Pruitt and the tough love received. Practice footage was raw – shocking to some viewers unfamiliar with the intensity of a coach like Pruitt.
“When you play under him, you want to impress him,” said Lerner, now in medical sales living in Arlington, Va. “He’s a stickler. He doesn’t get excited much but when he does, that’s what motivates you because he’s so consistent and he’s so particular, but when he tells you ‘Good job,’ it really feels good. He’ll outwork the players. I’ve seen him sleep on a cot in high school watching film.”
Former Hoover girl’s basketball coach and athletics director Myra Miles also remembers his overnight stays. The school’s overnight custodial staff wasn’t always expecting to find a resident in the defensive coordinator’s room
“So Miss Alma, I’ll never forget, she didn’t know he was in there and she walked up on him and scared her to death,” Miles said. “He was just a 24/7 guy.”
It was that obsessive approach that helped Hoover win two state titles in his three years. Lerner said the Bucs’ defense was much more complicated than the scheme he ran in college at FCS-level Furman. Pruitt was all business as Lerner guessed 95 percent of their conversations were football related.
One exchange from that era still follows Pruitt. Two-a-Days cameras were rolling as he ate with Jim Counts, Lerner’s stepfather. A confused Pruitt watched Counts prepare asparagus, prompting the now-infamous question.
“What’s that?” he asked, perplexed.
“Oh man,” Lerner said. “He doesn’t mess around much, but he would say some funny things like that every once in awhile.”
Pruitt’s next big break came a year after Lerner graduated. Hoover had just lost to Bill Clark’s Prattville in the 2006 state title game when Saban was hired at Alabama.
Propst said when he’d interviewed for a job on the 2007 Tide staff, he made sure Saban knew about his defensive coordinator. That spring, Pruitt was hired as Alabama’s director of player development making $80,250 a year.
“The rest is history,” Propst said. “He goes down there and does what he does. He took all what I call the tough jobs that nobody wants to do, the getting-them-up-at-5:30-jobs and all the stuff that kept the glue together at Alabama.
“I really believe in my mind and what I’ve seen, Jeremy Pruitt had as much to do with the success at Alabama because Nick put a lot of confidence in Jeremy to do a lot things off the field, made sure he had eyes on everybody at all times. He was a troubleshooter that took care of things before they got bad.”
Three years later, linebackers coach James Willis left for Texas Tech and Saban promoted Pruitt to a full-time, on-field assistant job. He’d coach the secondary, Saban’s specialty, making $190,000. A young defensive backfield struggled at times in 2010, but the Tide rode its defense to national titles in 2011 and 2012.
Pruitt won another BCS championship the next year as Florida State’s defensive coordinator. Between high school state titles and national championships at the college level, Pruitt won six rings in a 10-year span from 2004-13.
That collective experience led him to Georgia, where his pay went to $850,000 from $500,000 at Florida State. He got a raise after Year 1 to $1.3 million. His defensive staff also includes linebacker coach Kevin Sherrer, Alabama’s director of player development from 2010-12 who also worked with Pruitt and Propst at Hoover. The Alabama influence on Georgia’s program is apparent as offensive line coach Rob Sale and strength coach Mark Hocke spent time in Tuscaloosa. Pruitt even sounds like Saban.
“I think one thing we’d like to do is create the standard, the expectations here and do it over and over and hold everybody accountable that don’t do it the way you want them to do it,” Pruitt said.
Propst will be in Sanford Stadium on Saturday afternoon to watch his old assistant face the school he grew up supporting. It’s been just 11 years since Pruitt knocked on Propst’s front door. Now he’s on the fast track to something much bigger.
“I think he’s cut to be a head coach fast,” Propst said. “I don’t think it’s very much longer. Jeremy Pruitt will be a great head football coach. There’s no question in my mind.”