An attorney for former Tennessee Volunteers head football coach Jeremy Pruitt says his client was fired not for possible NCAA violations, but as the result of a university effort to renege on the coach’s contract.
Pruitt, coming off his third season as UT’s head football coach, was fired Monday, along with two of his assistant coaches and seven other athletic department staffers. UT Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman said the early results of an internal investigation pointed to potentially serious recruiting violations that could draw NCAA sanctions.
“It was stunning. The number of people involved and the number of incidents. That’s partly what you see in the levels of the actions we’re taking today,” Plowman told reporters after the university announced the firing.
A termination letter to Pruitt, signed by Plowman and UT Athletic Director Phil Fulmer, implied the coach was ultimately the responsible party for recruiting violations that allegedly took place under his watch. Details were not released Monday; Plowman said both the university investigation and a separate NCAA probe are still in progress.
But the termination letter said Pruitt was responsible for monitoring his employees and football players, keeping tabs on recruitment efforts, and ensuring everyone in the football program was aware of and adhered to university and NCAA rules. The letter specifically mentioned Pruitt’s duty to keep an eye on benefits for recruits, travel activities, visits from athletic staff and other potential recruitment violations.
In failing to do so, Plowman and Fulmer said, Pruitt violated six clauses of his contract and the university moved to fire him with cause.
Michael Lyons, an attorney representing Pruitt, says the coach was let go for very different reasons.
“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 five months ago,” Lyons said in a statement sent to sports reporting outlet Stadium.
Lyons contends the allegations of recruiting violations were an easy way for the university to cut ties with Pruitt without paying a $12.8 million buyout built into his contract. Pruitt signed a contract extension last September. The “with cause” justification for his firing takes UT off the hook for paying the buyout.
“Coach Pruitt and I look forward to defending any allegation that he has engaged in any NCAA wrongdoing, as well as examining the university’s attempt to disparage and destroy Coach Pruitt’s reputation in an effort to avoid paying his contractual liquidated damages,” Lyons wrote.
Pruitt’s record in three seasons with the Vols was 16-19. This season, playing only SEC opponents, the Vols went 3-7, including six straight losses between October 10 and December 5. The termination letter Pruitt received from Plowman and UT Athletic Director Phil Fulmer made no mention of the team’s performance record.
Asked for a broad assessment of Pruitt’s tenure at a Monday afternoon press conference, Fulmer was vague. “We found the program in quite a mess at the time [of Pruitt’s hiring],” Fulmer said. “I think we have definitely upgraded the program in general.”
Fulmer also said player recruitment was good under Pruitt, but says the current situation is “unfortunate.”
The news of Pruitt’s firing came the same day Fulmer announced his retirement. The university says the two are unrelated. Fulmer is expected to stay on until a new athletic director is hired, and then the search for a new head football coach will begin.