RTI contributor Adam McCracken contributed to this article
With Nick Saban closing in on 70 years of age, one would assume his historic reign as head football coach at Alabama is coming to an end. For the last couple of years, at least, many have speculated as to who the successor to Saban’s throne at Alabama will be. From Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, to Georgia head coach and former Alabama coordinator Kirby Smart, and even mentions of Lane Kiffin and Urban Meyer, many have been connected to the dream job.
But one of the biggest names in SEC football believes it won’t be any of those coaches who will follow Saban at Alabama.
SEC Network television host and radio host Paul Finebaum discussed the future of Alabama football on WJOX 94.5 FM out of Birmingham on Monday, and his choice of replacement for Saban at Alabama wasn’t Swinney or anyone else; he mentioned Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt as his top choice for the job at Alabama.
“I think if you had to put odds on, right now, if you say, ‘Okay, put me ten dollars on the next coach at Alabama,’ I would put my money on Jeremy Pruitt,” Finebaum said. “That’s assuming he has success at Tennessee, but I think if he has any level of success, he would move up into that upper echelon, because he’s got the ties; he’s got the understanding of the job. That’s the one thing people don’t understand about Alabama: You just can’t import a coach, let’s say (Washington head coach) Chris Petersen, as good as he is, and have him land at Alabama and be able to figure it out.
“Nick Saban is about the only so-called ‘outsider’ that’s been able to do that, and the reason is because he’s already been at an SEC school. He understands the culture of the SEC, and on top of all that, he’s the best coach of all-time.”
Finebaum stated that he believes Dabo Swinney is more comfortable now at Clemson than many thought he’d ever be, and he has an “easier path” to winning titles at Clemson than the Tide do in the SEC. Because of that, Finebaum doesn’t see Swinney leaving for Alabama if Saban retires or moves on in the next four or five years.
Instead, he sees Pruitt leaving Tennessee to go back to Alabama if it comes to that.
This is definitely a tall order for a coach approaching only his second year of head coaching experience, though. Coming off a 5-7 record at Tennessee in 2018, Pruitt has recruited well, shown strides in development, and will hope to lead Tennessee to its first bowl game since 2016. But he only has that one season of head coaching experience, and it wasn’t exactly the most impressive debut season.
There are definitely a lot of “what ifs” to be answered before Pruitt gets the consideration for Alabama. He’d have to turn around the Vols in a short time for him to even be a legit candidate to take over whenever Saban does move on, and there’s no guarantee of that.
Pruitt definitely has SEC ties, though, and he has very strong Alabama ties as well. He played defensive back at Alabama in 1995 and 1996, became a graduate assistant there in 1997, and returned in 2007 as Director of Player Development. After the 2009 season, he was promoted to defensive backs coach and served in that role from 2010-2012. Then, Pruitt returned to Tuscaloosa to serve as Saban’s defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach in 2016 and 2017. He also spent nine seasons coaching in Alabama high schools and smaller colleges before making the jump to the college ranks.
There isn’t anyone with more ties to Alabama outside of the state who is currently in a high level of coaching than Jeremy Pruitt.
Tennessee’s second-year head coach has already shown he can recruit with his elite and unique ability to connect with players. The rankings speak for themselves, but former Alabama staffer and new UT addition Kerry Stevenson shined even more light on Pruitt’s recruiting prowess two months ago.
“I know at Alabama, we definitely had some bigger kids, but, as far as talent, I know coach Pruitt did a heck of a job recruiting,” Stevenson stated in an interview in late February about why he left Alabama. “The longer he’s here, the gap is going to close.
“He knows everyone’s name. He asked how their mothers were doing. He knows their mothers’ names. He’s more personable. Coach Saban is a great coach, and we had a great relationship. Coach Pruitt is my friend. I have love for him like a brother.”
Though his strong Alabama ties and success as a top-tier defensive mind over the last five years have made quite the impression, Pruitt’s tenure at Tennessee will be the biggest factor in determining if he will become a possible successor to Saban. Pruitt will need to turn the program around at UT and show his deservance of not only being a head football coach, but one capable of leading a top-tier program to even be considered. Even then, UT will likely try everything they can to keep Pruitt if he’s succeeded at rebuilding the program at that point.
Vol fans would hate to lose another coach in a few years, especially to a bitter rival like Alabama. But if Pruitt is pursued by Alabama, it would mean he has turned UT’s program around to the point that they’re a national power again.
Time will tell if any of what Finebaum says comes to pass, but Pruitt certainly has the connections to be considered for the Alabama job. Vol fans will hope that if he can reconstruct Tennessee and Saban leaves the Tide in the next five or six years, then Pruitt will stay at UT instead of returning “home.”