KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The NCAA fined Tennessee more than $8 million on Friday and issued a scathing report outlining more than 200 infractions during the three-year tenure of former football coach Jeremy Pruitt. The Volunteers escaped a postseason ban.
The sprawling report over 80 pages long said Tennessee committed 18 Level I violations, the most severe, and said most involved recruiting infractions and direct payments to athletes and their families — benefits that totaled approximately $60,000.
Kay Norton, head of the panel that ruled on Tennessee, called the violations “egregious and expansive.”
“It’s one of the largest cases this committee has ever adjudicated,” she said.
The NCAA praised Tennessee for its cooperation and the Vols escaped the postseason ban, but the infractions panel noted that decision was a difficult one given the circumstances.
“The panel encountered a challenging set of circumstances related to prescribing penalties in this case,” it said in its decision. “The panel urges the Infractions Process Committee and the membership to clearly define its philosophy regarding penalties — which extends beyond postseason bans — and memorialize that philosophy in an updated set of penalty guidelines.”
Four former staffers were given show-cause orders, including one spanning six years for Pruitt, who was fired in early 2021.
The NCAA report said the school failed to monitor its football program. “Additionally, due to his personal involvement in the violations, the former head coach violated head coach responsibility rules,” according to the document.
University of Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman said the school recognized the seriousness of the wrongdoing and resolved the case with integrity.
“Most critically, the Committee did not impose a postseason ban, which has been a central principle that we advocate for through this entire process,” she said in a statement.
The NCAA found most of the violations were related to a paid unofficial visit scheme that was used consistently by the football program over two years.
It involved at least a dozen members of the football staff, and the resulting violations included at least 110 impermissible hotel room nights, 180 impermissible meals, 72 instances of providing impermissible entertainment or other benefits, 41 impermissible recruiting contacts, 37 instances of providing impermissible game day parking, and 14 times in which gear was impermissibly provided to prospects, according to the report.
The NCAA also found that Pruitt or his wife were involved in impermissible payments to two prospects who later signed with Tennessee. The mother of one player received $6,000 from Pruitt’s wife as a down payment on a car.
After the mother’s son signed with the Vols, Pruitt’s wife paid the woman $500 each month for car payments at least 25 times. The mother also received $1,600 from Pruitt’s wife for a deposit on a rental home in the Knoxville area.
The mother of a second prospect told Pruitt she needed a medical procedure she could not pay for. The NCAA found Pruitt gave her an envelope with $3,000 for medical bills. Records obtained by Tennessee show the prospect’s mother deposited $5,100 in her bank account two days after a similar amount ($5,000) was withdrawn from the head coach’s bank account.
Also, Pruitt gave the woman $300 to pay for gas.
Both players competed in 23 games while ineligible, the NCAA found.
“During the head coach’s tenure, he and other members of his staff acted with general and blatant disregard for rules compliance,” the NCAA panel said.
The panel also was troubled by a former staff member who stated that she failed to report violations because she feared retaliation and backlash, which “spotlights the toxic culture that existed under the head coach’s leadership,” the report said.
Norton acknowledged that without Tennessee’s cooperation, a postseason ban would have been part of the array of penalties at the committee’s disposal.
“These violations were directly related to recruiting and demonstrated an unwillingness to even pretend to follow the rules,” she said.
The NCAA’s final decision ends a troubling chapter in Vols football, although Pruitt’s dismissal opened the door for Tennessee’s revival under his replacement, Josh Heupel, who’s led the team to an 18-8 record the past three seasons with a win over Southeastern Conference heavyweight Alabama last year.
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