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In this Jan. 10, 2018, file photo, Tennessee Volunteers head coach Jeremy Pruitt speaks during a newss conference in Knoxville, Tenn. (Photo: Summer Simmons/University of Tennessee Athletics)

This story was updated March 27, 2018, at 11:59 p.m.

KNOXVILLE — As most of his players left campus to go home for spring break earlier this month, Jeremy Pruitt did the same.

The 43-year-old first-year Tennessee football coach returned to his hometown of Rainsville, Ala., and left with a special memento from the place where he learned the game of football.

An estimated crowd of more than 300 people packed the Tom Bevill Enrichment Center on Rainsville's Main Street — just two miles down the road from Plainview High School — on March 10 as Pruitt was awarded a key to the city.

"There were more people there that night wearing Tennessee orange than I could imagine being in Rainsville," said Jerry Clifton, the event's emcee. "It was amazing."

Clifton said there were a number of people at the ceremony wearing shirts with Pruitt's already famous slang term "aight" emblazoned on the front. Those attending including Pruitt's former coaches at Plainview High and several local politicians.

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"It was something the city wanted to do for Jeremy, because Jeremy obviously was raised in Rainsville and played at Plainview," Clifton said. "So they wanted to recognize the fact that he is the head football coach at the University of Tennessee."

Rainsville, just 60 miles southwest of Chattanooga in DeKalb County, is a town of 4,500 residents and the place where Jeremy's father, Dale, spent 26 years of a storied high school coaching career in charge of the Plainview Bears.

Before rising to acclaim as the defensive coordinator at Florida State, Georgia and Alabama, Jeremy played and then coached at Plainview as he worked his way up the coaching ladder. He spent the 1998 season as Plainview's defensive backs coach and the 2000 season as the defensive coordinator working with his father.

"I have a lot of pride in where I'm from," Jeremy Pruitt said Tuesday when asked about receiving the key to Rainsville. "And I think the people in our community do. I was fired up about it and very appreciative."

Pruitt's small-town football roots help explain why so many area high school coaches have been present early during Tennessee's spring practice session. Tennessee will hold its annual coaches clinic this weekend that will draw high school coaches from around the region.

But even during routine weekday practices, local prep coaches have been a common sight on the Haslam Field sideline.

"One thing about our staff is there is seven of us who started out as high school coaches," Pruitt said. "It's going to be open-door to high school coaches all the time. It helped me as a high school coach. People were good to me and gave me an opportunity to go watch practice and sit in meetings and grow as a coach.

"We want to do the same thing here. We want to be the most accessible program to the high school coaches in all the United States."

Jeremy Pruitt invited Clifton and a few other old friends from Rainsville to Tennessee's practice Tuesday. Among the group who drove up was Ralph Burke, who reflected fondly on the night that honored Rainsville's now-famous native son with a key to the city.

"They told some good stories about how Jeremy got some of his nicknames," Burke said. "We'll just leave it at that. We had a few laughs, and I think it was just an opportunity for that town to say, 'Hey, man, we're proud of you. We're just proud of you.' They turned out and it was good. It was great."

Though the oversized key was the main prize, Pruitt landed another gift at the event.

Former Rainsville mayor Roy Sanderson — one of the town's biggest Tennessee fans — presented Pruitt with a pair of orange and white checkerboard overalls.

Contact David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidWCobb and on Facebook at facebook.com/volsupdate.

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