If Nick Saban wants to hire Jeremy Pruitt at Alabama, he shouldn’t let NCAA probe stop him


If we’re to believe the allegations levied by the NCAA, then Jeremy Pruitt’s transgressions at Tennessee include paying an athlete’s mother’s medical bill and funneling money to players to assist with living expenses.

How fine the line is between Good Samaritan and flagrant cheating.

For Pruitt’s alleged actions and those of staff members he oversaw, the NCAA has suggested the former Vols coach could receive a show-cause penalty at a conclusion of a case that has dragged on for more than two years.

I’m unsympathetic to Pruitt’s Tennessee fate. The NCAA’s findings point to a coach and a staff that sloppily flouted rules governing impermissible benefits. Coaches who lose too often while coloring outside the lines don’t last long. Pruitt’s contract provisions, combined with his actions and failure to monitor his staff, gave Tennessee ample ammunition to fire a floundering coach for cause and without buyout.

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And yet, Pruitt remains stationed in something of a college football purgatory while this NCAA case proceeds at glacial speed. Wednesday marked the two-year anniversary of Pruitt’s firing, and he hasn’t worked for a college program since then. In the meantime, NCAA rules evolved to allow athletes to profit off boosters, collectives and companies for use of their name, image and likeness.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt meet at midfield after their game at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Saturday October 19, 2019.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt meet at midfield after their game at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Saturday October 19, 2019.

While NCAA rules evolution does not excuse all past shenanigans, it seems silly that Pruitt, 48, remain handcuffed in perpetuity while the college athletics landscape does not reflect the one in place during Pruitt’s tenure.

And so, if Nick Saban wants Pruitt to reprise his role as Alabama’s defensive coordinator or as some other defensive coaching aide, then he should make the hire.

Sanctions have not been issued in the Tennessee case. As it stands, the NCAA’s show-cause language toward Pruitt only hints at possible penalties to come.

Plus, while a show-cause ruling hamstrings the affected coach and may create job limitations (such as recruiting restrictions), a show-cause penalty does not prohibit a school from employing that coach. Auburn hired basketball coach Bruce Pearl while he had an active show-cause.

In other words, the show-cause language in the NCAA’s notice of allegations is not an insurmountable obstacle.

And, anyway, how’s this for cause, should Alabama wish to hire Pruitt and argue sanctions he’ll likely face: Paying an athlete’s parent’s medical bills hardly seems so scandalous when viewed through the lens of school-associated collectives waging bidding wars for teenagers.

If your only exposure to Pruitt had been his Tennessee tenure, you might wonder why so many Alabama fans consider him the ideal choice for Saban’s defensive coordinator vacancy. Pruitt ranks among the worst Tennessee coaches in program history, and Alabama got an up-close look at his futility. The Crimson Tide beat Pruitt’s Vols by a combined score of 141-51 in three matchups.

Pruitt’s tenure looks worse based on what came next.

After flicking off the scab of the Pruitt era, the Vols are 18-8 after two seasons under Josh Heupel. They beat Alabama last season for the first time since 2006.

But one school’s trash becomes another’s coordinator, and while Pruitt proved an unfit football CEO, never has Saban employed a more accomplished coordinator.

Alabama touted the nation’s best defense in back-to-back seasons with Pruitt as coordinator. Its 2017 team won the national championship before Pruitt departed for Tennessee.

Alabama has not ranked better than ninth nationally in scoring defense in any of the five seasons since the departure of Pruitt, whom some Vols fans came to know as “Gump” after his tenure soured.

Surely Pruitt is not the only coach who could succeed operating Alabama’s defense. Kirby Smart thrived in the role for years. Former Wisconsin defensive coordinator and one-time Badgers interim coach Jim Leonhard seems qualified for the job. If Saban likes someone else for the job, then maybe tapping Pruitt as a defensive analyst is the most appropriate segue out of purgatory while the NCAA case inches along.

But few can match Pruitt’s coordinator résumé. He oversaw sturdy defenses at Florida State and Georgia before reuniting with Alabama, where he started his college career as a member of Saban’s inaugural staff in 2007.

If Pruitt were to rejoin Saban’s staff, he would not oversee either the program or its recruiting operation. And he’d receive better leadership than he experienced at Tennessee.

One conversation with the unrefined Pruitt should have been enough to tell Tennessee’s brass he’d need steady oversight and assistance as a first-time coach steering an operation as big as an SEC program. Instead, Tennessee’s compliance department snoozed, and Pruitt’s boss, then-Vols athletics director Phillip Fulmer, apparently was so clueless that he had no knowledge of Pruitt’s staff’s clandestine rule-breaking, despite Fulmer’s near omnipresence around the program.

Tennessee’s inadequate leadership during Pruitt’s tenure extended beyond the coach’s desk, and once UT’s administration finally caught on, it swept its athletics leadership into the dustbin for an effective reboot.

It’s not as if Pruitt re-entering college football would equal skating past punishment.

While the NCAA’s gears of justice laboriously churned, Pruitt lost his job, and he received none of the $12.6 million buyout he would have been due had he not been fired with cause. The findings of the NCAA and Tennessee joint investigation tarnished Pruitt’s reputation, which he’d already damaged with the Vols’ on-field performance, to the extent that he’ll probably never again be a Division I head coach. Pruitt did not coach anywhere last season after spending 2021 in the NFL.

Pruitt reaped what he sowed, but the flogging he received should be sufficient within an industry in which a coach calling escort services with his university-provided cell phone is not a career-ending mistake.

Pruitt, an Alabama native and UA alumnus, recently touted his Bama bona fides.

“Make no mistake,” Pruitt told DawgNation earlier this month, “I’m an Alabama guy.”

Tennessee’s mistake hire could become Alabama’s solution.

If Saban wants to make that happen, he shouldn’t let NCAA bluster from a bygone era stand in his way.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.

This article originally appeared on The Tuscaloosa News: Nick Saban should hire Jeremy Pruitt for Alabama football if he wants



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