When Donde Plowman announced Jeremy Pruitt’s termination due to NCAA violations the UTK chancellor called it “a dark day,” painting a gloomy outlook for the Vols’ football program moving forward.
What’s known about the investigation is limited due to its ongoing nature, but the details we do know help us paint a fuller picture of the situation.
Tennessee fired Jeremy Pruitt with cause. Will they be successful in not having to pay any of the former head coach’s $12.8 million buyout? That remains to be seen, but Plowman made it clear that UT doesn’t intend to pay Pruitt his buyout and laid out the case for firing him with cause.
In Pruitt’s termination letter, two amendments from his contract are cited as the reason for his termination.
“Conduct or omission(s) by Coach that constitutes a Level 1 or Level 2 violation of one or more Governing Athletic Rules.”
“Conduct or omission(s) by a person who reports, directly or indirectly, to Coach that constitutes a Level 1 or Level 2 violation of one or more Governing Athletic Rules.”
In discussions with the media, Plowman has made it clear that the violations that occurred fall under that criteria.
“What our counsel has told us is that we’re looking at Level 1 and Level 2 violations,” Plowman said. “I don’t know yet exactly how many or exactly the specifics of it.”
Despite the dark image that Plowman’s message cast Monday, new director of athletics Danny White seemed less concerned about the potential of sanctions or difficulties in finding a new coach.
“I don’t know that I ever considered it would be crippling,” White said. “I don’t think a university and an athletics department and a football program with this much history and this much going for it is going to be crippled by something. I think it’s a matter of, ‘How long is it going to take to climb out of it?’ I didn’t make this in a short-term type of way. I view this, hopefully, if y’all will have me, maybe you’ll be running me out of here in six months, I don’t know. But hopefully this is something I’m building for the long term and being part of for the long term. I’m not really contemplating some of the short-term scenarios.”
While White is likely trying to sound optimistic as he embarks on the search for Pruitt’s replacement, his message was still a much more positive one than Plowman’s.
White made it clear that he would be honest and upfront with all candidates about the nature of the violations.
Jeremy Pruitt and his lawyers have stated that they believe the coach is innocent of any wrongdoings, seemingly including the actions of his staff, and have indicated that they believe the investigation was used as a ruse to fire him with cause.
“The timing of the University’s actions and decision appear to be preordained and more about financial convenience and expediency than a fair and complete factual determination by the University,” Pruitt’s lawyer Michael Lyons said. “Moreover, it seems clear that the recent leaks to the press are indicative of an interest to steer the narrative in a way that is desirable to the University to justify a decision likely made weeks ago.”
The timeline and immediate actions of the NCAA are what could make or break the situation for Tennessee.
UT’s internal investigation began shortly after Plowman was notified of possible violations on Nov. 13. The NCAA became involved in the investigation “within the last 10 to 14 days” from Pruitt’s firing on Jan. 20.
How involved and satisfied the NCAA was with the investigation is unknown but NCAA representatives and Tennessee investigators were involved in an eight-hour interview with Pruitt the Thursday before he was fired.
While Tennessee’s internal investigation is winding down, how long the NCAA’s investigation continues and how many resources they pour into it remain to be seen.
“We don’t have a good feel for that,” Plowman said of the timeline around the investigation. “We hope it’s nearing its final stages, but then the NCAA continues on their own, but our part of it we hope is completed pretty soon.”
Self punishment from Tennessee is a realistic outcome. Bowl bans or postseason bans are popular for struggling teams under investigation — see LSU football and Auburn basketball — and could be in play for the Vols.
Scholarship reductions would be another viable option for Tennessee. The NCAA limit for number of scholarships players in football is 85, with schools being able to sign a maximum of 25 scholarship players each year.
As of now, Tennessee has had 10 players enter the transfer portal this offseason, though not all have found destinations. Realistically, it will take Tennessee multiple years to catch up to 85 scholarships given the cap on the number of players that can be signed each year. It would make sense for the Vols to take away some of those scholarships as a punishment.
Whether the NCAA would view Tennessee’s self punishment as adequate will be immensely important to the Vols’ ability to move forward.
The NCAA rarely does anything quickly and the cloud that an NCAA investigation can have over a new coach and his program can be even more impactful than sanctions.