KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Alabama once again is making a postseason run with help from an assistant coach on his way out the door.
Only this time, there's a twist.
The arrival of a December signing period this year makes it imperative that new Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt work to salvage his new program's recruiting class the next couple of weeks while also continuing his duties as a defensive coordinator on Alabama coach Nick Saban's staff.
Pruitt says he owes it to Alabama's players that he coach them throughout the postseason. As the No. 4 seed, Alabama (11-1) faces No. 1 seed Clemson (12-1) in a Jan. 1 Sugar Bowl semifinal at New Orleans.
"I also have a commitment to the kids whose homes I sat in with their parents and recruited them to go to the University of Alabama," Pruitt said. "Coach Saban has been wonderful to me. I would not be here today without his help, so I am going to go back as soon as the dead period starts and coach those kids. At the end of the day, it's about those guys. Those kids are the reason we're here."
Alabama's dealt with this situation before.
Two years ago, Kirby Smart remained Alabama's defensive coordinator throughout the Crimson Tide's national championship run after Georgia named him head coach . Jim McElwain was hired at Colorado State in December 2011 but stayed on as Alabama's offensive coordinator for its BCS championship game victory over LSU.
"At the time, I was always concerned," Smart recalled Thursday at a news conference for playoff teams. "Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing the right thing for Georgia? Am I doing the right thing for Alabama? It was very concerning to me because I wanted to do what was best for both."
Alabama went through it again last year when Florida Atlantic hired Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin . After Kiffin stayed with Alabama for its Peach Bowl semifinal triumph over Washington, Steve Sarkisian took over as offensive coordinator for the championship game loss to Clemson in what the school described as a mutual decision .
Saban is confident Pruitt can handle dual responsibilities and noted his own experience in balancing two jobs when he remained the Cleveland Browns' defensive coordinator throughout the 1994 season after Michigan State hired him as head coach.
"Most of the really good coaches that have great competitive character are always going to do what's best for the players," Saban said. "I mentioned earlier Kirby certainly did a good job of that (in 2015). I'm sure Jeremy will do a good job of that this year."
Smart says Pruitt's situation is "even more challenging" than what he encountered due to the early signing period .
Starting this year, high school seniors can finalize their college decisions Dec. 20-22 as well as during the traditional February signing period. A dead period in which coaches can't have face-to-face contact with recruits begins Dec. 18.
Eight high school seniors have backed out of verbal commitments to Tennessee since October. A composite ranking of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports has Tennessee's 2018 class ranked 27th after being rated in the top 10 for much of the year.
"I work for the University of Tennessee, and I am all in for the university," Pruitt said. "Until the dead period, we are going to recruit. I am going to work as the head football coach of Tennessee and we are going to do the best we can to start going in the right direction."
Pruitt has been part of four national championship teams as an assistant at Alabama (2009, 2011, 2012) and Florida State (2013). He'd love to have one more national championship ring to show Tennessee prospects, even if it means working overtime these next few weeks.
He only needs to look at one of his new SEC East coaching rivals to see how this strategy can pay off.
"I'm glad, now looking back, that I did what I did because it was the right thing to do," Smart said. "It certainly helped that we won the (title). But it was a very challenging 30-day period, for sure."
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