The University of Tennessee fired Jeremy Pruitt, its head football coach, and nine other staff members after the school investigated whether the program violated N.C.A.A. recruitment regulations, the school announced Monday.
The firings go into effect on Tuesday.
In November, the university started an investigation in collaboration with a law firm, Bond, Schoeneck & King, to determine if the football program had broken N.C.A.A. rules while recruiting candidates for its team, finding that “Coach Pruitt did not meet the university’s expectations for promoting an atmosphere of compliance and/or monitoring the activities of the coaches and staff who report to him.”
Among those fired were assistant football coaches Brian Niedermeyer and Shelton Felton, four members of the football team’s on-campus recruitment staff, the director and assistant director of football player personnel, and a football 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,” Donde Plowman, the school’s chancellor, said in a news release. “Despite a strong compliance culture in our athletic department, we must look for ways to further strengthen our processes.”
Tennessee informed the N.C.A.A. about the violations, and the university opened its own case in December, Plowman said in a news conference on Monday. She did not cite specific violations, because both the school’s investigation and N.C.A.A.’s case are ongoing, but said that there were likely a “significant number” of Level I and Level II violations. Level I violations are considered “severe” breaches of conduct, including fraud and unethical conduct that signals a “lack of institutional control.” Level II is considered “significant.”
Pruitt, 46, was hired in December 2017 and had a 16-19 record in three seasons. He went 3-7 this year as Tennessee exclusively played within its league, the Southeastern Conference, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The university, claiming for-cause firing, will not pay Pruitt any of his estimated $12.6 million buyout; it will also not pay Niedermeyer or Felton their buyouts.
In a statement released Monday night, Pruitt’s lawyer, Michael Lyons, said that the nature of the firing showed the university’s effort to get rid of him without paying the buyout despite minimal evidence that Pruitt had violated N.C.A.A. regulations. Lyons claimed that in a private meeting between Pruitt and Plowman, Plowman said that “there was no evidence that Coach Pruitt was either actively involved in any alleged violations or knew they were occurring.” Lyons also said that Pruitt received the letter of termination three hours after Plowman said no employment decisions had been made.
“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,” Lyons wrote.
He added that he would defend Pruitt against any violations he is accused of by the N.C.A.A. and look into whether the university intended to “disparage and destroy Coach Pruitt’s reputation” to back out of payments that he would be owed for a regular release.
Several current and former Tennessee players and former players posted their surprise of Pruitt’s firing on Twitter.
“Crazy,” wrote defensive tackle Omari Thomas.
“Why,” wrote quarterback Brian Maurer.
The university’s athletic director, Phillip Fulmer, also announced that he would retire as soon as the school found a replacement for him. Fulmer, 70, came out of retirement in 2017 to oversee athletics at the school in Knoxville, Tenn., on a “short-term basis,” according to the announcement. The university said that the search for Fulmer’s replacement will begin immediately and that the new athletic director would hire the new football 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. “It only makes sense that I make this move now, so a new coach and a new athletic director can implement their vision together.”
Plowman said that Fulmer was not involved in any of the potential recruiting violations. Pruitt’s firing means Tennessee will be hiring its fifth different full-time coach since Fulmer stopped coaching in 2008.
Kevin Steele, the team’s newly hired defensive assistant, will serve as the interim head coach.
“This is very unfortunate in the sense that we’re going to have to work really hard to keep it from setting us back,” Fulmer said at the news conference.