With the addition of Robert Prunty as defensive line coach, East Carolina gained a proven recruiter and an experienced proponent of the four-front defensive scheme, which East Carolina will be converting to as spring practice gets going on Monday.
Prunty was recognized by Scout.com as the Big 12 Recruiter of the Year in 2011-12 and 2012-13. As he transitioned to Cincinnati from Texas Tech with coach Tommy Tuberville, he earned similar recruiting recognition in the American Athletic Conference in 2012-13 and 2013-14.
That track record made him something of a highly-coveted free agent among assistant coaches when Tuberville resigned after a 4-8 season with the Bearcats in 2016.
“Robert Prunty may be one of the best recruiters I’ve ever been around,” ECU coach Scottie Montgomery said on signing day. “He understands relationships. He has relationships throughout this state. He has relationships throughout the southeast. He does really well in the home. He was fantastic on official visit weekend. He is a big-time recruiter. I know why he’s gotten some of the accolades he’s gotten.”
Mutual respect between Montgomery and Prunty was no doubt a factor as the former Hargrave Military coach considered his options after his tenure in Cincinnati.
“I had about eight job offers,” Prunty said this week. “When it got down to it, one of the jobs was an ACC job, two of them were Pac-10 and one of them was an SEC job. Just me, meeting with Coach Montgomery and having an opportunity to see his vision and see his enthusiasm was important. Then, also, talking to different ones in the business and they talked about how good of a person he is. The selling part was his enthusiasm. He’s a very organized guy. In my heart, I think Coach Montgomery is going to be a superstar in this business. I really do.
“I’ve been around some good coaches. I spent eight years with Tommy Tuberville. At Hargrave, I probably met every Division I coach in the country. I can tell you now, Scottie Montgomery is going to be a big-time football coach. He’s on his way. He’s a players’ coach but also he’s a coaches’ coach. The thing that sets him out is he understands people. He gets it.”
Prunty also is associate head coach, which may have allowed the Pirates to put together a more attractive package in the competition for his services.
Prunty talked about what those additional responsibilities involved.
“The first thing is to be able to be there to fill in for Coach Montgomery, the things that he needs me to do, all the way from administrative to player development, whatever things that Coach Mo needs for me to fill in to do as associate head coach,” Prunty said. “If he needs me for administrative duties, if he needs me to do something as far as player development goes, whatever department it’s in, whether it’s academics, whatever he needs me to do to make sure this program is run smoothly.”
Prunty said there are no shortcuts to being successful in influencing prospective players.
“It’s just hard work,” Prunty said. “I’m going to try to outwork the next man. I live by the slogan I’m going to make work hate me. It just comes down to hard work, just like anything else. I watched my brothers and sisters and my mother and father. My father passed away when I was 10. My mother passed away my sophomore year in college. I watched them get up and go to work every day to provide for us.
“It comes down to my hard-working abilities and my hard-working habits. There’s no substitute for hard work. Whoever I’m recruiting against, I’m going to be relentless. I’m not going to leave any stone unturned when it comes to recruiting. If I’ve got to write letters every day, I’m going to do every little thing that I can find that can give me an edge. Of course, it’s building a relationship and it goes back to relationships.”
Prunty makes sure he isn’t doing all the talking when he’s developing those bonds with young players.
“If you notice these young men now, everybody is telling them what to do,” he said. “They hear it all the time. That’s what I hear from them. They say, ‘Coach, all the time, people are telling me what to do but nobody is listening to me.’ Hard work and listening, if you ask me, ‘What are the two main ingredients?’
” . . . In my time recruiting, I’ve learned to become a better listener. If you listen to someone, you know what they want. A person can’t tell you what they want if you don’t listen. Once I know what a recruit wants, then it’s just a matter of going out and selling my product, which is East Carolina, a beautiful place.”
The football environment at ECU is a huge selling point in Prunty’s approach.
“I’ve coached at Texas Tech and Cincinnati,” Prunty said. “We’ve played some Big Ten teams. I’ve never been to an atmosphere — when we came here and played these guys two years ago, I’ve never seen an atmosphere like this. The thing that amazed me was I was the coach at Hargrave and we played them in a (junior varsity) game, probably about 10 years ago when they had the (Patrick) Pinkney kid at quarterback. They had 15,000 fans show up then — for a JV game. That’s the passion of this environment.
“I’ve played some big schools. We’ve played Texas, Oklahoma and Ohio State. On game day, they’re bigger but I would say that East Carolina has got the best game environment that I’ve been around. That’s including those schools. Once the game got going, these fans here can be intimidating for the opposing team. This is a phenomenal, electrifying game-day environment. I’d rank it up there with the Oklahomas and Texas as far as the enthusiasm. The fans here are incredible.
“You get the sense when you come here and play them, you’re saying to yourself, ‘Man, these are the kinds of fans you want.’ These are the kinds of fans when you go to battle, when you play in those big games, these are the kinds of fans that you want to have. East Carolina, to me, has the best game environment that I’ve ever been around and ever played against.”
Prunty got to see the Pirates first hand several times while at Cincinnati. The Bearcats topped visiting ECU, 31-19, last season. Despite the loss, Prunty saw potential in his new program.
“It was a team with talent,” Prunty said. “As Coach Montgomery continues to mold these guys, you can see them take on his identity of being tough. They had lost some players from the year before in spots before the season started. He had lost a lot of guys. I remember from playing them, they played a lot of walk-ons against us. … They could have beaten us. They were walk-ons. I thought they did a great job playing with so many walk-ons.”
Cincinnati played ECU on its homecoming and rose to the occasion during a generally lackluster season.
“We ran into a situation where the quarterback decision — we never made a decision,” Prunty said in retrospect. ” . . . All around, everybody could have done a better job. It was just one of those seasons. We had been winning and winning and went 4-8. . . . We all could have done better at Cincinnati, whether it was offense, defense or special teams. We didn’t get it done but we should have gotten it done. There was no excuse. We didn’t get it done last year.”
Gunner Kiel threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns against the Pirates on Oct. 22.
“He was fired up,” Prunty said. “In that particular week, the seniors on the team went to Tuberville and asked Tuberville to start Gunner. There was a rallying point for those seniors. When they did that, he came out there on fire. That had a lot to do with the senior class and them going and requesting that Gunner be the starter for the game.”
Settling in at ECU
The coaching veteran admitted that joining the ECU staff has been something of a learning experience.
“It’s been great,” Prunty said. “I’m excited about working with Kenwick Thompson (ECU defensive coordinator). When I got a chance to meet with him and talk with him and I saw how many walk-ons he played last year, it was amazing what he did with those guys.
“That guy is a very cerebral guy. He’s been to Vanderbilt. He’s been to Cal. He’s been at San Jose State. He’s been a coordinator. Once the kids take in his system and buy in, this is going to be a good defense. Kenwick is one of the most detailed defensive coordinators I’ve ever been around.
” . . . I’ll rank Kenwick Thompson up there with the tops. Everything is organized. Everything is detailed. He’s a hard worker. I was a D-coordinator last year for Cincinnati and since I’ve been here, I’ve learned a lot from him. That’s been one of the biggest pleasant surprises coming here. This guy is going to be a good one. I’m learning every day from him.
“He amazes me with what he does with the players on defense and implementing this defensive system, especially going to this 4-2-5 type defense.”
Four front is the future
Montgomery and Thompson retained the three-man defensive front that the Pirates transitioned to during the Ruffin McNeill regime. That’s the biggest schematic change in store going into spring practice.
“I’m from the four-man front family,” Prunty said. “Tuberville was four-man front. Jimmy Johnson. Tuberville was a disciple of Jimmy Johnson. I grew up in the four-man front family, so it’s just a matter of me putting the personnel together here. The good thing is that we’ve got the personnel here. We get these couple of junior college kids in, we’re going to be fine up front.”
“I’m going to have to do an incredible job of developing these young guys that we have at those D-tackle spots. The ends can run. Yiannis Bowden can run. Kendall Futrell can run. You get Kiante Anderson back. He’s been injured. He can run. We’ve got guys that can run. Randall Anderson, who hasn’t played much here, he has the perfect body for the four-man front.
” . . . The guys we really need to step up on the inside — we need Alex Turner. Alex Turner bench pressed 225 [pounds] 27 times. He ran like a 4.9 (seconds/40 yards). He vertical jumped like 34 inches. Coach [Jeff] Connors (assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning) has done a phenomenal job.
“We need guys like Jalen Price. Jalen Price did 225, 22 times, ran a five-flat. Raequan Purvis, we need him to step up. We need to get some things from some of these guys like Shaun James as backups. We need to get Mike Myers to play.
“The guy we need to be a superstar up front is Demage Bailey. He needs to take the bull by the horns and go with it. He has the frame. He has the body. There’s no excuse why this kid shouldn’t be first team all conference. He’s better looking than any kid I’ve seen in our conference. He needs to step up. He’s a guy that I’m going to challenge. I’m expecting some big things out of him.”
The new alignment has the potential to create some advantageous matchups.
“The four-man front, those ends are not playing four techniques anymore,” Prunty said. “They’re playing five techniques so it gives you speed on the edge where you can get off the ball, get those ends up field. It takes a lot of the thinking out of it. It’s more straight-ahead. When some of those kids get on the edge, they can make those tackles work. What you’re getting is a more athletic guy against a tackle who is less athletic. You can contain better. You get all your speed on the edges is what I like.”
Experience in improved performance
Prunty is a native of Chatham, VA, and took over a struggling Gretna High School program in his home state in his coaching development. The Hawks had a 44-game losing streak between 1991 and 1995. Prunty engineered a turnaround that produced an 11-1 record in 2001 before he went to Hargrave.
As the Pirates seek to improve from a 3-9 season in 2016, Prunty has some insight on how change from within comes about.
Attitudes and self perceptions were targeted at Gretna
“The mindset,” Prunty said. “The mindset. When I took the job, it was a matter of just killing the voices of defeat. When kids start losing, they start hearing the voices — ‘we don’t think they can win.’ They start questioning themselves. All kind of thoughts come to their minds so you have to continue to put positive stuff around them.
“At Gretna, we put up signs everywhere. Every sign was positive. All around the stadium, we had signs. All of that stuff started to matriculate in their minds. ‘Hey, we can.’ You can get to the point where you lose and your kids start seeing themselves like that. It was a matter of us just changing the mindset.”
“We started calling the Gretna team the dog soldiers. We called them the dog soldiers because the dog soldiers was a group of Indians that went out ahead of everybody. . . . They would go out and fight for their tribe. They would say, ‘You know what? We’re going to fight to the end.’ It was a mindset thing for us.”
Compared to Lubbock and Cincinnati, Prunty feels like he’s practically home.
“The conversation I had with Coach Mo — we talked several times,” Prunty said. “It wasn’t a one-time conversation. We talked about five times. Being back in this home region has been great. I had a brother pass away about three months ago. That was the first one of us to pass away. That made me look at things.
“My wife is from Greensboro. She’s close to home. Coming to East Carolina was a no-brainer. . . . Coming to East Carolina was great for me. It’s the closest thing to coming home.”
Going for rings
Success in football inevitably leads to rings. Prunty already has had some good fortune in that regard.
“I met my wife [Kimberly], she was working at a nursing home,” Prunty said. “And she had a part-time job at Reeds Jewelry. I walked in and met her at the jewelers. . . . That’s where we bought our wedding rings. She got a discount on our wedding rings. I met her at Four Seasons Mall in Greensboro at the jewelry store. We got one-third off on the rings.”
The couple has two children, Robert Jr. and Gabrielle.
The Pirates take a step in the building process for the 2017 season starting Monday with spring practice.
Prunty is looking forward to it.
“Just excited,” he said. “Ready to go to work. Can’t wait to give these fans what they pay for. . . . That’s what it comes down to, giving them a product that they can be proud of.”