CINCINNATI — Tennessee takes its next step towards closure of the Jeremy Pruitt era as Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman, current athletics director Danny White along with former AD Phillip Fulmer and Pruitt have gathered in Cincinnati for a hearing with the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions.
The committee of infractions is a committee that’s made up of people from around the country in all walks of life. There are attorney’s, athletic department officials from all levels of college athletics, former coaches like former Texas women’s basketball coach Jody Conradt, conference commissioners and a former Attorney General of the United States.
The hearing is scheduled to run Wednesday through Friday with a ruling expected sometime in the next 6-8 weeks.
Tennessee tried to avoid getting to this point after they received the formal notice of allegations on July 22nd. In that notice, Tennessee was charged with 18 level one violations that included almost $60,000 of cash or gifts provided to players and their families by Pruitt, his wife, numerous coaches, recruiting staff, and at least one booster.
Of the 18 level one violations, the University’s contention surrounds the charge of failure to monitor. Because Tennessee officials took the swift action of firing everyone responsible for the violations upon learning of the violations, they feel like the failure to monitor charge is unwarranted.
According Plowman on November 13, 2020 her office received a credible allegation of a potential recruiting violation in football that the office of general counsel immediately began investigating. Six days later, Tennessee hired the legal firm of Bond, Schoeneck & King to take the lead on the nearly year long investigation that cost the University over $1.2 million in legal fees.
As that investigation intensified, Plowman said on the day that Jeremy Pruitt was fired in January of 2021, she was shocked at the depths of violations and the lengths gone to to try and cover them up.
“What is so disturbing as demonstrated by the scope of the employee actions we are announcing today (firing nine employees) is the number of violations and the number of people involved and their efforts to conceal their activities from our compliance staff and leadership within the athletic department,” Plowman said at the press conference detailing Pruitt’s firing.”
Fulmer was not named in any of the allegations in the notice of allegations but will be in Cincinnati as a part of questioning surrounding the failure to monitor charge. On the day of the press conference in January of 2021 when it was announced Fulmer was stepping down from the athletics director position, Plowman stated that Fulmer had no involvement in Pruitt’s recruiting practices.
“I really, really, really want to underscore that there’s nothing about this that indicated Phillip knew about anything. None of this had anything to do with him,” Plowman said at a point when the investigation was in the first two months of a year long probe.
Tennessee has been transparent with the NCAA, allowing them to be a part of any investigative interviews done and by turning over all of their findings. College athletics’ governing body has praised the University for how they have conducted the investigation something Plowman noted in her statement last July after receiving the Notice of Allegations.
“In every step of this process, we took quick and decisive actions that exemplified the longstanding values of the NCAA reiterated in the membership’s new constitution. The university hired outside counsel to fully investigate allegations about the football program, acted promptly to terminate the employment of football coaches and staff members, and shared our conclusions with the NCAA enforcement staff.
“The NCAA Division I Board of Directors recently endorsed significant reforms to the infractions process proposed by the Transformation Committee, including clearly and meaningfully incentivizing the type of responsive institutional actions we took in this case – self-detection and reporting, self-accountability, and the active involvement of the institution’s chief executive. The NCAA enforcement staff recognized the university’s “exemplary cooperation” in the case and stated that “[t]he actions taken by the institution during the investigation should be the standard for any institutional inquiries into potential violations.”
In Josh Heupel’s first season, Tennessee won seven games and became bowl eligible, University officials along with Athletics Director Danny White made a decision not to self-impose a bowl ban feeling it was unfair to that current team, coaches and staff because they did not have any involvement with the allegations against Pruitt and his program.
“While we will take appropriate responsibility, last fall, the university announced that we will not self-impose penalties that harm innocent student-athletes like postseason bans based upon the actions of coaches and staff who are no longer part of the institution. Under the NCAA’s new constitution, rules “must ensure to the greatest extent possible that penalties imposed for infractions do not punish programs or student-athletes not involved or implicated in the infraction(s),” Plowman said in her statement last July.
It should be noted that Tennessee officials have never said there should not be punishment for the wrong doings. Tennessee’s stance is that the punishment should in no way affect current student athletes.
“As a university, we understand the need to take responsibility for what occurred, but we remain committed to protecting our current and future student-athletes,” White said it a statement following the notice of allegations.
So today, Tennessee begins its formal defense against the charge of failure to monitor while Pruitt begins his defense in an effort to someday coach again.
And everyone hopes the next three days will complete a 29 month investigation that will bring closure to a process that has been long, eye opening and at times frustrating to the point many have wondered if there is any value at all in cooperating with the NCAA.
Timeline of key events in the NCAA’s 29 month investigation
November 13, 2020Chancellor Donde Plowman receives verbal allegations of recruiting violations against Jeremy Pruitt and staff she deems credibleNovember 19, 2020University’s Office of General Counsel starts formal inquiry into Pruitt and programJanuary 18, 2021Head coach Jeremy Pruitt and nine other football employees including assistants Brian Niedermeyer, Shelton Felton are all fired for cause. Phillip Fulmer steps down as athletics directorJanuary 21, 2021Danny White is hired as new athletic director after an accelerated search by Chancellor Plowman and University President Randy BoydJanuary 27, 2021Josh Heupel is hired by White to follow him from Central Florida to be Tennessee’s new football coachNovember 4, 2021Volquest reports Tennessee will not self impose a bowl ban. Tennessee accepts a bid to the Music City Bowl a month later following a seven win regular seasonJuly, 22, 2022Tennessee receives notice of allegations detailing 18 level one infractions that included almost $60,000 of cash or gifts provided to players and their families by Pruitt, his wife, numerous coaches, recruiting staff, and at least one booster. February 28, 2023Niedermeyer, Felton, former director of player personnel Drew Hughes and recruiting office employee Michael Magness all agree to penalties from the NCAA which includes a show cause penalties ranging from 3-5 years.