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Tennessee fires coach Jeremy Pruitt, alleges his staff committed ‘stunning’ amount of NCAA violations

Jeremy Pruitt went 16-19 in three seasons at Tennessee. (Wade Payne/AP)

University of Tennessee officials said Monday they were firing football coach Jeremy Pruitt, alleging multiple NCAA recruiting violations.

Athletic Director Phillip Fulmer, who coached the Volunteers to a national championship in 1998, is stepping down in a concurrent move. At a news conference, university chancellor Donde Plowman said the school’s process will be to hire a new athletic director, who will then bring in a head coach.

In a letter signed by Plowman and Fulmer that was sent Monday to Pruitt, Tennessee said, “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.”

Pruitt, a former Alabama defensive coordinator who was hired by Tennessee in 2018, has approximately $12 million left on his contract, per reports, but it is unclear how much of that he will see, if any.

“His termination was for cause,” Plowman said at the news conference, “which means no buyout.”

The chancellor said she couldn’t get into the specifics of a report she and Fulmer were given last week by an outside law firm hired to investigate allegations about the program made by someone she described as “a credible source.” Plowman declared, however, that what she read was “shocking.”

“It was stunning the number of people involved and the number of incidents,” she said.

Nine members of Pruitt’s staff were also sent notices of termination, including assistant coaches Brian Niedermeyer and Shelton Felton and four members of the on-campus recruiting staff.

“We are all deeply disappointed in the individuals who engaged in the behavior described in the report,” Fulmer said.

Pruitt, 46, accumulated a record of 16-19 with one postseason appearance, a win over Indiana in the 2019 Gator Bowl. His abrupt departure, and the likelihood of impending NCAA sanctions, plunges a troubled program into further turmoil.

Since Fulmer stepped down as coach following the 2008 season, Tennessee has had six head coaches, including two who served in an interim capacity following the in-season firings of Derek Dooley and Butch Jones. Before Dooley arrived in Knoxville, Lane Kiffin coached the Vols for one season, then left to take the head coaching job at Southern California.

Not long after Jones was fired, Tennessee parted ways with athletic director John Currie. He lasted less than a year at the school and was ousted following a fiasco that erupted when Vols fans reacted negatively to reports that Currie was set to hire Greg Schiano to replace Jones. Fulmer, who had been serving as an ambassador for Vols football since 2009, took over as athletic director and soon poached Pruitt from Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama.

Maryland missed out on Hunter Dickinson, but its recent local recruiting tells a different story

Now Tennessee needs another coach — again — but first it has hired a search firm to help land an athletic director.

“It became clear to both of us,” Fulmer said Monday, referring to himself and Plowman, “that new leadership was necessary in the football program. The unexpected need to hire a new coach caused me to reevaluate my place in the organization.”

Fulmer said he would meet later Monday with Vols players, along with acting head coach Kevin Steele, who was hired last week as a defensive assistant. Of the possibility that some players might want to leave for other programs, Fulmer asserted that the transfer portal that has “created havoc all over the country” also presented an opportunity to attract players to Tennessee.

“We’ve got a very credible staff,” Fulmer said, “a fantastic facility, we’ve got a great brand name, and we will work diligently to keep our players here and welcome the new ones.”

“This is a great place to go to school, and a great place to play football,” he added. “As dark as this day is, there’s a light.”

This is the second time in two months, and at as many schools, that Steele has served as an interim head coach. He also wound up in that role in December, after Gus Malzahn was fired by Auburn, where Steele was the defensive coordinator last year.

Auburn was able to lure Bryan Harsin away from Boise State, where he had gone 69-19 with three Mountain West Conference titles in seven seasons. Someone will want to take over at Tennessee, if only for what would probably be a major pay raise, but the school could have trouble attracting the interest of top candidates, given all that has happened and still lies ahead.

However, Peyton Manning may tap into his extensive network on behalf of the school. The Athletic cited sources in reporting Monday that the legendary former Vols quarterback “will have a big role in the search process and great influence on who Tennessee’s next head coach will be.”

One option suggested by the Athletic is Bill O’Brien, the former Houston Texans and Penn State coach who is reportedly set to become the offensive coordinator at Alabama. Others noted Monday that Manning reportedly convinced the New York Jets to hire Adam Gase and now could bring the newly fired Gase to Knoxville.

However the process of hiring an athletic director and a football coach plays out, Tennessee officials wanted to send a message Monday that they are committed to “winning with integrity.”

“If you want a place that puts integrity first,” said UT system president Randy Boyd, “you want to come to the University of Tennessee.”

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