Tennessee firing football coach Jeremy Pruitt after internal investigation

Tennessee is firing football head coach Jeremy Pruitt following a weekslong investigation into potential recruiting violations within the program.

In a notice of intent to terminate letter sent to Pruitt by Tennessee officials on Monday, the university concluded that "the conduct by at least two assistant coaches and several recruiting staff members are likely to lead to an NCAA finding of Level I and/or Level II violations of one or more Governing Athletic Rules. The University also has concluded that these likely findings were the result of either your material neglect or lack of reasonable preventive compliance measures."

A copy of the letter, which was obtained by ESPN, states Pruitt is being suspended with pay before the university intends to officially terminate his contract at 5 p.m. ET on Tuesday.

The school said in a statement it also has issued termination letters to assistant coaches Brian Niedermeyer and Shelton Felton, four members of the on-campus football recruiting staff, the director and assistant director of football player personnel and a football analyst/quality control coach.

Additionally, Phillip Fulmer, a Hall of Fame football coach, plans to retire after leading the athletic department for more than three years. UT chancellor Donde Plowman said Fulmer's retirement is independent of and unrelated to the investigation.

"While the investigation is continuing, the information presented to us indicates serious violations of NCAA rules, they occurred and that these serious infractions warrant immediate action," Plowman said later Monday. "While I would like today to lay out the entirety of what has been shared with us, the fact is I cannot while the investigation continues. When we can do so, without compromising the investigation and without violating NCAA bylaws, we will do that.

"For now, I can tell you this: The information provided today indicates a significant number of serious NCAA rules violations. While we have no choice but to continue to ask for your patience while both the University and NCAA investigate, the personnel actions we are announcing today are an indication of the gravity of what we have discovered.

"What's astonishing is the number of violations and their efforts to conceal the wrongdoing."

Plowman said Pruitt will be fired with cause, meaning no buyout. If he were fired without it, he would have been owed a little over $12 million, or 60% of the remaining money on his deal.

Just prior to the 2020 season, Tennessee announced it had rewarded Pruitt with an extension and a raise, taking his contract through the 2025 season. Pruitt was set to earn $4.2 million annually starting in 2021. Fulmer said at the time that they were close to finalizing the extension earlier last year before the coronavirus pandemic hit and that Pruitt elected not to accept the raise in the first year of the new deal.

Pruitt was scheduled to receive a $200,000 retention bonus on Feb. 15.

Pruitt has retained Michael Lyons and the Dallas-based trial firm Lyons & Simmons to represent him and plans to fight the university's decision to fire him for cause. Lyons accused the university of trying to disparage and destroy Pruitt's character in an effort to keep from paying Pruitt what the university owes him.

In a statement provided to ESPN, Lyons called the decision to fire Pruitt a "culmination of an orchestrated effort to renege on contractual promises made to Coach Pruitt upon his hiring in 2017 and reiterated less than five months ago."

Lyons also said in his statement that Plowman "personally confirmed during an in-person meeting with Pruitt (Monday morning) that: (1) the University's investigation had yet to have been completed; (2) the Chancellor had not yet read Coach Pruitt's NCAA interview transcript; and (3) there was no evidence that Coach Pruitt was either actively involved in any alleged violations or knew they were occurring. She further confirmed to Coach Pruitt that no employment decision had been made. Less than three hours later, however, Coach Pruitt was e-mailed a five-page, single-spaced letter of termination -- the contents of which were immediately leaked to the public."

Lyons ended the statement by saying Pruitt and his family are thankful for and will always cherish their time with the university and that Pruitt is "most thankful for and appreciative of the outstanding young men he was able to coach and mentor" and also wished the "remarkable fans that support them" nothing but success.

Pruitt's exit comes on the heels of Tennessee launching an in-house investigation, dating to November, into alleged recruiting improprieties that sources told ESPN centered in part on extra benefits provided to football recruits on unofficial visits. Pruitt, with his attorneys present, met with investigators for several hours on Thursday. That meeting was monitored by NCAA officials via Zoom. At least one other assistant, Niedermeyer, had a lengthy meeting with investigators on Wednesday, also with his attorneys present and NCAA officials monitoring virtually.

The university last month announced it had retained the services of attorneys Michael Glazier and Kyle Skillman with the Bond, Schoeneck & King law firm to assist in reviewing what the university said in a statement were "regulatory issues that have been brought to our attention." The Bond, Schoeneck & King firm has an office based in Kansas City dedicated to collegiate sports that is chaired by Glazier, a former NCAA investigator who now serves as a consultant for schools facing NCAA compliance issues. Glazier and his colleagues have been on Tennessee's campus since November interviewing assistant coaches, players and recruiting staffers.

Sources told ESPN that Tennessee's recruitment of Amarius Mims, the No. 3 offensive tackle and No. 19 player overall in the 2021 ESPN 300 rankings, is part of the inquiry. Mims signed with Georgia.

The Volunteers turned to Fulmer after removing John Currie from the AD role in December 2017. Fulmer coached the Volunteers from 1992 to 2008, going 152-52 overall and leading Tennessee to the 1998 national title. He had been working as a special adviser for community, athletics and university relations before taking over as AD.

Fulmer said he always expected to move on from athletics sooner than later and that the timing makes sense now so a new athletic director and coach can work together. Fulmer also said he thinks the program went from "quite a mess'' to having "lots of good things'' that have happened.

"This is very unfortunate in the sense that we're going to have to work really hard to keep it from setting us back,'' Fulmer said.

Tennessee is retaining Parker Executive Search to help hire a new athletic director. Plowman said the new AD will hire the new coach.

"We're looking for someone who is a strong leader, who has principles and values, who also has experience in hiring coaches, and who can help us look to the future,'' Plowman said. "We've got a great future here. As disappointed as we are, we're determined to get this right.''

Last week, Tennessee hired former Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele as a defensive assistant. A former head coach at Baylor, Steele will serve as acting coach until a successor is hired, and sources told ESPN he also would be considered for the permanent job. Steele played at Tennessee and started his coaching career in Knoxville, both under the late Johnny Majors. Steele was a finalist for the Tennessee head-coaching job when Pruitt was hired.

The Vols finished 3-7 this past season and lost seven of their final eight games. All seven of their losses were by double digits.

Pruitt was 16-19 overall at Tennessee and 10-16 against SEC opponents. The Vols were 2-11 against AP-ranked opponents under Pruitt, who was in his first stint as a head coach. He was previously the defensive coordinator at Alabama under Nick Saban.

The direction of Tennessee's program turned swiftly under Pruitt, who guided the Vols to six straight wins to close the 2019 season, including a win over Indiana in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. Tennessee ran its winning streak to eight in a row with two wins to open the 2020 season. But from that point on, the Vols' only victory came over winless Vanderbilt.

In particular, Tennessee struggled at the quarterback position and played four different QBs who combined for 14 touchdown passes and nine interceptions this past season. The Vols were last in the SEC and 119th nationally in third-down conversions (30.2%). They also had their problems on defense, ranking 105th nationally in plays of 10 yards or longer allowed (160).

Pruitt's replacement will be Tennessee's sixth different head coach, going back to Fulmer, who was fired at the end of the 2008 season. Fulmer took over as Tennessee's athletic director on Dec. 1, 2017.

Pruitt's exit marks the fourth head-coaching change this season in the SEC, joining Gus Malzahn at Auburn, Derek Mason at Vanderbilt and Will Muschamp at South Carolina.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.