TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When Nick Saban took over at the University of Alabama in 2007, he respected the program's tradition but he wasn't necessarily married to it. He wasn't from the South and would never become the coach who kissed babies, devoured barbecue and hollered "Roll Tide!" everywhere he went.
Saban was an NFL guy, a buttoned-up West Virginia native who cut his teeth in the Big Ten. He wanted to build Alabama into a national powerhouse, not a regional product. Paul "Bear" Bryant was the face of Golden Flake, shilling their potato chips and pork rinds, while Saban kept a Coca-Cola by his side during news conferences and lent his name to a Mercedes-Benz dealership.
But being the shrewd carpetbagger he is, Saban didn't neglect the locals. To get Alabama off on the right foot, he knew he needed their help to win back the state from Auburn. So in one of his first moves as head coach, he set out to find prominent high school coaches to add to his support staff. And it was in that effort that former Hoover High coach Rush Propst introduced him to his young defensive coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt.
If you recall the short-lived MTV reality show "Two-A-Days," Pruitt was the twangy coach who had never heard of asparagus. But don't let his country bumpkin persona fool you. Pruitt was everything Alabama needed at the time, and he would become the man behind the scenes of one of the best defenses in the country.
Pruitt grew up in northeast Alabama. His dad was a longtime high school coach in the state, his grandfather a Baptist preacher. He played quarterback on his father's team in Rainsville, walked on at Alabama under Gene Stallings and served as a graduate assistant in Tuscaloosa before returning to coach his father's secondary at Plainview High School. When Saban was rumored to be interested in Alabama, Pruitt was at a state championship event in Birmingham and told his father, "Saban is who we need." Saban offered Pruitt a job in the support staff and there was no turning down him or his alma mater.
For three years, Pruitt worked in the background as an aide to Saban, primarily focusing on recruiting. When Saban needed someone to connect him with local coaches, it was Pruitt who would tag along and make the necessary introductions. Saban would take the stage at speaking engagements and Pruitt would hold his things. Whether on the road or in staff meetings, he was a sponge.
Pruitt was right there as Alabama became the dynasty it is today, eventually getting promoted to DBs coach in 2010. But even then he wasn't a household name. "Everybody knows who the DB coach is at Alabama," Pruitt would tell his people. "It's Nick Saban." Instead, Pruitt would become known for his ability to recruit. On a recruiting trail littered with snake oil salesmen, Pruitt set himself apart as being genuine. Players like defensive end Jonathan Allen might laugh at his accent and sweat-stained baseball cap and call him "country," but his authenticity forged a connection. Safety Eddie Jackson was asked to describe Pruitt earlier this year and called him a "father figure."
Beneath his everyman personality and his "aw shucks" demeanor is a coach as respected as any in the business for his X's and O's. He went to Florida State in 2013 and won a national championship as a defensive coordinator, and he helped turn Georgia's pass defense from a liability into one of the best in the country. When former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart left to become a head coach late last season, Saban made only one call to replace him. There weren't any interviews other than Pruitt, he said. Saban called it a "no-brainer." Both Michigan and USC wanted to fly the 42-year-old hotshot coordinator in for interviews, according to Pruitt's father, but the appeal of returning home to Alabama was too much to say no to.
"It's fun to be back in the building," Pruitt said before the start of the season, calling his career one big stroke of luck.
But, again, don't mistake his kindness for weakness. He's being deferential when he says broadly that "this is Coach Saban's defense." Those who watch Alabama closely see his fingerprints everywhere. Florida coach Jim McElwain called it the fastest Alabama defense he'd ever seen for a reason. Remember, Pruitt calls the plays, not Saban. He's a Broyles Award finalist because his defense didn't allow a single touchdown during November and ranks in the top three nationally in points allowed, yards, sacks and defensive touchdowns.
While he may not give off the vibe of a million-dollar coach like Saban and so many others, his method works just as well. Bill Oliver, who was Pruitt's former defensive coordinator at Alabama, said that "when it comes to a football mind, he's different than a lot of people."
"It isn't any comparison, a good old boy versus Mr. Goody Good and everyone thinks he's smart and all that," Oliver said. "Let me tell you, I said he's a s--- kicker that knows how to coach, and I say that as a compliment. He's got confidence in himself. I know when something happens with [Saban] on the sideline, Jeremy isn't afraid."
And to coach under Saban, you can't be.
Saban has handed offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin a few so-called "ass chewings" on the field this season, but the interaction of Saban and Pruitt has been far less publicized. Because, unlike Kiffin, who tends to ignore the yelling, Pruitt will snap right back.
It's something Pruitt has been doing his entire life.
Pruitt wasn't much for hunting or fishing as a kid. Instead, it was all football all the time. His father had him at practice constantly and would take him to the field house at 5 a.m. to wash jerseys. During one rough season, Pruitt remembered being with his father and a bunch of coaches late at night as they tried to figure out what was wrong with the offense. Out of nowhere, he told them that they would have scored if only they'd run the same play more than once. He got a whipping, he said, but he never stopped speaking up.
Dale, Pruitt's father, saw that his son understood the game better than most.
"Some coaches say they never talked about football at home, but that was not the case at our house," Dale said. "He would ask you why. 'Daddy, why did we do this?' And if you told him something you never had to tell him again.
"I think that Nick knew from the get-go that if he asked Jeremy's opinion he would give it to him. Not disrespectful, but if he asks him he'll give it to him. ... He has his own ideas, and they're very close to Coach Saban."
In fact, the two form something of a perfect blend.
Former colleagues of Saban's describe his defense as complex. Within one play there could be as many as five audibles, a former defensive line coach of his said. Saban tinkered constantly with different substitution packages, mixing size and speed to match the down and distance. And while that level of sophistication was standard practice in the NFL, implementing it in college proved difficult.
Pruitt, on the other hand, was used to keeping things simple with his former high school players. What's more, at Hoover High, he saw spread and no-huddle offenses years before they infiltrated the SEC.
"A lot of guys don't want to let go of what they know and what they believe in," said Ellis Johnson, who coached Pruitt during his second year at Alabama. "And, while I hate to put it this way, this stuff has gotten to be kind of high school-ish in the way you call defenses because you can't send all these complicated signals and verbiage and calls out there, you can't get lined up. I watch [Pruitt's] units and they handle that stuff extremely well."
Johnson harkened back to Steve Spurrier days at Florida. The Head Ball Coach's fun-n-gun offense looked so complicated from afar, he said, but when he joined him as an assistant at South Carolina and saw it up close, he thought, "Well, hell, everybody would know to do that."
"A lot of times the genius in genius is simplicity," Johnson said. "You may have a great system, but if players can't do it, what good is it?"
While it's not as if Alabama's defense was hurting before Pruitt returned, there is an argument to be made that the Crimson Tide have gotten even better this season.
Players have lauded a more streamlined process, cutting some playcalls to just one word. Alabama middle linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said there's less confusion on the field now than in years past, and outside linebacker Ryan Anderson said that "you don't have to think so much."
"He brings a different kind of energy," Anderson said of Pruitt earlier in the year. "He's definitely more of a players' coach. A lot of the guys are more willing to sell out for the guy because he's willing to do it for us. It's a different style."
Alabama's new-look defense will be put to the test, however, when it goes up against No. 4-ranked Washington in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Dec. 31 (3 p.m. ET on ESPN). Like many Pac-12 teams, the Huskies like to push the tempo and quarterback Jake Browning is capable of getting the ball out quickly and accurately.
It will be a battle of wills, the No. 4 scoring offense versus the No. 1 scoring defense.
And while Saban will get the bulk of the credit if Alabama comes out on top, don't forget that he isn't alone.
It's easy to take Pruitt for granted, but only a fool would do so. Saban trusted him to help build Alabama for a reason, and he didn't bring him back this year out of the kindness of his heart.
Pruitt has shown that he knows what he's doing, and at this rate it won't be long until he's leading a program of his own.