ATHENS – Jeremy Pruitt’s new players were gathered in a team meeting room Tuesday afternoon. Pruitt and his fiancee, Casey East, were escorted in, and that’s when head coach Mark Richt saw and heard something that startled him.
“The guys broke out in applause when he walked in the door,” Richt said.
Presumably, the players were applauding their new defensive coordinator, not his fiancee.
Then Pruitt, 39, spoke to the team. Again, the defensive players broke out in applause.
“I’ve never seen that happen in a meeting in 30-something years,” Richt said. “It doesn’t mean we’re gonna win a bunch of games, it doesn’t mean anything (except) we got their attention, we got them excited.”
Pruitt’s hiring also got plenty of attention nationally, as Georgia was able to poach the top assistant from Florida State, the team that just won the national championship.
Pruitt was officially introduced Wednesday. This time, when he walked through the door, he and Richt saw banks of television cameras and a few dozen media members. Pruitt, amazed, began his statement by comparing news conferences.
“You know you’re at the right school, where football’s important, when you’ve got as many folks here as for the national championship,” he said. Richt looked at the scene and proclaimed, “It looks like Georgia football is alive and well.”
The defense wasn’t alive and well last season. Richt is banking on Pruitt changing that.
Very quickly after Todd Grantham left for Louisville on Sunday, Richt zeroed in on Pruitt. While the media and fan speculation centered on Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, the former Georgia player and assistant, Richt had already been told that Pruitt was available.
Georgia offensive line coach Will Friend was Pruitt’s college roommate at Alabama, and the two have spoken about once a week for the past 15-20 years. Pruitt was a groomsman in Friend’s wedding.
“Obviously when the job came open, the small talk we have weekly, he mentioned it to me and asked if I’d be interested,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt needed no convincing, according to Friend.
“Jeremy was ready to go,” Friend said.
But why was he ready to go, when he had just guided the defense for the national champions? Pruitt would only say that he was attracted to the job at Georgia, calling it the best school in the best conference in the country. He did not mention the raise he’s expected to receive — from $500,000 to about $850,000. But he also indicated he didn’t try to get a counter-offer from Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher.
“First of all, Coach Fisher and I are very good friends,” Pruitt said. “But when I decided this is what I wanted to do, I let him know, and that was it.”
Pruitt’s hiring essentially filled two vacancies on Georgia’s staff: defensive coordinator and secondary coach. Pruitt will handle both of those duties, as he did last year at Florida State, and he was the secondary coach at Alabama for the previous three years.
Inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti and defensive line coach Chris Wilson are both welcome to stay on, Richt said Wednesday.
That leaves one opening, to coach outside linebackers, a duty that Grantham handled. Interestingly, Richt said he hoped the final assistant coach would also have a special teams background, as part of some changes he plans to make to help the team’s beleaguered special teams.
“I got some things in mind,” Richt said. “I can’t say exactly what I have in mind. I do have some things in mind for that, that I think is gonna be helpful.”
It all became possible when Grantham bolted for a more lucrative offer from Louisville. Georgia did not counter-offer. Richt said Grantham notified him Sunday, just before news broke nationally.
“When he let me know that, within 30 minutes I had heard from prospects, I had heard from prospects’ parents, I had heard from current players, I had heard from media, I heard from a massive amount of coaches who were very interested in the opportunity,” Richt said. “I mean, my phone was blowing up and there were a lot of questions that needed to be answered.”
Richt said the first thing he did was meet with his defensive players and assure them everything was going to be OK. That meeting was at 4 p.m. on Monday, after Richt returned from Indianapolis, where he had been attending the coaches’ convention.
“Then within 24 hours, we had another 4 p.m. meeting, and we introduced Coach Pruitt to the players,” Richt said.
Richt said he spoke to one other candidate, whom he did not name, but heard from plenty of others.
But once Richt found out Pruitt was attainable, things materialized quickly. Richt called Pruitt “priority one.”
“There’s risk when you talk to a guy that’s at a Florida State, or whatever school. If you’re looking to get the best, then it’s gonna be tough to get them out of there,” Richt said. “You take a risk when you shoot for the stars, so to speak, in that a guy might be totally sincere and then at the moment of truth he’s not ready to do that. And for good reasons, there’s a lot of reasons guys change their mind at the last moment. If you do a lot of that, it could prolong your search. Thankfully, Coach was very sincere in his interest and was very sincere in following through on what he said he wanted to do.”
The first time Pruitt met Richt was way back in 2003, when Pruitt, then a high school assistant coach, came to Athens accompanying two recruits. They sat down in an office at Sanford Stadium along with Pruitt’s father Dale, the high school head coach at Fort Payne (Ala.).
“When I walked out of that room 30 minutes later, I was wowed,” Pruitt said. “My father looked at me and said, ‘That’s what college football is all about.’ And I said right then and there, ‘If I ever had an opportunity to work for him, I wanted to be a part of his staff.’ ”
Richt didn’t remember the meeting, just that they had pizza.
“I wish I could say I remembered that moment, but I’m glad it happened, I can tell you that,” Richt said.