The University of Tennessee disputed the NCAA’s finding that it failed to monitor the football program while recruiting violations were committed under fired coach Jeremy Pruitt.
Instead, the university said Pruitt, his wife and his staff knowingly concealed their malfeasance despite UT’s best efforts to follow NCAA rules in monitoring the football program. That was UT’s only major dispute in responding to the NCAA notice of allegations.
Knox News obtained the university’s 108-page response to the NCAA on Thursday morning.
In the document, UT had minor disputes with five of the 18 Level 1 violations that the NCAA found during its investigation. Otherwise, it agreed generally that rules were broken and that almost $60,000 of cash or gifts were provided to players and their families by Pruitt, his wife and numerous coaches, recruiting staff and at least one booster.
But UT argued that it was not guilty of the 18th violation − the most serious against the institution, failure to monitor the football program.
“Despite the University’s monitoring efforts, athletics administrators and athletics compliance staffmembers were repeatedly deceived by the football program,” UT said in the response to the NCAA. “The University respectfully submits that it is unrealistic to expect an institution to prevent, or immediately detect, the intentional and concealed misconduct that occurred in this case.”
The NCAA alleged the Level 1 violations − the most serious in its four-tier system − were committed by Jeremy and wife Casey Pruitt; assistant coaches Derrick Ansley, Shelton Felton and Brian Niedermeyer; recruiting staff members Drew Hughes, Bethany Gunn and Chantryce Boone; and an unnamed booster from 2018-21.
Tennessee says it did its best to prevent violations
UT argued those individuals knew what they were doing was wrong and intentionally kept the university in the dark.
“The factual information in this case demonstrates that experienced football coaches and non-coaching staff members knowingly violated longstanding and universally understood NCAA rules and wentto considerable lengths to conceal their misconduct,” UT said in its response. “The record also supports that the University monitored football recruiting visits in accordance with industry standards.
“As part of the University’s monitoring efforts, athletics administration and athletics compliance staff maintained a physical presence in and around the football program (including embedding an experienced compliance staff member in the program).”
In its response, Tennessee cites far-from-drastic penalties handed down by the Committee on Infractions to LSU in September. The NCAA accepted LSU’s self-imposed penalties including a $5,000 fine, a limit on official recruiting visits, a one-week ban on unofficial visits and recruiting communications in the football program and loss of seven recruiting evaluation days. The NCAA also ordered one year probation on the school and ordered a three-year show-cause on a former LSU assistant coach, neither of which were self-imposed by the school.
LSU was cited for ignoring a recruiting dead period instated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tennessee argues that since the committee on infractions did not significantly increase penalties due to aggravating factors in that case, citing LSU’s cooperation, it should treat UT similarly.
“Despite the University’s best efforts, multiple members of the football staff, including (Jeremy) Pruitt, disregarded” the compliance office’s efforts to keep recruiting within NCAA guidelines, the school said in its response.
In July, the NCAA delivered the notice of 18 Level 1 violations. UT and the people named in the report had until late October to respond to the allegations, but the NCAA granted a 30-day extension to that deadline.
The NCAA enforcement staff now has 60 days to reply to these responses. So the next phase of the case could come as late as January.
Player’s mom paid in Chick-fil-A bag not McDonald’s
Some new details included in UT’s response were not mentioned in the NCAA notice of allegations.
Pruitt used a Chick-fil-A bag to give several hundred dollars to the mother of a UT player after she approached him in late 2020, according to the report. He received a phone call from the mother and met her outside the football facility on campus, where she asked him for money.
Pruitt went to his car, where he had cash, and gave her either $300 or $400 in a Chick-fil-A bag because “it was the human thing, the right thing to do,” Pruitt told investigators during a March 7, 2022 interview. His statement in that regard is the lone proof for the cash payment, according to the document.
The notion of money being given in a fast-food bag was linked to the Tennessee football violations when Dan Patrick reported on Jan. 19, 2021, that money changed hands in McDonald’s bags. The notice of allegations did not reference McDonald’s bags, but did reference $225 worth of McDonald’s food being provided from March 30-April 1, 2019, as an impermissible benefit for a recruit and his mother.
Pruitt babysitter added to investigation
Also add the Pruitts’ babysitter to the alleged culprits in the case.
According to UT, Jeremy Pruitt paid $6,000 to a recruit’s mother for a down payment on a 2017 Nissan Armada. He promised the payment during a recruiting visit in fall 2018 and paid the $6,000 on Dec. 26, 2018.
The player’s mother, whose name is redacted from the report, told investigators that Pruitt told her to “pick whatever I want and he’ll make the payment.” Investigators confirmed it through the car dealership.
That’s where the babysitter came in.
The recruit enrolled at UT to play football. And from Jan. 28, 2019 to March 26, 2021, Pruitt paid 25 monthly payments of $500 for the car. The last two payments came after UT fired Pruitt in January 2021.
The player’s mother told investigators that she received the money from Casey Pruitt or Pruitt’s babysitter at Pruitt’s home. Also, Casey Pruitt occasionally delivered the money to her residence. Those car payments represented a large portion of the inducements and impermissible benefits paid to UT players and recruits, the NCAA report found.
It also alleged that Casey Pruitt provided $3,000 in cash rent payments for an unnamed UT player and his mother from September 2018 to March 2021. The gifts began during the prospect’s recruitment and continued after he enrolled and played for the Vols.
In a separate violation, the NCAA says Casey Pruitt arranged for a real estate agent to meet with a recruit’s family. Casey Pruitt’s involvement in the allegations was eye-opening. Before marrying Jeremy, she worked in NCAA compliance at Troy University, Florida State and Oklahoma.
What’s happened for Vols under Josh Heupel since investigation
The ongoing NCAA case from the Pruitt era is quite a contrast to the current UT football team under Josh Heupel, which is amid one of its best seasons since a 1998 national title run. The Vols have a 9-2 record and ranked No. 10 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
If UT beats Vanderbilt on Saturday, it will post a 10-win season for the first time since 2007 and remain in contention for a New Year’s Six bowl.
UT football has transformed dramatically in the 18 months since UT Chancellor Donde Plowman announced an internal investigation, fired Pruitt for cause, cleaned house in the football program and accepted athletics director Phillip Fulmer’s retirement.
Plowman hired athletics director Danny White, who tabbed Heupel as football coach. In 2021, Heupel won the Steve Spurrier Award as the top first-year coach in college football with a roster that underwent self-imposed scholarship cuts.
This year’s Tennessee team has exceeded expectations. Quarterback Hendon Hooker is a Heisman Trophy candidate. Wide receiver Jalin Hyatt is a frontrunner for the Biletnikoff Award. Heupel is an SEC coach of the year candidate. And the Vols have the No. 1-ranked offense in college football, built largely on players left from Pruitt’s era.
But the NCAA case still lingers. And now comes the next step. UT has been active in building its case.
The university paid $143,722 in legal fees to the firm Bond, Schoeneck & King from June to August, according to university records provided to Knox News. That represented its largest quarterly legal expense in a year. Invoices for September and October are not yet available.
Lawyers for UT traveled to Indianapolis, the site of NCAA headquarters, on July 12 and Aug. 9.
From the beginning, the university took steps to assist the NCAA and perhaps mitigate penalties.
UT self-reported infractions, conducted an internal investigation with high-powered lawyers, spent about $1.4 million in legal fees over the course of the entirety investigation, dug up new violations that NCAA investigators had not discovered and fired Pruitt for cause, along with additional coaches and recruiting staff members alleged to have committed violations.
“These actions by (UT) led to the fully-formed record that would not be possible without the significant actions taken by the institution,” the NCAA said in its notice of allegations to UT.
Reach Adam Sparks at [email protected] and on Twitter @AdamSparks.