NCAA: Tennessee fires coach Jeremy Pruitt

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NCAA Football: Kentucky at Tennessee

Tennessee fired football coach Jeremy Pruitt, two assistant coaches and seven others on Monday in the aftermath of an internal investigation into recruiting violations.

In addition to Pruitt, Tennessee also fired assistant coaches Brian Niedermeyer and Shelton Felton, four members of the on-campus football recruiting staff, the director and assistant director of football player personnel, and a football analyst/quality control coach.

Earlier this month, Tennessee put hiring on hold in the program and brought in prominent outside attorneys Michael Glazier and Kyle Skillman to assist in the investigation about alleged violations, including improper benefits. The school found that Pruitt did not meet "expectations for promoting an atmosphere of compliance and/or monitoring the activities of the coaches and staff who report to him."

"We are deeply disappointed in the activities that led to the action taken today regarding Coach Pruitt," Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman said in a statement. "We are proud of the great history and traditions of our football program, and we will restore integrity and win at a championship level."

Pruitt's attorney, Michael Lyons, issued a statement Monday night that read in part, "This afternoon, Coach Pruitt learned that Tennessee was terminating his employment for cause. He is extremely disappointed with the decision, the public announcement of which was made prior to any substantive opportunity to respond before the appropriate decision makers. We believe the decision to be the culmination of an orchestrated effort to renege on contractual promises made to Coach Pruitt upon his hiring in 2017 and reiterated less than five months ago.

"While the limited portions of the University's self-initiated investigation shared with Coach Pruitt provide some evidence of violations committed by off-field staff, Chancellor Donde Plowman personally confirmed during an in-person meeting with Coach Pruitt this morning that: (1) the University's investigation had yet to have been completed; (2) the Chancellor had not yet read Coach Pruitt's NCAA interview transcript; and (3) there was no evidence that Coach Pruitt was either actively involved in any alleged violations or knew they were occurring."

Plowman confirmed Monday that the investigation was continuing, adding, "For now, I can tell you this: The information provided today indicates a significant number of serious NCAA rules violations. While we have no choice but to continue to ask for your patience while both the University and NCAA investigate, the personnel actions we are announcing today are an indication of the gravity of what we have discovered."

Athletic director Phillip Fulmer also will retire when his replacement is hired, according to the news release. Fulmer was the football coach from 1993 to 2008 and led the Volunteers to a 13-0 record and their most recent national championship in 1998. Fulmer's replacement will hire the next coach.

"Our next football coach needs to be on the sidelines for 10 years or more, and he will need to know who his athletic director will be for the duration," Fulmer said in the statement. "It only makes sense that I make this move now, so a new coach and a new athletic director can implement their vision together. My only desire is to do whatever it takes to give Tennessee the best opportunity to succeed."

Plowman said the search for a new AD will begin immediately, and that the university has engaged Parker Executive Search Firm to assist in the process.

Plowman called Fulmer a "legend" in thanking him, noting that nobody outside the football office was linked to the allegations.

"What is so disturbing, as demonstrated by the scope of these actions, is the number of violations and people involved and their efforts to conceal their activities from our compliance staff and from the Athletic department's leaders," Plowman said. "We deeply regret the impact this may have on our many student-athletes, particularly the vast majority of our football players who have had no involvement in this matter at all."

Fulmer hired Pruitt, who was the defensive coordinator at Alabama, in 2017. In three seasons under Pruitt, the Volunteers were 16-19, including 3-7 in 2020. He replaced Butch Jones.

The Knoxville News Sentinel reported Pruitt was fired for cause, which would allow Tennessee to not pay his buyout or settle on a lesser amount. The school gave Pruitt a contract extension and raise in September that increased his average annual salary to $4.2 million and kept him with the Volunteers through the 2025 season, saying at the time that the program had made "excellent progress" under Pruitt.

The newspaper said Pruitt is owed a buyout of about $12.8 million. Firing his staff would cost an additional $6.2 million.

The investigation into the program began in November, with one of the focuses being the recruitment of Amarius Mims, a five-star tackle in the Class of 2021 who signed with Georgia, ESPN reported earlier this month. The outlet also said that tailback Eric Gray didn't play in the Volunteers' season finale against Texas A&M because of the investigation.

Gray led the team with 772 rushing yards.

--Field Level Media