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The lesson Pruitt learned in Year 1 and what he realized needed changing

HOOVER, Ala. — Gene Chizik called it.

Last summer at SEC Media Days, I asked the former Auburn head coach what would be Jeremy Pruitt’s biggest challenge in Year 1 as a first-time head coach.

Chizik, who won a national title with the Tigers in his second season, didn’t hesitate to answer.

“He’s really drinking water out of a firehose right now,” he told me.

“Jeremy is learning to find his way: Time management. Everyday he walks into his office he’s learning there’s 10 things that hit him from different directions. He has to figure out how much time am I spending on the defense? On the offense? On special teams? Recruiting.

“It’s going to take a couple of years to iron out that head coaching position for him. I think he’d tell you that, too, if he was being honest and realistic. That’s the biggest challenge for a new head coach, where am I spending my time?”

Following a 5-7 season in Year 1, Pruitt looked in the mirror and agreed with Chizik’s assessment, officially admitting such realization during his second go-around at SEC Media Days last week.

“It’s pretty simple,” Pruitt said Tuesday, “the first six months, I’m trying to fix everything. …It’s everything that goes into building the program for the next 10 to 20 years.”

Pruitt revamped the weight room and nutrition program. He got an extra practice field built and overhauled the program’s recruiting infrastructure and support staff. Along the way though, he sacrificed the very thing that made him such a strong recruiter as an assistant coach in the first place.

“I lost the most important thing to me, which is our players themselves, and the relationships that have always been a strength of mine,” Pruitt said.

Pruitt decided to change that this offseason.

He became more affable and approachable. He got to know his players more personally. Most notably, Pruitt and his wife Casey invited quarterback Jarrett Guarantano and his girlfriend come over to his house for a raw heart-to-heart powwow in February. That dinner was “a huge step forward” in their relationship, per Guarantano, and the quarterback has seen similar changes with Pruitt and other players.

“It was going to be hard to build relationships early on,” Guarantano explained. “But as (this) offseason started, he’s made it a big thing that relationships are big and we need them.”

“I have learned a lot this offseason, and it was a pretty easy fix to fix our relationships with our players, and to build relationships,” Pruitt said. “And it takes time, right? Over time you learn to trust people when you get to know ‘em and know who they are.”

Back in February, around the same time Pruitt and Guarantano were having their double-date, Tennessee’s head coach had little interest in any sort of public self-reflection. He scoffed a “what have you learned question” and simply responded, “I mean, we went 5-7. That’s what you’re measured on: Wins and losses.”

But it’s clear the biggest impetus for Pruitt’s rediscovery of relationships were his hires of Derrick Ansley and Jim Chaney. He handed over the play-calling duties to his new defensive lieutenant and gave Chaney a $1.5 million deal to become Tennessee’s offensive CEO. There’s a trust there, with Pruitt believing less is more now from him, and freeing up time for him to truly know his football team.

“When you believe in the person that’s beside you and the person that’s across from you, and knowing what you’re going to get from them day in and day out, with expectations, it’s easier to pull together,” Pruitt said.

“Obviously after being there at 18 months, everyone in our program understands what’s expected day in and day out. We’re heading in the right direction and we’re headed there in a hurry.”

Time will tell how fast Tennessee becomes a contender again, but Pruitt’s frank introspection on what needed to change from Year 1 to Year 2 is a good start.