Photo by Elian Richter
By Peyton Gray, Sports Editor-
The Tennessee Volunteers said goodbye to head coach Jeremy Pruitt Monday after a weekslong internal investigation into potential recruiting violations.
Tennessee fired the third-year coach along with nine staff members. Assistant coaches Brian Niedermeyer, who was considered Tennessee’s top recruiter and also served as the inside linebackers coach, and Shelton Felton who was in charge of the outside linebackers.
In addition, the director and assistant director of player personnel, a football analyst, and four members of the on-campus recruiting staff went down with them.
The notice of intent to terminate put forth by Tennessee officials stated 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.”
The alleged violations involve Amarius Mims, the No. 3 offensive tackle and No. 19 player overall in the 2021 ESPN 300 rankings, who has now signed with Georgia. They also include the recruitment of current Vols running back Eric Gray. Gray sat out of the final game of the season for undisclosed reasons.
UT chancellor Donde Plowman stated Pruitt would be fired with cause, meaning he won’t receive his buyout of over $12 million. This is after Tennessee extended Pruitt’s contract through 2025–where he would earn $4.2 million a year beginning in 2021. In addition, Pruitt was going to receive a retention bonus of $200,000 on Feb. 15.
“While the investigation is continuing, the information presented to us indicates serious violations of NCAA rules, they occurred and that these serious infractions warrant immediate action,” Plowman stated Monday. “What’s astonishing is the number of violations and their efforts to conceal them.”
The loss of Pruitt and staff isn’t the only loss the Vols are taking. In addition, Hall of Fame football coach Phillip Fulmer is retiring. Fulmer’s retirement, however, is unrelated to the investigation.
Fulmer made his decision to leave so the new athletic director and new head coach can have a fresh start. The new AD will be in charge of hiring the new 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.
The situation is unfortunate indeed for Tennessee. Four players have already entered the transfer portal since the Monday firing.
Sophomore linebacker Henry To’o To’o is one of them. To’o To’o is a former SEC All-Freshman who also started 22 games over the past two seasons. He also led the team with 76 tackles this past season.
Along with To’o To’o, sophomore running back Eric Gray also has plans to leave. Gray ranked sixth this past season in yards per game (85.8) and sixth in yards from scrimmage per game (114.0).
Linebacker Quavaris Crouch and offensive lineman Jahmir Johnson join them.
Until the new AD is hired, the coaching search continues. Meanwhile, former Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele will serve as acting head coach.
“We’re looking for someone who is a strong leader, who has principles and values, who also has experience in hiring coaches, and who can help us look to the future,” Plowman said. “As disappointed as we are, we’re determined to get this right.”