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Is time running out for Pruitt on Rocky Top?

On Tuesday, by statement of course, embattled Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt issued a formal message that the Volunteers had hired Kevin Steele to join their football staff.

The Steele addition had been in the offing, with varying degrees of external and internal impediments, for nearly two weeks.

Yes, the same Steele who had endeavored – immediately – to be Auburn's head coach last month in the aftermath of that program's less-than-consensus decision to fire incumbent Gus Malzahn.

Yes, the same Steele who had vied alongside Pruitt, and Mel Tucker, a mere three years ago for the head coaching job at Tennessee.

On Wednesday, as it had many times in recent weeks, Tennessee knew members of its football cabinet – on-field assistants, office administrators, recruiting support staff – would be meeting with the University of Tennessee's general counsel, the school's own compliance staff, notably czar Andrew Donovan and Adam Tate, personal attorneys and representatives, as well as NCAA officials who joined into these ongoing proceedings via Zoom.

On Thursday, it was more of the same – with a notable addition: Pruitt was slated for his formal appearance before the tribunal. Pruitt was to address claims, allegedly first flowing forth from within the Anderson Training Center's hallowed Rocky Top hallways, of recruiting improprieties permeating Pruitt's program.

Tennessee football has beautiful, meticulously detailed checkerboard end zones inside Neyland Stadium; everywhere else, the image of Volunteers' football is a program perpetually at a crossroads.

Pruitt had his own attorney, identified by sources to FootballScoop as Enrique “Henry” Gimenez of the Lightfoot, Franklin and White firm that has partnerships in Birmingham, Alabama, and Houston.

“He specializes in that stuff,” said a source of Gimenez. “He's done [recent work for other SEC schools].”

Florida, LSU and Texas A&M have drawn microscopes into their football programs in recent months, with the Gators' NCAA punishments -- including a Show-Cause penalty for head coach Dan Mullen -- coming to light last month.

UT's own outside help, attorneys Mike Glazier and Kyle Skillman of the Kansas City-area firm Bond, Schoeneck and King, also have sharpened their legal wares by dealing “in that stuff.” They're billing Tennessee a combined $875 per hour, per rates released and reported by multiple Knoxville-area media, including the Knoxville News Sentinel.

The group, after all, previously worked with Tennessee from a situation that arose during the brief tenure of Lane Kiffin, who followed the fired Phillip Fulmer. Who now is Tennessee's athletics director, and, for all intents and purposes, the person for whom the buck stops amidst yet more turmoil on Rocky Top.

It's worth noting that Glazier also represented Ole Miss three-plus years ago in that program's investigation into alleged misdeeds under former Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze, a coach who's won 10 games at every stop in his college career, who owns deep ties in the Volunteer State and occupies the eyes and hearts of many Volunteer fans eager for the football program to find yet another change in direction.

Which, frankly, mirrors Rocky Top as a whole in this century, what with five athletics directors, multiple chancellors and, of course, football coaches – of whom Pruitt is the eighth full-time or interim head coach atop the Volunteers program since 2008.

Not one of those coaches has faced the level of introspection, ostensibly from internal whistleblowers per sources with direct knowledge of the proceedings, to which Pruitt currently stands.

At minimum, per sources, at least five on-field Tennessee football coaches have answered questions in this probe that has stretched since before Thanksgiving.

It has encompassed directors of various elements of Tennessee football and included the retrieval of literally thousands of phone records, be it calls or texts messages.

Per sources, at least three individuals' interviews have spanned six-plus hours.

It has, according to people with knowledge of the situation, prompted calls first from South Carolina and then Auburn about those programs' ability to hire, in good conscience and not expect any kind of residual NCAA fallout, ex-Tennessee offensive line coach Will Friend, long considered one of Pruitt's closest companions in coaching and among Pruitt's initial hires 37 months ago upon his hiring at Tennessee.

Which, simply, makes the picture of Tennessee football anything but the mirror image of the revered clear white lightning moonshine for which the program's ever-faithful fans have fewer chances to sing about in choruses of “Rocky Top." Yet require perhaps ever-more need of sampling to remain tethered to the Vols' football team.

Even without the probe, Tennessee has lost on the field 19 times in Pruitt's three seasons – the latter campaign just 10 games in 2020 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Sixteen of those losses have been bludgeoned upon the Vols by 10 or more points.

Now, it all is coming to some sort of zenith.

Pruitt's Thursday appearance was among the final measures of the investigation.

This week, former five-star signee Wanya Morris added his name to the list of Vols in the NCAA Transfer Portal – and no major-college football program has more names in the Portal.

Around campus, even among myriad athletics department employees, the belief is that Pruitt is done at Tennessee.

Yet, it's Tennessee. Conventional wisdom says that unconventional action is the modus operandi for Volunteers football.

So Steele, interim coach at Auburn just earlier THIS month, now is on staff at his alma mater.

Pruitt is battling for his future at Tennessee. Perhaps, then, Fulmer is, too.

New signees and returning players are due to report to the campus adjacent to the banks of the Tennessee River in the near future; UT's spring semester classes begin January 20.

Only the coming days will reveal if those players are reporting to Pruitt, Steele, Fulmer – or perhaps someone else altogether.