KNOXVILLE — Jeremy Pruitt grew up just 60 miles southwest of Chattanooga in the small town of Rainsville, Ala., formulating a clear goal.
He aspired to emulate his father, Dale, the revered football coach at Plainvew High School.
"When I had my dreams of what I wanted to be, I knew from a very small child that I wanted to be just like my father," Pruitt said in 2013. "I wanted to be a football coach. I didn't want to be a head football coach at Alabama, Florida State or somewhere like that. I just wanted to be a ball coach."
Pruitt may not have set out to be the head coach at one of college football's most storied programs, but that's where he is now.
The University of Tennessee announced the Alabama defensive coordinator as its 26th head coach on Thursday, putting a wild coaching search to rest by hiring a defensive mastermind with an impressive recruiting background.
As Pruitt stood at a podium in the Peyton Manning locker room inside Neyland Stadium on Thursday night laying out his vision for the Tennessee program, his father sat in the front row, his face glowing with pride as his son accepted the first head coaching position of his career.
"There was a time and place that this university was feared among the SEC teams," Pruitt said. "My goal as the head football coach at the University of Tennessee is to get us back to that point."
"I'm all in," he added.
Pruitt's ascension from a high school football assistant coach to a Southeastern Conference head coach took 11 years. His six-year contract at Tennessee is worth $3.8 million per year with room for another $1.2 million annually in bonuses.
He is taking over a Tennessee team that just suffered its first eight-loss season in program history. The Volunteers' last SEC East division title came in 2007 under Phillip Fulmer, the man Pruitt is now working for. Fulmer, named athletic director just a week ago, hired Pruitt to end a saga that began nearly a month ago when former athletic director John Currie fired Butch Jones.
"As I got to know Jeremy, his personality and his energy was infectious," Fulmer said. "As you get to know him, I think that you'll agree."
Fulmer formally introduced Pruitt by pulling a Tennessee jersey out from beneath the lectern. It bore the number 26.
"You're the 26th guy," said Fulmer, who was the 22nd. "Good luck."
Pruitt's résumé includes four national championships as an assistant coach — three at Alabama and one at Florida State. He was named national recruiter of the year by 247Sports in 2012 and has twice been a finalist for the Broyles Award, which is given to the nation's top assistant. In the last five years alone, Pruitt has worked under two national championship winning coaches in Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban.
Now he works for another national championship winning coach in Fulmer.
"It's very rare that as a first-time football coach, you get an opportunity that your boss, your direct boss, not only has done what coach Fulmer has done but he's done it at the place you're about to do it," Pruitt said.
It was at a banquet for Broyles Award finalists in 2013 that Pruitt gave the speech in which he mentioned wanting to be like his father. At the time, he was just seven years removed from being an assistant high school football coach best known for his appearances in a short-lived MTV reality show called "Two-a-Days."
Then, when Saban took the Alabama job in 2007, he hired Pruitt, a former Alabama defensive back, as his director of player development. Saban relied on Pruitt to help him build relationships with high school coaches across Alabama. After three years in the role, Pruitt was named defensive backs coach.
He hasn't stopped climbing.
Pruitt just wanted to be a ball coach. Now he's the head coach at the University of Tennessee.
Contact David Cobb at email@example.com.
This story was updated Dec. 7 at 11:50 p.m.