Willing to work

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- As assistant coaching jobs in high school go, this one was as good as they come, and Jeremy Pruitt wanted it desperately.

It was 2004, and Hoover High, just outside Birmingham, Ala., was perhaps the most high-profile program in the country. A perennial championship contender, the Buccaneers were soon to be the focus of an MTV reality show. Because Pruitt's father, Dale, had coached in the state for nearly quarter-century, his name carried some cache, but when the job of defensive backs coach at Hoover came open, head coach Rush Propst had a slew of impressive candidates.

Eager for a chance, Jeremy Pruitt left a dozen messages for Propst, but Propst hadn't returned any of the calls. It wasn't until Pruitt procured Propst's home address and showed up in his driveway one afternoon that he finally gained the coach's attention.

"His persistence intrigued me," Propst said.

There was already another coach Propst had tabbed for the job, but he gave Pruitt a perfunctory interview anyway. They met for only about 30 minutes, but Propst had heard enough.

"He blew the other [candidates] out of the water," Propst said.

In the eight years since landing the job, Pruitt won state championships at Hoover and national titles at Alabama; he's shipped off talent to top college programs and prepared future NFL stars; he's done the grunt work and, this past December, he landed the job of defensive coordinator at Florida State.

It would be easy to classify it as a meteoric rise, but Pruitt doesn't see it that way. He's caught a few breaks along the way, but his path to the big time was paved with hard work and sacrifice.

"Jeremy basically had no hobbies," Dale Pruitt said. "[Coaching] was what he wanted to do."

The training began early. Dale Pruitt's first head coaching job came in 1982, and the family was raised on a football field.

"Football's a game for most people," Dale Pruitt said, "but we live it."

Pruitt's early lessons came from his father, then later as a player under Gene Stallings. As a coach, however, Pruitt spent six years patrolling the rural outposts of Alabama before landing at Hoover.

Stallings offered some advice early on that stuck with Pruitt: Work with good people, and opportunity will find you. That's exactly how Pruitt found his way back to Alabama, working as Nick Saban's director of player personnel.

"[Saban] had been in the NFL … and needed some help with high school recruiting in the state," Pruitt said. "I was coaching at one of the better high schools in the state, so I got the opportunity."

During the next three years, Pruitt's role grew. But between early morning wake-up calls to players to late-night film study after games, Pruitt's job consistent of a myriad of menial tasks that, when cobbled together into a whole, represented the entirety of Saban's infamous system for building a champion.

"It's a persistence and the will to work and really just take care of the little detail things you just never knew who did them," Propst said. "Well, Jeremy was the guy that did them."

Alabama won its first national championship in 2009 under Saban on the strength of a dynamic defense that dominated the SEC.

In the press box during that championship run, Pruitt was the eye in the sky.

"He was as good as anybody I've been with in the press box in the National Football League and in college ball," said Sal Sunseri, an assistant on that 2009 Alabama team who now works as Florida State's defensive ends coach. "He knows exactly how to put the guys in place and knew how to make adjustments. … That's how we won."

After being passed over twice for on-field jobs, Saban finally relented after the 2009 season, with Pruitt landing the plum job of defensive backs coach -- a position group that had been Saban's specialty for years.

The next three seasons saw two more titles at Alabama and a secondary ranked among the best in the nation each year. Two of Pruitt's defensive backs were selected in the first round of last year's NFL draft, and this year, cornerback Dee Milliner figures to do the same.

"They don't talk about [Pruitt] as much because he's there with Coach Saban, and he's the face of the team," Milliner said. "But Coach Pruitt is doing the same thing. When Coach Saban isn't talking to us, it's Coach Pruitt teaching us and showing us everything."

Saban might have gotten the credit nationally, but within the coaching ranks, Pruitt was turning heads. When Mark Stoops left FSU to take the head job at Kentucky, Pruitt was already near the top of Jimbo Fisher's wish list for potential replacements.

"When Kirby Smart had the headset on the last two national championship games, he's been talking to Jeremy Pruitt," Propst said. "I think Jimbo Fisher probably recognized that."

FSU's players have recognized it, too.

During spring practice, Pruitt installed an aggressive new defensive scheme, opening up the playbook for FSU's athletic defenders and offering an opportunity to explore their potential. It's made an immediate impression.

"Coach Pruitt, he likes physical players," corner Lamarcus Joyner said. "He has a physical defense, physical scheme and he's got physical players to fit in. So me and him are like best friends now."

Outside the locker room, however, the hiring wasn't met with universal approval. It was a marquee position, but Pruitt's résumé included just three years of on-field experience at the college level. On paper at least, he was an entry-level candidate who landed a management position.

Fisher didn't see it that way. He's coached under Saban and he understood the demands of the job. He recruited players from Hoover and built a rapport with Pruitt then. He knows the importance of recruiting, and Pruitt was as good at that job as anyone in the nation.

By national signing day, Pruitt's impact was already being felt. He not only helped to hold together a class at FSU threatened by the departure of six assistant coaches, but he provided the spark that eventually landed highly touted recruits DeMarcus Walker and Jalen Ramsey -- two potential stars that were barely on Florida State's radar before Pruitt's arrival.

And that's when Pruitt's experience truly shined. He's paid his dues at the high school level, worked in the rural towns and built strong ties to the players and coaches there. He knows recruiting because he's been on both sides of the equation. It's a recipe for success that has helped former high school coaches such as Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze land head jobs at the college level.

"Jeremy is one of those pioneer guys," Propst said. "Recruiting is blown out of proportion that there's some magical wand out there, some magic formula for how to do it. Let me tell you what it is: It's hard work, and you've got to have an understanding of the high school football coach and how to handle that coach."

Pruitt has a gift for finding common ground -- whether it's with a high school coach, a recruit's family or his own players. He understands them. It isn't a lack of college experience that underscores his rise to prominence but rather a diverse set of experiences along the way.

"Everything comes with an opportunity," Sunseri said. "He got that opportunity. He's run with it, and he's doing a very good job."