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Scoop exclusive: Tennessee eyes NCAA mitigation, hopeful fans return

Amidst a tumultuous year that has featured a global pandemic, sweeping demonstrations and protests on race relations, both in the United States and around the world, as well as scandal in her flagship school's football program, University of Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman sees the positives on Rocky Top.

Including, Plowman hopes, a wide-scale return of fans inside Neyland Stadium and the potential for mitigation in the Tennessee football program's current imbroglio with the NCAA.

Plowman has shared these thoughts via invitation-only Zoom video conferences with a significant number of UT alums and dignitaries throughout the Volunteer State regions, several people briefed on the “town hall-style” sessions shared with FootballScoop.

She also noted UT had learned today it would receive distribution of the new Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, likely within the next week, Plowman said, though UT will "not require but strongly encourage" getting the vaccine.

It now has been more than three months since Tennessee elected to retain the outside services of Michael Glazier and Kyle Skillman of the law firm Bond, Schoeneck and King – which, in part, specializes in NCAA compliance matters – after Plowman said the school “tripped upon something ... in football.”

Plowman, who praised UT's student retention numbers for Spring 2021 as being above the 2020 marks, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, told audiences much of what has been reported is true and also said much is not true. The Zoom comments were similar to those she recently made on the school's official radio show "Vol Calls" on the Vol Network.

Sources said Plowman found "information that seemed credible" and that she "immediately turned that over to (University of Tennessee) General Counsel. Plowman also noted she had also turned over all information to the UT athletics department's NCAA compliance office. She praised all as having "done a phenomenal job."

Plowman believes Tennessee's portion of this process is rapidly approaching its end, just 44 days after firing Jeremy Pruitt and Plowman publicly admitting at that time that UT had discovered “serious violations of NCAA rules.”

“Our part of that investigation, I keep saying this, is almost over,” she said on the video. “We're eager to get it to the point where our lawyers are done. The NCAA has been part of this; they have been part of any number of the interviews. Nothing much has changed in what we can announce.”

Plowman, however, did acknowledge that UT's decisive actions – it fired Pruitt and separated with then-athletics director Phillip Fulmer – have them hopeful that NCAA penalties against the Volunteers' football program will be lessened.

“The way this kind of works in the NCAA is if you end up with a Level I violation, or multiple Level Is, a Level I violation can have three parts,” Plowman said. “It can be an aggravated Level I, [which means] it was intentional, you didn't care, you just let it go.

“It could be a kind of regular, standard violation.

“Or it could be mitigated. Where the University took steps to try to mitigate the problem, which is what we are hoping for. Yes, we have taken some steps that have resulted in a new football coach.”

Plowman then praised new athletics director Danny White, hired at Tennessee on Jan. 20, as a “rock-star” and a “builder” who “brings tremendous energy into the room.”

Plowman also made a vow to Tennessee alumni and fans about new football coach Josh Heupel.

“The staff that Josh has put together, it's impressive,” Plowman said. “I know that Tennessee fans are tired of hearing we're going to rebuild this; but I'm going to tell you, this time it's going to work.

“And I'm so excited, we're doing this the right way. We're determined to get this right.”

Noting Alabama Athletics Director Greg Byrne's announcement this week that the Crimson Tide “expect a full-capacity” setup for Bryant-Denny Stadium for the 2021 season, Plowman also expressed optimism that Tennessee could move well beyond its roughly 20% capacity it utilized to comply with COVID-19 restrictions last season.

In fact, Plowman said she believed the Vols could welcome back a much larger number of fans as soon as next month – when Heupel's unofficial debut as Tennessee coach is scheduled for the annual Orange & White Game on April 24.

“We are expecting in the fall we'll be back to full capacity,” Plowman said, from a student-body standpoint. “Somebody's going to ask me, what's the seating going to be at Neyland Stadium? I don't know yet; I haven't talked to Danny yet about that. Yes, I saw the same announcement Alabama made.

“I think we're all hoping we're going to be back to a lot of people in the stands, including, I hope, at the spring game.”