Monday, December 11, 2017 - by special report to The Chattanoogan.com
KNOXVILLE -- He is still the guy that taught them how to play kickball and officiated their dodgeball games. He's still the guy that wore a Fort Payne Wildcats football T-shirt to class every day and carried them over his shoulder across the playground if they got hurt.
Before he rose to prominence as a college football coach, Jeremy Pruitt was a PE teacher at Wills Valley Elementary School in Fort Payne, Alabama.
The pride of DeKalb County, Pruitt has never forgotten his roots.
Many of his former students followed with great interest last week when Pruitt was introduced as the 26th head coach in Tennessee football history by athletic director Phillip Fulmer.
“It's crazy to think he was my kindergarten teacher and watched me tumble outside on the playground and now he's the head coach at a major SEC school,” said Presley Hawkins, a Wills Valley graduate.
“I think that's really cool and really encouraging because it shows that even being from a small town you can still reach your goals and be something in life.”
Jeremy Pruitt is a Southern-bred football coach cut from central casting.
He's a coach's son from Rainsville, Alabama. He's a grinder, a lifer, a country boy comfortable in his own skin.
He prefers wearing sweats over suits and isn't ashamed of a drawl that caused “aight” to go viral minutes after his introductory press conference.
He flies on private jets not to impress, but to get places faster so he can spend more time working on football.
“Jeremy is a ball coach. That is the bottom line, and that is why I think him and coach Fulmer are so much alike,” said Pruitt's father, Dale. “They are just ball coaches, and if you are a ball coach you can coach the offensive line, the secondary or whatever. Because if you are going to be very good, you have to learn all of it.”
Jeremy Pruitt began wearing a full football uniform around the house by age 3.
He grew up in a fieldhouse, and his babysitters were the coaches and players surrounding him.
While many kids were watching Saturday morning cartoons, Pruitt was breaking down film from a Friday night game with his dad's staff.
Pruitt wasn't obsessed with being on the fast track in coaching. His feet were always planted wherever he was, his focus always on achieving greatness in the moment.
Pruitt made stops at Fort Payne High, Plainview High and storied Hoover High before ascending to the college ranks. He's been on the staffs of four national championship teams, winning three at Alabama and one at Florida State.
“I knew what I wanted to do, I wanted to be like my dad. I wanted to have a positive impact on the people in our community. I wanted to be a high school football coach,” Pruitt said. “The one thing I have always done, I've had an opportunity to work for good people. We've had success. I'm a believer that if you do your job, keep working and don't worry about the next job and do a good job at the job you've got, good things happen.”
During his interview with Beverly Davenport, the chancellor at Tennessee, Pruitt told her about teaching kindergarten through third grade PE classes. He said he taught every child in Fort Payne how to tie their shoes from 2001-2004.
“I also told her that I started suggesting Velcro,” Pruitt quipped.
Layton Powell, 21, was in Pruitt's classes at Wills Valley from kindergarten through the second grade.
Powell and his friends still laugh at some of the stories from those days. Like the time Pruitt pretended Powell was in trouble after kicking a soccer ball into the rafters and threatened to call his mom, sending Powell crying into the corner. Or the different twist Pruitt put on dodgeball by having no boundaries and calling it “Demolition Ball.”
“He would just sit over on his chair yelling in his Southern drawl with a bunch of kids running around the gym like crazy,” Powell said. “He was always playing around with us and having fun. We always had a blast. We were just little kids, but we loved those classes.”
As the boys begged to play football or basketball, Hawkins always wanted to show Pruitt her latest cheerleading moves. Her mom, Vicki Dodd, was the PE teacher and cheerleading coach at Fort Payne High, and Hawkins wanted to be just like the older girls.
“Coach Pruitt was always so encouraging and let me tumble outside on the playground. He just let me be me. He didn't look down on me wanting to be a cheerleader like some coaches would,” said Hawkins, 24, who is now a kindergarten teacher in the Atlanta area. “He just embraced it and let me do it. He just wanted everyone to play and have fun. I remember he would cut up and laugh with us. He was great.”
Hawkins comes from an SEC-conflicted household. Her mom was a cheerleader at Alabama, her stepfather, David Dodd, played football at Tennessee from 1984-88 and she graduated from Auburn.
It made for some interesting Saturdays.
The one thing they can all agree on? They are all huge fans of Jeremy Pruitt.
“He remembers he started here and this is where he came from. I think that is admirable for anybody that makes it that big and reaches that level,” Vicki Dodd said. “He is a good old homeboy and hasn't forgotten the people he started out with. All these young boys here look up to that and think maybe one day they can do that too.”
Dale Pruitt says his son's down-home nature is genuine and helps him relate to the players he's recruiting.
“He doesn't try to be somebody for somebody,” Dale Pruitt said. “He talks country and he doesn't try to change the way he speaks. He is who he is. The bottom line is he cares about kids and they respect him for that. Jeremy can get into a kid real hard when he's coaching and the kid will be in his office the next day laughing or wanting to learn more from him.”
Powell is the same age as Jeremy Pruitt's oldest son, Jayse, and they played on a summer baseball team in middle school coached by Pruitt. Once Pruitt began coaching in college, Powell figured they would never cross paths again unless they were both in Fort Payne.
But they reconnected at Alabama, where Powell has been working as a student manager for Pruitt.
“It's kind of funny how it all worked out,” Powell said. “Jeremy is just a good all-around guy. He cares for you and cares for his players. That is why he is coming back to Alabama to help out for the playoffs, and that is why he is going to do as much as he can for Tennessee to help those players. They are going to really like him at Tennessee.”
Pruitt gained a reputation for sleeping on a cot in his office from the time he started coaching high school. The apple doesn't fall very far from the tree.
The Pruitt family has picked a random day to celebrate Christmas in December the last few years because Alabama has always been preparing for the College Football Playoff.
“Before last year's game against Washington, everyone was gathered together and I was in the kitchen hiding from everybody watching film,” Dale Pruitt said. “My wife said, 'Dale, really?' But that is what we do.”
Football and family have always gone together for Jeremy Pruitt and guided many of his major life decisions.
“Three years ago, Michigan, USC and Alabama called him and he had the opportunity to go to three pretty good jobs in pretty much different places in the country,” Dale Pruitt said. “But he is a Southern guy and he likes the South and he likes to be close to family and that all fits with Tennessee. It's a great fit.”
After Pruitt's introductory press conference, his wife and parents went looking for him in his new office. He wasn't there. He was already conducting meetings.
He appeared for a few minutes while everyone was eating cake to celebrate his son's birthday and then disappeared again.
“He had work to get done,” Dale Pruitt said. “He is kind of like coach Fulmer said, he is not pretty. He don't want to be pretty. He just wants to win.”
(This story was written by Rhiannon Potkey, special to UTsports.com)