The NCAA has charged Tennessee's football program with 18 Level I alleged rules violations, the most severe under its rules, for impermissible recruiting benefits totaling about $60,000 that were paid to prospects, players and their families under former coach Jeremy Pruitt.
Among other allegations, Pruitt is accused of providing about $9,000 to the mothers of two prospects. His wife, Casey, is accused of making 25 cash payments totaling about $12,500 to help a prospect's mother make her car payment.
Tennessee, which fired Pruitt in January 2021 after its internal investigation into the allegations, is not charged with lack of institutional control because of its cooperation with NCAA investigators and its integrity in handling the misconduct, the NCAA said in a notice of allegations that was sent to the university on Friday. Avoiding a lack of institutional control charge is a positive sign for Tennessee that it may avoid the most serious of penalties by the NCAA.
Sources told ESPN that Tennessee had already self-imposed 12 scholarship reductions last year as well as other recruiting restrictions. The school also made the decision not to self-impose a bowl ban last year because it didn't want to penalize current coaches, staff members or players in the program who had nothing to do with the allegations.
"In every step of this process, we took quick and decisive actions that exemplified the longstanding values of the NCAA reiterated in the membership's new constitution," Tennessee chancellor Donde Plowman said in a statement. "The university hired outside counsel to fully investigate allegations about the football program, acted promptly to terminate the employment of football coaches and staff members, and shared our conclusions with the NCAA enforcement staff."
The university retained former NCAA investigator Michael Glazier and the Bond, Schoeneck & King law firm to assist in the university's internal investigation and paid $1.1 million to the firm, which conducted interviews from November 2020 through February 2022. Pruitt's buyout was $12.6 million, but the university fired him for cause and has said it has no plans to pay the buyout.
Pruitt issued a response to ESPN about the allegations later Friday, saying: "A lot of this information in the NCAA's report, I'm seeing for the first time and still reading through it. I'd rather not comment a whole lot past that, other than to say that I'm looking forward to telling my side of the story somewhere down the road."
The NCAA also charged Tennessee with failure to "adequately monitor its football program's arrangement of unofficial visits and to ensure compliance with NCAA recruiting legislation."
In its report, the NCAA said that as many as 12 Tennessee athletes who received impermissible benefits competed in more than 60 games, and those athletes, according to the NCAA, were "ineligible."
The NCAA charged Pruitt with failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance and failure to monitor his staff. Pruitt is also charged with violating NCAA principles of ethical conduct when "he knowingly arranged, offered and provided prospective and enrolled student-athletes and their family members or individuals associated with prospective student-athletes with improper inducements and extra benefits in the form of impermissible entertainment and cash payments to numerous individuals," the notice said.
"Pruitt did not demonstrate that he monitored his staff or promoted an atmosphere of compliance within the football program when at least a dozen of his staff members were involved in more than 200 individual violations of NCAA legislation over a two-year time period as detailed in Allegation Nos. 1 through 9," the notice of allegations said. "As evidenced by the number of staff members involved and the nature of the violations, J. Pruitt failed to demonstrate that compliance was a shared responsibility or establish clear expectations that all coaches and staff members comply with NCAA rules and failed to establish a program that includes immediate reporting of actual and potential issues to the compliance staff."
The NCAA accused Pruitt and his staff of hosting six recruits and their families during a yearlong dead period, in which programs weren't allowed to have on-campus recruiting activity because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The NCAA said the Volunteers hosted the prospects on unofficial visits on nine weekends between July 2020 and November 2020, in which prospects were given free lodging, meals, transportation and other benefits that totaled $12,000.
Among the benefits allegedly provided to prospects were nail salon treatments and a trip on the Tennessee River on a student-athlete's boat.
The NCAA said Casey Pruitt, the coach's wife, and/or (former assistant) Brian Niedermeyer also provided $3,200 for someone to pay a security deposit and initial rent payment to relocate to Knoxville, Tennessee. The person's name was redacted in the notice of allegations sent to ESPN by the university. Casey Pruitt previously worked in the compliance departments at Troy, Oklahoma and Florida State, where she and Jeremy Pruitt met when Pruitt was the Seminoles' defensive coordinator in 2013.
Sources told ESPN that the NCAA, keeping in line with new recommendations from the Division I Council's transformation committee, utilized one of those measures in investigating Tennessee's case, in particular incentivizing parties to "secure cooperation from representatives, family members and others with relevant information." In the past, some family members and players have been granted immunity in return for their cooperation with the NCAA.
"Receipt of our Notice of Allegations was an expected, requisite step in this process-a process our university initiated proactively through decisive and transparent actions," Tennessee athletics director Danny White said in a statement. "This moves us one step closer to a final resolution. Until we get to that point, I am unable to discuss the case in any detail. As a university, we understand the need to take responsibility for what occurred, but we remain committed to protecting our current and future student-athletes."
White was hired as athletic director on Jan. 21, 2021, just three days after the university announced that Phillip Fulmer was stepping down as AD and Pruitt was being fired for cause. White hired Josh Heupel, who's entering his second season as the Vols' coach.
Despite the large number of Level I violations, the NCAA enforcement staff chose not to charge the university with lack of institutional control and even commended the Volunteers for their cooperation during the investigation.
"The actions taken by the institution during the investigation should be the standard for any institutional inquiries into potential violations," the notice of allegations said. "Throughout the investigation the institution exhibited exemplary cooperation in multiple ways. Once the institution's chancellor was alerted to allegations of potential violations within the football program, the institution took swift action to investigate the allegations and substantiated various violations."
Tennessee and everyone named in the report, including Pruitt, have 90 days to respond to the notice of allegations. The NCAA enforcement staff then has 60 days to reply. A source told ESPN that the case isn't expected to be fully adjudicated until sometime in 2023.
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. Pruitt worked as a senior defensive analyst for the New York Giants in 2021.