After 25 years and 11 state championships, wrestling coach Michael Pruitt is calling it a career – at least at Arab High School.
Last Thursday, the city board of education officially approved Pruitt’s retirement as a teacher and coach, effective June 1.
The Knights won traditional state titles an amazing eight times and the relatively new duals state crown three times (duals matches are simply one team versus another team).
Pruitt’s overall duals record at Arab is 639-141-3. During his tenure, the Knights have had 32 state champions, 132 state placers and 227 state qualifiers.
“It’s really bittersweet,” Pruitt said. “It’s not like I want to leave Arab, but financially it just makes sense for me at this point to try to start on a second retirement either at a private school in Huntsville or maybe go to another state like Tennessee.
“That’s the only reason I’m doing this.”
Pruitt said his thoughts about Arab and the school district are all positive.
“I think the world of all the administrators at Arab and they have been great to me. I can’t say enough about the place,” he said. “Arab has great kids and I truly cared about all the kids in my classroom and all the kids I ever had the opportunity to coach.
“The Good Lord up above has really blessed me and for that I’m really grateful. I thank God that He gave me an opportunity to impact kids, hopefully in a positive way, for a quarter of a century.”
When Pruitt first came to Arab for the 1995-96 school year, wrestling certainly was well established at the school with several individual state champions through the years. However, elite success as a team was not happening.
Pruitt knew he had work to do in more ways than just coaching boys who signed up for what was still considered a relatively new extracurricular athletic activity in Arab.
“I think it was a combination of things really,” he said.
Educating the public about the sport was one of them.
“Most people grow up and they know what a touchdown is when the ref throws his arms up, they know what a home run is and they know what a free throw is in basketball, but they don’t know what a takedown is, or an escape or a reversal,” said Pruitt, who thanked the local media for helping him publicize Knights wrestling, particularly Donna Matuszak, The Arab Tribune and WRAB.
Getting young people interested in the sport really helped the program turn the corner, he said.
“Joe Stephenson and Raymond Briscoe started the youth program before I got here and it’s proved to be the lifeblood of our program,” said Pruitt. “We’ve always had quality people who could run that like Tim Varano, Scott Cleland, Bubba Suttles and the list goes on.
“Now we have Aaron Kirkland and they’ve all done a great job.”
There also were summer camps, dating back to the first one in 1999 at North Carolina State, and just some old fashioned, in-school recruiting.
“We were always looking to recruit kids,” Pruitt said.
Being an assistant junior high football coach certainly helped Pruitt in his search to fill weight classes, but it wasn’t the only way.
“Back when we were on the four-block day, Brenda Still had taken her class to the bathroom and I saw Justin Thompson IN THE HALLWAY!” Pruitt said, emphasis his.
“I didn’t know him from Adam but we didn’t have a 106 (pound wrestler), so I asked him if he had ever thought about wrestling. He thought signups were over but I assured him they were not.
“I got with Mrs. Still, got him signed up and he ended up being a state placer.”
Once he got them interested, of course, he had to teach them, and turns out, Pruitt was a master at that. But any coach will tell you, it goes further than teaching the proper techniques.
“You have to get them to believe,” Pruitt said. “That’s such a key. But it starts with relationships, in athletics and the classroom.
“You can’t fool kids. They know if you care about them or not and if they know you truly care about them, they’re going to produce for you 100 percent.”
Pruitt has always been quick to recognize the contributions made by all the coaches, parents and numerous volunteers that make the program tick.
“You have to surround yourself with good people and I’ve always had great assistant coaches,” he said.
With all the pieces of the puzzle falling into place and support continuing to grow, it still took time for the dynasty to take it spot in the Alabama High School sports record books. Even as Arab was rising as a serious contender in wrestling, Pruitt’s phone started to ring from other schools.
But, he stayed in Arab.
“I wanted to see it through,” he said. “I had made the comment to some of my colleagues when I first got hired here that I would not be satisfied until we won a state championship and it took 16 years to do that.
“Call it perseverance, or maybe commitment, or maybe it’s being stubborn. I don’t know.”
There were three straight state runner-up finishes before Arab broke through and won its first title in 2011.
It’s a moment Pruitt remembers like it was yesterday.
“I’ll never forget that as long as I live but I can honestly say I was happier for my kids and my assistant coach, Joe Stephenson, than I was for myself,” he said. “I was happy, but to know what they had all gone through and to see the program grow and finally win it meant the world to me.
“I’ll never forget the look on Joe’s face and the kids’ faces.”
The 2013 championship also was special as it was a bit of a comeback year after the Knights finished third in 2012.
“They’re all special but that one validated what we had accomplished. No one could say it was a fluke or that we had got lucky. You might get lucky once but not twice,” he said.
The Knights went on to earn rings in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2020.
For Pruitt, the individual accolades were impressive. He was named the Alabama State Wrestling Coach of the Year in 2013 and 2014 before being named to the Class of 2019 National Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame-Alabama Chapter.
Pruitt knew all about the big stage, even in high school. At Southside, the Panthers won state championships his freshman, sophomore and junior years before finishing third his senior year in 1988.
Pruitt’s high school coach, Jimmy Blanton, wasn’t just a big influence in his life. He was more like a second father.
“I can’t say enough about Coach Blanton,” Pruitt said. “He gave me the opportunity to coach with him three years before I came to Arab.
“In fact, he called (then-Arab Athletic Director) Mike Shipp and (former Superintendent) Edwin Cooley before I got the job here.
“There’s really no way to describe what he means to me.”
Like most high school coaches, much of Pruitt’s day was spent in the classroom, where he taught world history, psychology and sociology.
Just in case he wasn’t sure why he was hired, Cooley made sure that he did.
“I’ll never forget when Mr. Cooley offered me the job,” Pruitt said. “He held out his fingers real wide and told me that’s what I was getting paid to teach.
“Then he held them real close together and told me that’s what I was being paid to coach. I knew what he meant. He was saying you better do your job in the classroom.”
Pruitt was fine with that.
“I took my job in the classroom seriously, just like I took my job coaching seriously,” he said. “We just want the best for the students and that’s what I’m proudest of.
“When a kid comes back and tells you that everything you taught them helped them in college, or you get to see them be a successful father or mother and become a productive member of society, that’s what makes this worth it.
“It’s more than the state championships. That was just icing on the cake. It’s more about what kind of impact you have on young people, and hopefully I’ve had a great impact on them.”
Beyond that, Pruitt was the volunteer Interact Club sponsor his entire 25 years at Arab. The Interact Club is a service club that works with the local Rotary Club doing various projects in the area.
“I think teaching and coaching are a calling, I really do,” he said.
For the record, Pruitt also served in the U.S. Army Reserves and National Guard, as a 2nd Lieutenant and later as a 1st Lt. up until 2000.
State champions again this year, Arab was 38-2 in duals and once again won the duals state title for the third time in the last four years.
The Knights had 13 wrestlers qualify for state. Eight of them placed, and two won individual state championships.
The future remains bright for the program, Pruitt said, especially for next season, when the Knights will be competing in Class 6A.
“Arab will have 11 starters back,” Pruitt said. “The cupboard is not going to be bare and I only wish the very best for them.”
And, Arab wishes the best for coach Michael Pruitt.