Tennessee has notified head football coach Jeremy Pruitt that he will be fired, following a weekslong investigation into potential recruiting violations in the program.
In a notice of intent to terminate letter sent to Pruitt by Tennessee officials on Monday, the university has concluded that “the conduct by at least two assistant coaches and several recruiting staff members are likely to lead to an NCAA finding of Level I and/or Level II violations of one or more Governing Athletic Rules. The University also has concluded that these likely findings were the result of either your material neglect or lack of reasonable preventive compliance measures.”
A copy of the letter was obtained by ESPN. It states that Pruitt is being suspended with pay and the university intends to terminate his contract at 5 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
The letter stated that UT concluded that the NCAA “will likely find that you failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance within the football program and/or monitor the activities of the coaches and staff members who report, directly or indirectly, to you and will find you responsible for a Level I or Level II violation.”
“Your failure to promote and maintain an atmosphere of compliance and to monitor the activities of the coaches and staff members that report, directly or indirectly, to you has led to the current NCAA investigation and is bringing and will likely continue to bring the University into considerable public disrepute, embarrassment, contempt, scandal, and/or ridicule,” said the intent to terminate letter, which was signed by UT chancellor Donde Plowman and athletic director Phillip Fulmer.
The school said in a statement that in addition to Pruitt, it also issued termination letters to 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.
“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 in the statement. “Despite a strong compliance culture in our athletic department, we must look for ways to further strengthen our processes. 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.”
Additionally, Fulmer, a Hall of Fame coach, plans to retire after leading the athletic department for more than three years. Plowman said Fulmer’s retirement is independent of and unrelated to the investigation.
The Volunteers turned to Fulmer after removing John Currie from the AD role in December 2017. Fulmer coached the Volunteers from 1992 to 2008, going 152-52 overall and leading Tennessee to the 1998 national title. He had been working as a special adviser for community, athletics and university relations before taking over as AD.
Pruitt’s exit comes on the heels of Tennessee launching an in-house investigation dating back to November into alleged recruiting improprieties that sources told ESPN centered in part on extra benefits provided to football recruits on unofficial visits. Pruitt, with his attorneys present, met with investigators for several hours Thursday. That meeting was monitored by NCAA officials via Zoom. At least one other assistant, Niedermeyer, had a lengthy meeting with investigators Wednesday, also with his attorneys present and NCAA officials monitoring virtually.
The university last month announced that it had retained the services of attorneys Michael Glazier and Kyle Skillman with the Bond, Schoeneck & King law firm to assist in reviewing what the university said in a statement were “regulatory issues that have been brought to our attention.” The Bond, Schoeneck & King firm has an office based in Kansas City dedicated to collegiate sports that is chaired by Glazier, a former NCAA investigator who now serves as a consultant for schools facing NCAA compliance issues. Glazier and his colleagues have been on Tennessee’s campus since November interviewing assistant coaches, players and recruiting staffers.
The Vols finished 3-7 this past season and lost seven of their past eight games. All seven of their losses were by double digits.
Tennessee plans to hire a search firm to assist in finding Fulmer’s replacement as athletic director, and the new AD will then spearhead the search for a head coach.
Last week, Tennessee hired former Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele as a defensive assistant. A former head coach at Baylor, Steele is expected to serve as interim coach until a successor is hired, and sources told ESPN he would also be considered for the permanent job. Steele played at Tennessee and started his coaching career in Knoxville, both under the late Johnny Majors. Steele was a finalist for the Tennessee head-coaching job when Pruitt was hired.
Just prior to the 2020 season, Tennessee announced that it had rewarded Pruitt with an extension and raise, taking his contract through the 2025 season. Pruitt was set to earn $4.2 million annually starting in 2021. Fulmer said at the time that they were close to finalizing the extension earlier last year before the coronavirus pandemic hit and that Pruitt elected not to accept the raise in the first year of the new deal.
Under the terms of Pruitt’s contract, he would be owed a little over $12 million, or 60% of the remaining money on the contract, if he were fired without cause. If fired for cause, Pruitt’s contract states “he shall not be entitled to further salary, compensation, benefits, prerequisites, or any other athletic-related income or benefits derived by virtue of Coach’s position as Head Football Coach, from the University.”
Among the reasons the university might fire Pruitt for cause, according to his contract: “Conduct or omission(s) by Coach that constitutes a Level I or Level II violation of one or more Governing Athletic Rules; or conduct or omission(s) by Coach that is likely to lead to a NCAA finding of a Level I or Level II violation of one or more Governing Athletic Rules; failure to report a violation of rules to the athletics director or compliance staff; failure to promote and maintain an atmosphere of compliance; and failure to monitor all employees who report directly and indirectly to him.”
Pruitt was scheduled to receive a $200,000 retention bonus on Feb. 15.
Pruitt was 16-19 overall at Tennessee and 10-16 against SEC opponents. The Vols were 2-11 against AP-ranked opponents under Pruitt, who was in his first stint as a head coach. He was previously the defensive coordinator at Alabama under Nick Saban.
The direction of Tennessee’s program turned swiftly under Pruitt, who guided the Vols to six straight wins to close the 2019 season, including a win over Indiana in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. Tennessee ran its winning streak to eight in a row with two wins to open the 2020 season. But from that point on, the Vols’ only victory came over winless Vanderbilt.
In particular, Tennessee struggled at the quarterback position and played four different quarterbacks who combined for 14 touchdown passes and nine interceptions this past season. The Vols were last in the SEC and 119th nationally in third-down conversions (30.2%). They also had their problems on defense, ranking 105th nationally in plays of 10 yards or longer allowed (160).
Pruitt’s replacement will be Tennessee’s sixth different head coach going back to Fulmer, who was fired at the end of the 2008 season. Fulmer took over as Tennessee’s athletic director on Dec. 1, 2017.
Pruitt’s exit marks the fourth different head-coaching change this season in the SEC, joining Gus Malzahn at Auburn, Derek Mason at Vanderbilt and Will Muschamp at South Carolina.