ATHENS — Kirby Smart typically makes it a point to keep his focus inward, but the Georgia football coach along with the rest of the SEC is surely taking note of what is transpiring in Knoxville.
Jeremy Pruitt and nine other UT football staff members, including assistant coaches Brian Niedermeyer and Shelton Felton, were terminated on Monday in the midst of an investigation into NCAA wrongdoings. Pruitt was responsible for the hiring of them.
Pruitt was 16-19 overall and 10-16 in SEC games over the course of his three seasons leading the program after following the tenure of former coach Butch Jones following the 2017 season.
The Vols are among many schools that actively recruit the state of Georgia, with 22 players from the Peach State on their current roster.
Tennessee’s recruiting efforts out of state are likely to wane for the foreseeable future as the NCAA portion of the investigation into the program is just getting started, per school officials.
The magnitude of the Vols’ pending NCAA investigation, as described by UT chancellor Donde Plowman on Monday, typically results in recruiting sanctions along with postseason bowl bans and NCAA probation.
It was revealed last month that Florida is also dealing with NCAA sanctions and current Gators coach Dan Mullen was deal a one-year show-cause order.
Tennessee’s case appears much more serious on the surface than Florida’s, however.
“It was stunning the number of people involved …. and the number of incidents, that was shocking, and that’s partly what you see in the level of the actions today,” Plowman said during the SEC Network’s live broadcast of the press conference on Monday.
“We’re looking at Level l and Level ll violations, I don’t know exactly how many,”
The NCAA defines Level l violations as “severe breach of conduct,” and Level ll as “significant breach of conduct.”
Talk-show host Dan Patrick alleged last week that Georgia might ultimately be investigated in relation to a former UT recruit, but UGA officials issued a statement that seemed to indicate that has not taken place.
“While we do not comment on alleged NCAA investigations at other institutions, we have no information to suggest there is any validity to the reports relating to our football program.”
Plowman said Tennessee’s internal investigation was triggered on Nov. 13 when her office “received a verbal report from a credible source about potentially serious NCAA violations committed by the football program.”
UT’s general counsel was alerted, and on Nov. 19 the school hired an outside law firm to aid in its internal investigation.
The SEC opened its formal case with Tennessee in December, and the NCAA has been working along with the school’s attorneys and compliance department to uncover the wrongdoing.
Pruitt was reportedly interviewed for hours about the alleged violations last Thursday.
It was found that Pruitt “did not adequately promote an attitude of compliance.” Plowman said during the press conference.
It was also announced on Monday that Vols’ Hall of Fame coach Phillip Fulmer is stepping down from his position as athletic director.
Phil Fulmer was asked how Jeremy Pruitt’s tenure at Tennessee is going to be remembered.
Here is his full answer, which includes the phrase, “certainly the recruiting has been good.” pic.twitter.com/0q1aty3vOz
— Yahoo Sports College Football (@YahooSportsCFB) January 18, 2021
UT President Randy Boyd attempted to make clear that Fulmer’s resignation is not a direct result of the investigation into the Level One and Level Two wrongdoings that have been discovered.
“Our overall athletic program is better, and on more equal footing, because of your leadership,” Boyd said to Fulmer during the press conference at the Ray and Lucy Hand Media Center on the UT campus.
“We’re as proud of you today as we were that night in Tempe (Ariz.) when you hoisted that (1998 championship) trophy over your head.”
Fulmer, asked how Pruitt’s three-year tenure would be remembered, said the staff “upgraded the program in general.”
Tennessee was trumpeting a recruiting class of 2021 commitments that ranked No. 2 in the nation last May, even though the average rank of the recruit was comparable to previous seasons. The UT 2021 signing class ultimately finished 15th in the nation — down from No. 10 in 2020.
The Vols entered the 2020 campaign riding a six-game win streak and appeared to gain momentum after former Georgia offensive line starter Cade Mays was granted eligibility.
Mays’ attorney, in what now appears a twist of irony, said he left the Bulldogs’ program because of a supposed “toxic environment.
Tennessee had won eight in a row when it arrived in Athens to face the Bulldogs in an Oct. 10 showdown.
Georgia won its fourth straight in the rivalry, derailing the Big Orange program and sending the program into a spin with a 44-21 victory.
Pruitt took the loss hard and let his players know it, according to sources in the football program, essentially “losing the team” with his harsh criticisms behind closed doors.
Tennessee suffered a stunning 34-7 home loss to Kentucky the following week, part of a six-game losing streak.
The Vols didn’t win again until facing a hapless Vanderbilt program that had canceled on UGA the prior week.
Pruitt’s final win was a 42-17 victory over a Commodores’ team that had already fired its head coach, Derek Mason.
Tennessee hired former Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele last week, assigning him a vague defensive assistant title. It was a conspicuous move at the time considering the school was in what was referred to as a “hiring freeze.”
In hindsight, it was a preemptive move in the event Pruitt would need to be relieved of his duties.
Steele, who played at Tennessee, was one of three finalists for the head coaching position along with Mel Tucker when Fulmer hired Pruitt on Dec. 7, 2017
Steele will serve as the Vols’ interim head coach indefinitely.
“Our first action is to hire an athletic director, and that person will, in conversations with a number of us, began that process (of hiring the next head football coach),” Plowman said.
“As disappointed as we are, we’re determined to get this right.”
Georgia will play at least four programs next year with first-year coaches: Tennessee, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Auburn.
Pruitt served as Georgia’s defensive coordinator during the 2014 and 2015 seasons and worked alongside Smart on Nick Saban’s Alabama football staff 2007-12.
Former UGA quarterback Aaron Murray was critical of the Pruitt hire from the onset.
“I don’t know if his personality is fit to be a head coach. I don’t,” Murray told Knoxville radio station 102.5 The Game in 2018 “As a head coach, there’s so many things that go into it. It’s not just going out there and coaching. You have to deal with front office. You’ve got to go talk with the president of the university. You have to deal with boosters. You have to deal with the offense, the defense. It’s not just going in there and dealing with the kids and scheming up. There’s a lot that goes into it.”