In the beginning of the Jeremy Pruitt mess, old friend Phillip Fulmer made a mistake. He hired the wrong guy to lead the football Volunteers out of the wilderness.
In semi-summation, the Alabama man, through and through, came up with the idea of turning Tennessee into what the Crimson Tide had been 10 or 15 years ago. Mission impossible. The finish line was too far behind the times.
There was a root problem: How to get enough players to win enough games. According to the university, Pruitt chose cheating.
That 3-7 record in 2020 said losing while cheating is a very poor combination.
In the beginning, part 2, Tennessee turned over its findings from a very expensive internal investigation into the NCAA police. To me, that seemed a risky partnership, even if an honest confession is good for the soul.
UT chancellor Donde Plowman, obviously a good person but a novice in dealing with crime and punishment, added gory details about the violations.
About audacity: UT said Pruitt and his people deceived the university, that they secretly committed recruiting violations while being trained on the very rules they were breaking. The NCAA took notes.
Dr. Plowman conducted a general house-cleaning. She fired Pruitt, certain assistant coaches, professional recruiters and related aides.
High drama followed.
Casey Pruitt, wife of the head coach, was linked to the violations. She supposedly gave money to the needy mother of a prospective player – maybe more than once. That essentially eliminated the typical escape route for head coaches. Jeremy probably knew if the cash really came from the glove box in his car.
A TV commentator revealed a zinger, that UT coaches absolutely flaunted the rules. They handed out cash in McDonalds’ fast-food bags to visiting recruits.
It was Chick-fil-A bags.
More dramatic was Tennessee’s refusal to pay Pruitt all or even any of the $12.8 million going-away present written into his contract. The coach retaliated. He got himself a famous Texas lawyer who threatened the university with fire and brimstone.
Michael Lyons sent UT a letter that made no attempt to deny or defend Pruitt’s behavior. Lyons suggested a settlement based on “startling information” his firm had found that pointed toward broken rules by several people dating back several years and across several sports.
He did not say “they did it” but he dropped in prominent names – Rick Barnes, AAU coach and former Vols basketball guard Bobby Maze and major donor Larry Pratt – as if for your consideration.
Deacon Barnes did not appreciate the insinuation. He stood up straight and denied any malfeasance by basketball.
“I’m really disappointed that Jeremy would throw people’s names around that he knows did nothing,” said Barnes. “I would invite the NCAA to come in any day of the week and investigate our program. I have too much respect for our players, our school and our administration for somebody to ever think we were not doing things right and make such ridiculous statements.
“Here’s what I know,” said Barnes. “Our university has done everything it possibly can in working with the NCAA to clean up the mess Jeremy left behind and bring this to closure.”
University general counsel Ryan Stinnett, advised of the threat, told “one of the best lawyers in America” where he could go.
“The University emphatically denies these allegations and will not be intimidated into settling with your client based on your unsupported assertions.”
If the Dallas lawyer ever sent information to peel the paint off the walls, nobody received it. Maybe later.
Tennessee, meanwhile, slapped its own hands, invoked minor punishment and everybody went to school on the rules. The NCAA, slow as smoke, eventually got around to formal accusations and a hearing. Assisted by information Tennessee provided, it charged the school with failure to monitor.
That isn’t too alarming unless the NCAA actually says guilty, reduces the number of scholarships and recruiting opportunities and imposes a hefty fine. If it flexes tired, old muscles in steep decline and attaches a bowl ban, expect all hell to break loose.
No matter how many think Dr. Danny White is a full-fledged company man, the partnership between university and supervising organization would be shredded. Other schools would see that honesty does not always pay.
Rumor has it Tennessee players would sue. How dare you take away our Supreme Court-approved bowl treats. The already weakened NCAA doesn’t need that kind of public wrestling match.
Last summer, it changed its constitution to reflect a philosophical adjustment – stop punishing the innocent, new cast of characters, players, coaches and administrators who had nothing to do with violations.
To the best of my knowledge, all who were involved in this case are gone, those fired and even players who might have been receiving illegal benefits. Some big names transferred in a hurry.
What remains is the wait, however long it takes, hopefully for fairness that permits recruiting success and leads to rowdy whoopee celebrations of championships to come.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is [email protected]