Robert Prunty and Hugh Freeze first crossed paths in the early 2000s when Prunty was getting his feet wet as the Hargrave Military Academy postgraduate football coach and Freeze was concluding his time as Briarcrest Christian School’s football coach in Memphis, Tennessee.
Prunty wanted to attract the best athletes to Chatham who needed an extra year of seasoning on the gridiron and in the classroom, and Memphis was one of his main stomping grounds.
That relationship continued when Freeze became a recruiting coordinator at the University of Mississippi in 2006. Freeze, already with a working knowledge of Prunty’s keen ability to develop talent, made trips to the southern Virginia campus to identify players who could help the Rebels immediately.
Their paths have not crossed as frequently since Prunty left Hargrave and joined the college coaching ranks in 2009, but Freeze remained fond of the work Prunty did to invest in his players at Texas Tech, Cincinnati and East Carolina.
The two will line up on opposite sidelines at 6 p.m. Saturday when Freeze and Liberty host Prunty and Hampton at Williams Stadium.
“I’ve always enjoyed the time I spent around Coach Prunty,” Freeze said earlier this week. “He’s a neat guy. He’s a passionate football coach, and he’s done well for a lot of kids in helping them get to where they are. There are a lot of kids that owe him a lot. Then obviously to watch him move up, I’m proud for him. He’s a heck of a coach and a heck of a guy.”
The trip to Lynchburg will be a pseudo homecoming for Prunty, who grew up in Chatham and returned to his hometown to coach at Hargrave in 2002 following a six-year stint rebuilding the Gretna High School program and putting it on the path to becoming a state power.
“It’s a blessing by God, just a blessing to have the opportunity to, first of all, be the head coach here at Hampton and lead these assistant coaches and young men — not just in football, but to become better men in life. It’s just been a blessing,” Prunty said in a phone interview earlier in the week. “Then to have the opportunity to coach back home, … it’s a lot of emotions.”
Prunty, a 1983 graduate of Hargrave Military Academy and a 1988 graduate of Alabama A&M, spent seven seasons as an assistant under Tommy Tuberville at Texas Tech and Cincinnati and was an assistant at East Carolina in 2017 under Scottie Montgomery before getting his first college head coaching job at Hampton ahead of the 2018 campaign.
He led the Pirates that year to a 7-3 record playing an FCS independent schedule after Hampton left the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference for the Big South Conference.
The Pirates are playing a full Big South slate this season and are 2-1 entering Saturday night’s matchup.
“I can tell you this now: God does everything right. I think my steps in coaching have been ordered by God, and God has taken me through every phase, from high school to prep school to college,” Prunty said.
“It’s been a 27-year process for me. I started from the bottom and have tried to work my way up to the top with the help of God.”
Despite not having any prior college coaching experience, Prunty’s instincts for developing talent at Hargrave paved the path for his hiring by Tuberville as a defensive ends coach at Texas Tech.
That faith paid off, with Prunty being lauded as the Big 12 Conference’s top recruiter by multiple media outlets for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons.
“I think my steps have been ordered, just like everybody else’s, by God,” Prunty said. “I think Coach Tuberville is going to be a Hall of Fame coach. I was very fortunate to be picked on that staff, because I was the guy who came right out of Hargrave and went right to coaching in the Big 12, which is unheard of. You go right out of basically high school and right to the Big 12 and you coach at the highest level possible. It took a while for me when I jumped in there and stuck with it. I fully understand it and get it and everything. I learned a lot. Coach Tuberville was very instrumental in preparing me.”
Prunty followed Tuberville to Cincinnati in 2013 and served as the Bearcats’ associate head coach, co-defensive coordinator and defensive ends coach.
As was the case at Texas Tech, Prunty was honored as one of the top recruiters in the American Athletic Conference, churning out all-conference defensive ends in each of his four seasons at Cincinnati.
“Whether he was the D-line coach for coach Tuberville or even at Hargrave, his defensive line was always so disruptive and always on the move, and they can make you look bad and they can create negative plays,” Freeze said. “That’s what I kind of think of when you say his name as a coach. You can expect the D-line play is going to be very good.”
Prunty’s began his season at East Carolina with only the title of defensive ends coach, but he was promoted early in the campaign to defensive coordinator. He said he gleaned how to be detailed and fundamental from his time working under Montgomery in Greenville, North Carolina.
“I’ve learned a lot from all those guys,” Prunty said. “I’ve worked with two great head coaches — Tuberville and Scottie Montgomery — they’re outstanding football coaches.”
Prunty left both Gretna High and Hargrave in better places when he left for his next job, and his main objective is to do the same at Hampton.
The Hawks went 36-28 in his six seasons at the helm from 1996 through 2001. He ended Gretna’s 44-game losing streak in the 1996 campaign, took the program to three playoff appearances and led the Hawks to an 11-1 record in his final season in 2001.
Bob Senseney took over after Prunty and led the Hawks to back-to-back state championships in 2003 and 2004 with Vic Hall at quarterback.
Prunty, during his eight seasons at Hargrave, had 27 players make NFL rosters.
“I hope that when my time is up here that I left this place better than what I found it. I hope when I leave, Hampton is better than what it was when I got here,” he said.
“I’m speaking of that we are producing outstanding young men that go out and become career leaders and just become better. Not only better on the field, but better off the field and in the classroom and in life. I would be happy.”
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.