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Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt Disaster Hits a New Low Point

Upon near-final review, how does the Great Populist Revolt of 2017 look now, Tennessee fans?

How successful was the vigilante charge to “take back our program,” resulting in the hiring of an empty suit athletic director and a dim bulb coach who not only lost, but cheated with abandon?

How does it feel, nearly five years later, to know that you greased the skids for what now definitively can be called the worst football hire of the 21st century in the Southeastern Conference? At least Chad Morris just lost; he didn’t leave Arkansas facing major sanctions, too.

Go paint it on your rock: “We Blew It With Pruitt.”

Tennessee fired Pruitt in January 2021 amid an investigation.

Randy Sartin/USA TODAY Sports

The final bill is coming due on the fan tantrum that led to the firing of AD John Currie, the hiring of Phillip Fulmer to replace him, and the subsequent decision to bring aboard Jeremy Pruitt as the football coach. And the cost keeps going up. The bottom line: a 16–19 record (which will get worse after the Vols vacate victories) and a whopping 18 NCAA Level I violations levied in a notice of allegations that was delivered Friday.

Good job, good effort. You listen to a fanboy media grifter’s bright ideas on how to run a football program, this is where it leads you nearly five years later.

You disrupted the attempted hire of Greg Schiano, trumping up a dishonest moral outrage. The real issue was whether Schiano could win in the SEC, not what he knew or didn’t know about the monster Jerry Sandusky while on staff at Penn State. You get your way, which only adds to the power trip.

You push for Currie’s ouster when he’s on the cusp of landing Mike Leach from Washington State, with Fulmer positioned to benefit from a second Rocky Top palace coup. A comfort hire with nothing to recommend himself for the AD job other than being a beloved former coach and player, Fulmer called the oldest play in the SEC playbook—hiring someone off Nick Saban’s staff. Except Fulmer found the one who couldn’t win.

Pruitt was a rube who was pulled along in the Saban–Kirby Smart jet stream and unprepared to be a head coach. He lost 12 of his first 16 games—couldn’t beat Georgia State, let alone Georgia—before briefly righting the ship in the latter half of the 2019 season. Then came the pandemic, and the cheating spree, and doesn’t everyone feel high and mighty now?

The NCAA did its civic duty, man. And Tennessee did its own due diligence, uncovering many of the issues itself—motivated more by parsimony than integrity, perhaps, trying to avoid a costly buyout. And if the charges become sanctions—highly likely, since Sports Illustrated reported that Tennessee does not intend to dispute them—this almost certainly spells the end of Pruitt’s college coaching career. The show-cause penalty will stretch from here nearly to eternity.

Pruitt didn’t just fail to monitor a rogue assistant coach or a stray bag man. He allegedly was the bag man in at least a couple of instances, doling out $6,000 to one player’s mom and $3,000 to another. And his wife allegedly dropped a bag or two as well. Assistants and other staffers were nailed. This was coordinated and orchestrated, right down to the last free fast-food bag.

The only thing Pruitt wasn’t charged with was idiotically wearing his COVID-19 mask over his ears instead of his mouth during games in 2020. He did incur an SEC fine for that.

More galling than the distribution of cash was the complete flouting of the NCAA-mandated COVID-19 recruiting dead period. Tennessee orchestrated a recruiting push to gain a competitive advantage at a time when a lot of people were simply trying to stay out of the hospital or the morgue. The NCAA took an especially dim view of cheating during that time, with vice president of enforcement Jon Duncan publicly putting out a word of warning early in the pandemic that it was hearing about impermissible campus and home visits.

That admonishment seems to have been completely ignored in Knoxville. A competitive advantage was indeed gained in the spring of 2020, with Tennessee shooting up the class of ’21 recruiting rankings to as high as No. 2 in May of that year, according to 247 Sports. From a 247 story at the time: “Tennessee has received 11 commitments since the ongoing dead period for recruiting started on March 13.” Well, now we know why.

We also know what happened thereafter: Pruitt’s program fell apart on the field in the fall, he was fired in January as an internal investigation got underway, and that recruiting class lost a lot of its top commitments along the way to signing day. Now the full damage of the Pruitt hire is being felt.

But here is where Tennessee could get lucky in this entire fiasco: NCAA membership is signaling that it wants out of the postseason ban business. Among the changes that appear to be forthcoming from the NCAA transformation committee is the infractions penalty structure, with an emphasis on avoiding penalizing athletes who were not at a school when violations occurred. The postseason ban, both the most punitive sanction and most effective deterrent to further cheating, might be off the table here.

In the recent past, Tennessee could easily have been looking at a multiyear bowl ban. That theoretically would be for the 2023 and ’24 seasons, which would be a devastating blow to Josh Heupel’s rising program. Instead, the Volunteers could be looking at a major financial penalty and perhaps further scholarship reductions and recruiting sanctions, in addition to what the school self-imposed last year.

That new NCAA approach, combined with the school’s aggressive internal investigation, could spare Tennessee yet another football setback. (For the legion of cynics who say with some justification that it’s best not to cooperate with an NCAA inquiry, here is the opposite philosophy paying dividends.) But whatever sanctions come from this will still leave a mark.

Since being fired and spending last year as an assistant in the NFL on a staff that also was terminated, Pruitt has pretty much disappeared. It would be nice to hear from him on one point: Was this recruiting scandal just a sloppier version of what Pruitt learned while working for Saban and Smart?

In other words: Is this the kind of thing Texas A&M coach and former Saban assistant Jimbo Fisher had in mind when he challenged reporters in May to “dig into how God did his deal”?

“God” was Saban, of course. Fisher was going back at his former boss—hard—in response to Saban saying that A&M “bought every player on their team” via recruiting inducements disguised as name, image and likeness deals.

“We build him up to be the czar of football,” Fisher ranted. "Go dig into his past or anybody who’s ever coached with him. You can find out anything you want to find out … what he does and how he does it.”

Fisher raised the questions and then shrank from offering specifics, as he and Saban and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey worked strenuously to make the shocking crossfire disappear. Two months later, we get the details on how a former Saban assistant and his staff allegedly broke NCAA rules with impunity.

Maybe he learned it in Tuscaloosa. Or maybe he’s just a unique simpleton hired by a flagrantly unqualified athletic director, the result of a truly absurd moment in Tennessee football history. Either way, losses plus probation give Jeremy Pruitt his one claim to fame: He’s the worst SEC hire of the 21st century.

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