Phillip Fulmer returned to Rocky Top in late 2017 – as the University of Tennessee athletics director hired “to fix football.”
Fulmer’s centerpiece of that endeavor has now spectacularly failed.
Tennessee is moving on from Jeremy Pruitt after three eventful seasons covering 35 games – 19 of them losses and 16 of those by 10 or more points, multiple sources told FootballScoop.
Pete Thamel first reported the news. Thamel adds that “Phillip Fulmer’s future will also be addressed.”
Blake Toppmeyer of The Tennessean is reporting Pruitt will be fired for cause and that Fulmer will “retire.”
Per a campus source, Deputy Athletics Director and Chief Operating Officer Reid Sigmon is expected to temporarily step into the lead athletics administration role for the Vols, due to the fact that “Reid has to be the acting A.D. still because he’s the one who votes in all the (SEC) A.D. meetings anyway.”
Fulmer and Sigmon met with multiple members of the Vols’ coaching staff, including Pruitt, Monday morning inside Fulmer’s office at the Anderson Training Center. A campus source said that both Fulmer and Pruitt actually were informed late Sunday night that the school intended to move in a different direction both atop the football program and the athletics department as a whole.
During the COVID-19 pandemic last May, Fulmer renegotiated his contract at UT and secured additional money as well as retention bonuses. Fulmer will receive a buyout in his deal, but he will not continue to pocket the $150,000 retention bonuses — the first of which he just received on Dec. 31, 2020.
The program also has been mired in an investigative quagmire for the past two months as first campus and now NCAA personnel, as well as outside attorneys and individual representatives for Pruitt and multiple of his Volunteers’ assistants, probed alleged recruiting improprieties and irregularities in the Tennessee program.
A process that first seemed contained to campus has, within the past two weeks, also included NCAA personnel involved with the formal, legal interviews of members of the Tennessee football coaching staff. Sources said the probe emanated from internal concerns about recruiting practices, subjected multiple coaches and staff members to a review of their practices and then expanded to include by college athletics’ governing body, the NCAA, and UT’s own decision to retain outside legal counsel.
As Volunteers coaches and staff members met with investigators, attorneys and other personnel, they were required to sign non-disclosure agreements that prevented them from discussing the interrogations outside of those settings and with anyone other than their legal advisors.
Per sources familiar with the situation, Pruitt is “likely to fight” his “fired-with-cause” termination.
After he replaced the fired Butch Jones on the heels of the 2017 season, the first-time head coach Pruitt and former national championship-winning defensive coordinator suffered through an understandably rough first year that concluded with a 5-7 mark.
The Vols’ lack of competitiveness, however, in a number of key games foreshadowed a consistent problem for Pruitt, who lost 13 games by three-or-more touchdowns and churned through assistant coaches, strength staff and medical staff. Tennessee also has more players currently in the NCAA’s Transfer Portal than any other Power-5 program in college football.
Pruitt’s replacement will be the Volunteers’ ninth head football coach – full-time or interim – since the school fired Fulmer in 2008 as he program had dipped in 2005 and further receded by, at that time, Urban Meyer’s Florida program and Nick Saban’s burgeoning Alabama juggernaut.
After Tennessee had 16-consecutive winning seasons from 1989-2004, Tennessee as a program is four games under .500 at 78-82 since the onset of the ’08 season – and it is a once-unheard-of 32 games under .500 in SEC play – 37-69.
Sunday night a Tennessee staffer told FootballScoop, “We’re done. It’s all over.”
Look for Kevin Steele to be named interim head coach. Tennessee had already scheduled a back-to-school team meeting on Monday, a move that long had been planned as Vols’ players returned to school — or moved onto campus — in advance of Wednesday’s start of spring semester classes. It is expected, per two campus sources, that Steele will lead that meeting.
More to come….