Last week, the NCAA issued a notice of allegations to the University of Tennessee for recruiting violations that occurred within the football program during Jeremy Pruitt’s tenure as head coach. If you’ve followed college football for any part of its history, recruiting violations have always been a part of the sport. From the “Pony Excess” scandal that cratered the SMU football program back in the late 1980s to the penalties that halted USC’s run as one of the top programs in the country around a decade ago, the NCAA has always tried to preserve its model centered around amateurism via fines, scholarship reduction, show-causes, postseason bans, and in one case, the “Death Penalty.”
However, as the college sports world has experienced no shortage of change in the past few years, the NCAA has launched a Transformation Committee consisting of an executive group of university presidents and athletic administrators to reimagine the future of college sports. Among the issues they have discussed is altering the infractions process when schools violate NCAA rules. Among the rumored goals of the committee is for investigations to conclude in a more timely manner and to not punish players, coaches, and administrators who had nothing to do with the violations committed by their schools.
In the past, it’s been common for a school to receive a postseason ban even when none of the current roster or coaching staff was responsible for any wrongdoing. But with the Transformation Committee's apparent goals, hopefully, we won’t see this moving forward. The first test case might be their handling of Tennessee football.
In the notice of allegations, Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt was charged with failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance and failing to monitor his staff. In the long, 51-page document that was released, the NCAA alleges Pruitt and his staff provided $60,000 in impermissible benefits and hosted recruits on campus during the imposed dead period amid the pandemic in 2020.
While college athletes are now able to profit off their name, image, and likeness currently, what Tennessee was doing under Jeremy Pruitt would still mostly be illegal under today’s rules. Direct payments from a coaching staff are still a no-no even with today’s NIL rights. In reading through the notice of allegations, Pruitt and his coaching staff not only broke the rules but did so in ways that really wouldn’t benefit the program in any way, especially during a pandemic when on-campus recruiting was barred by the NCAA. All in all, there were 18 alleged Level I violations.
How the NCAA handles this case will be interesting because according to the NCAA, the athletic department and administration at the University of Tennessee did their best to mitigate their punishment by the NCAA. The notice of allegations stated that “The actions taken by the institution during the investigation should be the standard for any institutional inquiries into potential violations.” In NCAA scandals, the key charge that no school wants to receive is a “lack of institutional control. Despite 18 Level I violations, Tennessee avoided said charge, which bodes well for the Vols avoiding further punishment down the road.
While one could argue that Tennessee should be applauded for their swift action and doing the right thing by alerting the NCAA of these violations as soon as they took place, others will argue they were so cooperative in order to fire a struggling Jeremy Pruitt for cause and not have to pay his $12.6 million buyout. Since the end of the Phillip Fulmer era in 2008, Tennessee has struggled to find consistent success on the football field. Many coaches have come through Knoxville in the past 15 years only to disappoint Vol Nation, and Pruitt fell into that category.
As the 2020 season neared its conclusion, there was chatter about Jeremy Pruitt’s job being in danger for football reasons. After starting 2-0, Tennessee lost seven of its last eight games to finish 3-7. The only problem was that at the start of the season, Pruitt received a contract extension. After their 34-13 home loss to Texas A&M in the final game of the season, that’s when the Tennessee administration launched an in-house investigation into Jeremy Pruitt’s alleged recruiting violations.
The next month, Pruitt was fired presumably for cause along with some of his assistant coaches. According to the recently released notice of allegations, it’s clear that Jeremy Pruitt and his coaching staff were violating NCAA rules. But the $12.6 million dollar question is whether Tennessee would’ve launched an internal investigation into Pruitt if his Vols were winning ten games a year and competing for SEC titles. Cheating has always been a part of college football, and in many cases, schools have swept it under the rug or even embraced it in a covert way. We’ll never know the real answer to that question but avoiding paying a coach a hefty buyout is a tremendous incentive to cooperate with the NCAA.
It’s worth noting that in the past few days, Pruitt has come out and expressed his desire to tell “his side of the story'' at some point. I’m sure he feels like Tennessee wronged him and opened the door for the NCAA to find dirt on him. As far as punishment goes, he’ll probably be the one that pays the price for all this. A potential show-cause penalty will all but end his college coaching career, while Tennessee and their current athletes and coaches will likely avoid anything significant imposed on them. Pruitt and his lawyer have threatened legal action against Tennessee in the past, but it's yet to be seen if he’ll follow through.
The Tennessee situation has no shortage of fascinating storylines ranging from future handling of NCAA infractions to an ugly school-coach breakup. Hopefully, head coach Josh Heupel, his current roster, and the current coaching staff don’t have to pay for the sins committed by a previous regime. In following the Transformation Committee’s objectives, it’s likely they will avoid any serious punishment like a bowl ban. For Pruitt, who spent 2021 coaching in the NFL, it will be interesting to see what he does and says in response to these allegations. If he sues, will Tennessee offer a settlement, or will this get dragged on in court? It will be interesting to follow what happens next with this situation for sure.
Brendan can be found on Twitter @_bbell5