Skip to main content

Inside Tennessee's NCAA investigation and how the Vols could set a revolutionary new example

Using cooperation and the NCAA's incoming new guidelines, UT is positioned to avoid serious penalty while leaving former head coach Jeremy Pruitt likely most sanctioned

The news Friday that the University of Tennessee’s athletics department – and therefore a large number of former coaches and employees – received their NCAA Notice of Allegations came as a surprise to no one.

In fact, UT officials had earlier this summer pleaded with the NCAA to delay its delivery of the NOA because college athletics’ governing body has been working toward a modification in its investigation process. Sources on Rocky Top Friday told FootballScoop that UT officials “conducted an emergency staff Zoom to announce the 18 NCAA violations.”

Tennessee, per sources, is hoping to be something of a beneficiary of these proposed changes, which are expected to be formally adopted next month.

What’s the key? This week, the NCAA’s Division I Council, with work from the organization’s Transformation Committee, made several new recommendations on everything from date ranges for the Transfer Portal to the investigatory process.

That, specifically, was the measure that UT officials had hoped to see passed before continuing onward to final adjudication of the case against former disastrous Vols head man Jeremy Pruitt, the once-renowned Alabama, Florida State and Georgia defensive coordinator who now has landed outside of football.

Per the NCAA’s release, the Council moved forward with the following components intended to augment the investigative process while also not unduly punishing student-athletes. Those items are:

“Incentivizing parties to secure cooperation from representatives, family members and others with relevant information.”

“Expanding the use of a public dashboard for all infractions.”

“Reserving hearings before the Committee on Infractions for only the most significant behaviors.”

UT, Pruitt & Co. got slapped with 18 various violations, and as UT Chancellor Donde Plowman foretold some 20 months ago, many of the infractions are both extremely serious by NCAA bylaws and similarly embarrassing.

“While the investigation is continuing,” Plowman said in January 2021 as Pruitt & Co. were summarily dismissed on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, “the information presented to us indicates serious violations of NCAA rules; they occurred and that these serious infractions warrant immediate action. …

“For now, I can tell you this: The information provided today indicates a significant number of serious NCAA rules violations. While we have no choice but to continue to ask for your patience while both (UT) and NCAA investigate, the personnel actions we are announcing today are an indication of the gravity of what we have discovered.”

Plowman then revealed Pruitt’s firing, along with the dismissals of assistant coaches Shelton Felton and Brian Niedermeyer, as well as essentially the Vols’ entire football recruiting department at that time, including former Vols personnel director Drew Hughes, recruiting head Bethany Gunn and former assistant director of recruiting Chantryce Boone.

All of those individuals, per sources with direct knowledge, also were scheduled to receive their NCAA NOAs Friday.

And though the NCAA’s documents Friday from their nearly 20-month investigation into the program resulted in one of the largest volumes of major infractions, the NCAA because of UT’s immediate actions to dismiss Pruitt & Co. – as well as, notably, moving on from Phillip Fulmer as head of the athletics department – largely helped the institution not be charged with the most serious “lack of institutional control.”

UT was alleged to have had an atmosphere that displayed a “failure to monitor,” and while UT parted ways with Fulmer in January 2021, the school continued to pay out the remainder of Fulmer’s contract to the tune of nearly $1 million.

The school now has new leadership in all key athletics department positions, from second-year football coach Josh Heupel -- hired just weeks after Pruitt's firing -- to athletics director Danny White, as well as new NCAA compliance personnel on campus. 

“Receipt of our Notice of Allegations was an expected, requisite step in this process – a process our university initiated proactively through decisive and transparent actions,” University of Tennessee Director of Athletics Danny White said in a prepared statement. “This moves us one step closer to a final resolution.

“Until we get to that point, I am unable to discuss the case in any detail. 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.”

While UT officials including White cannot openly discuss the case until it is fully closed and all concerned parties have had final mediation with NCAA officials, multiple sources again reiterated to FootballScoop that UT’s action throughout the process – not only its immediate dismissal of Pruitt, parting with Fulmer and other subsequent moves – had positioned the school to escape the most serious potential penalties.

There’s optimism that no bowl ban will be doled out against the school nor is the current program expected to be hammered with any severe penalties, especially as the NCAA has worked to establish more cooperation with its new guidelines that are expected to be formally adopted in August at the organization’s Division I Board of Directors meeting.

What is expected, per sources briefed on the investigation and with direct knowledge, is that specifically Pruitt and potentially other former members of his coaching staff are likely to receive multi-year show-cause penalties.

Those coaches, Pruitt or whomever, would be given a chance to contest those allegations and plead his or her case for the penalization process.