What Tennessee got for 18 NCAA violations, leading the investigation and firing all involved was a world-record $8 million fine, other money lifted from 2020 Gator Bowl proceeds plus three percent of that football budget, five years on probation, assorted recruiting restrictions and 28 scholarships lost.
The Vols must vacate all victories in which 16 sanctioned players participated. They were not named. The transfer list may feed speculation.
Hooray, hooray, the NCAA did not impose a bowl ban. The giant fine is an educated guess at money the Vols would have lost if forced to stay home for two bowl and playoff seasons. No ban was a modest salute to current coaches and players who were in no way involved.
Former coach Jeremy Pruitt was hit with a six-year show-cause penalty and an automatic, first-year suspension if hired at another school. Assistant coaches Brian Niedermeyer (five years) and Shelton Felton (four) previously accepted penalties. Derrick Ansley, now defensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Chargers, received a two-year show-cause order.
Assistant recruiting director Chantryce Boone got a 10-year show-cause. Recruiting director Bethany Gunn has a five. Director of player personnel Drew Hughes received a four-year show-cause and student assistant Michael Magness a three.
The NCAA couldn’t do anything to Casey Pruitt, Jeremy’s wife, said to have been a helping hand in the violations, except note that she previously worked in NCAA compliance at three schools. She knew the rules.
Tennessee spent something near $2 million in legal fees to ferret out who did what and turned over all findings to the NCAA. You can go right on believing honest confessions are good for the soul but some are more expensive than others.
It is OK to wonder what the penalty would have been if the university had not cooperated. It is also OK to wonder if the stumbling, bumbling NCAA would have found half the violations had the university not provided a list.
Tennessee found that Pruitt and associates gave $60,000 and other illegal inducements to recruits, players and relatives. NCAA rules were flaunted. In some cases, money in Chick-fil-A bags was handed to visiting prospects. Really good sandwiches may have been included.
Pruitt and nine subordinates were dismissed. The university refused to pay any of the $12-million-plus buyout in the head coach’s contract.
Athletics director Danny White made a smart preliminary decision. He previously imposed some of the recruiting restrictions and scholarship limitations the NCAA handed down. That will make life easier for Josh Heupel if he remains Tennessee coach for the next five years.
Heupel has said he has been impressed with how UT was handling the whole mess.
“Our administration has been forthright. They found it; they gave it to the NCAA. They were nothing but cooperative the entire time.”
It appears transgressions started early in Pruitt’s tenure, 2018-20. The first alarm bell was in the third year, a tip to UT Chancellor Donde Plowman’s office that “some football players were getting paid.”
Dr. Plowman was a novice regarding crime and punishment but is a very responsible leader in rules and regulations. She made no effort to cover up anything. She launched an investigation.
When she learned real fire was causing the smoke, she brought in a prominent law firm with experience in dealing with NCAA violations. The things it found were borderline unbelievable.
An example: On one weekend, an unofficial visit from two prospects, relatives and high school coaches cost $2,424 in impermissible expenses. The technique was cash from a desk drawer. There was another case where money for a prospect’s mother came from the glove box in Pruitt’s car.
Eighteen level 1 violations, worst in the NCAA complex book of rules, are a lot. The university loss is not a lot more than expected.
Early in the process, UT tried to negotiate a settlement with the NCAA enforcement staff, something of a plea bargain. UT hoped to capitalize on cooperation. Most of all, it hoped to avoid the dreaded bowl ban. It also wanted to escape the black cloud rivals were using against Tennessee in recruiting.
The NCAA rejected that deal, in part because Pruitt wanted to fight for the buyout.
The punishment handed down by the NCAA on this July 14, 2023, is similar to what the university proposed – a few more recruiting limitations, a few more scholarships lost.
Vacating victories (Pruitt teams won 16) affects Tennessee’s historical standing. It is possible the coach won some before cheating became part of the games.
Tennessee will absorb the NCAA hit and move on with an aspirin or two. Personal penalties are not quite as deadly as they sound. The NCAA has used the show-cause order to punish rule-breakers for some 70 years. It has long been one of the organization’s most publicly misunderstood penalties.
It does not mean sudden death to coaches. It means a university cannot hire a coach or recruiter without explaining why it would want to do such a thing and without negotiating NCAA approval for the length of the ban.
That requires a plan for monitoring all activities. It also means severe penalties to the school if the coach breaks any more rules.
Show-cause is generally more painful to assistants. They may not get another chance. Schools seem quicker to forgive accomplished head coaches. Former Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl is an example. Auburn hired him before his show-cause expired.
He couldn’t recruit during the penalty time. There were other restrictions.
Pruitt won’t have to go on welfare. He could coach in the NFL. He did a little of that in 2021. He could go back to high school coaching – in Alabama. He has supposedly opened a small freight company. He has analyzed football film for coaching friends for token payments. He won a larger payday in a professional poker tournament. His Texas attorney may find somebody to sue.
Just guessing Tennessee will spin the NCAA outcome as a win. The result certainly isn’t as bad as it could have been. Money is the key word. Tennessee has deep pockets and more available where that came from.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is email@example.com.