Former Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt, his wife and several members of his football staff provided about $60,000 of impermissible benefits and recruiting inducements to more than two dozen recruits and their families over a three-year period, according to a notice of allegations from the NCAA, a copy of which was obtained by Sports Illustrated through a public records request.
The 51-page document sent to the school Friday outlines 18 separate allegations of blatant recruiting misconduct from Pruitt and his staff transpiring as early as September 2018, his 10th month on the job, and extending through the COVID-19 recruiting dead period of 2020. All of the allegations are Level I, considered the most egregious on the NCAA’s infractions scale.
In the most serious of allegations, Pruitt and his staff hosted at least six prospects and their families on nine weekend unofficial visits during the yearlong dead period, providing them with lodging, meals, transportation, household goods and even furniture that totaled $12,000. Pruitt himself is charged with having made cash payments of $3,000 and $6,000 to two prospects’ mothers, the first used to assist in medical bills and the other for a downpayment on a vehicle.
In all, Pruitt and seven staff members are charged with having committed violations, all of whom were fired in January 2021 after an internal university investigation uncovered alleged wrongdoing. The list includes defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley, outside linebackers coach Shelton Felton, inside linebackers coach Brian Niedermeyer, director of player personnel Drew Hughes, director of recruiting Bethany Gunn, assistant director of recruiting Chantryce Boone and a student assistant whose name is redacted from the report.
The ninth person charged with violations, Pruitt’s wife Casey, allegedly made cash payments of at least $13,000 to recruits and their families. Casey once worked in NCAA rules compliance at Troy University, her alma mater, and Florida State.
As many as 12 UT athletes who received improper benefits competed in more than 60 games, the document says. Those athletes played while “ineligible,” the NCAA says. The number of players and games is not clear because of redactions.
Despite the 18 Level I violations—one of the highest totals in recent years considering LSU received eight Level 1s in March—the university was not hit with the “lack of institutional control,” largely because of its transparency and integrity in promptly handling the wrongdoing, NCAA documents say. The institution showed strong cooperation with NCAA investigators, conducted its own thorough internal investigation and took immediate steps in dismissing the staff members and sanctioning itself. The university docked itself 12 football scholarships last season, as well as imposing several more recruiting penalties, sources tell SI.
“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 athletic director Danny White said in a statement Friday. “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.”
UT’s internal investigation included more than 100 interviews. Former NCAA investigator Michael Glazier and the law firm of Bond, Schoeneck & King assisted in the probe.
The NCAA’s 18-month investigation wraps up at an interesting time within the college sports industry. While the NCAA is transforming in a number of ways, including an overhaul to the infractions process, athletes are being compensated through name, image and likeness deals that, in many ways, are providing similar benefits to those listed in the notice of allegations. Tennessee has one of the largest and most ambitious booster-led collectives in the country, though the school is not affiliated with it.
Tennessee’s investigation, cooperation and response, led White and his new staff, should be “the standard” in such inquiries, NCAA documents say. White took over for the retiring Phillip Fulmer in January 2021, days after Pruitt and staff were fired. One of his first actions was hiring Josh Heupel from Central Florida. Heupel won seven games in his first year and signed the 18th-best class in the country. The Vols’ 2023 class is currently ranked seventh.
Tennessee has 90 days to respond to the allegations and is not expected to contest the charges. Given UT’s own response, plus the NCAA’s overhauled infractions process, the university is in a strong position to potentially evade the harshest sanctions.
The NCAA is in the final stages of adopting an infractions policy overhaul with a penalty structure that focuses less on postseason bans. The intent is to avoid penalties that would affect players who were not at the school when the violations occurred, with sanctions focused more on those specifically at fault, such as coaches.
According to the NCAA’s new penalty structure, Pruitt is at risk of having sanctions follow him to other jobs, if he ever receives another one in college sports. The NCAA holds him primarily responsible for the alleged violations, stating he did not demonstrate and promote an atmosphere of compliance and failed to properly monitor his staff.
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Nine of the 18 allegations involve Tennessee coaches or staff members providing extra benefits to recruits and their families, much of it during unofficial visits to campus. Seven of the allegations separately charge each staff member with a violation of the NCAA’s “ethical conduct,” three of whom (Gunn, Niedermeyer and Felton) gave false or misleading information to university and NCAA investigators, documents say.
The final two allegations charge Pruitt failed to fulfill his head-coach responsibility duties and the university with a failure to monitor its football program. Neither Fulmer, or any other athletic administrator during the time of the alleged wrongdoing, was named in the report. Fulmer hired Pruitt.
Pruitt and his wife were hands-on, paying recruits and their families more than $25,000 in cash combined, according to the allegations. Casey Pruitt also arranged for representatives to give a recruit’s mother a tour of rental homes in the Knoxville area and provided $1,600 to one prospect for a security deposit and first month’s rent. She also paid $12,000 in rent payments to a prospect or his family. Staff members, including Jeremy Pruitt, paid seven current football players $1,300 to host prospects during the dead period.
During the COVID-19 recruiting dead period, NCAA vice president for enforcement Jon Duncan issued a warning to schools that recruiting during that time would be aggressively investigated. He followed up with a statement nine months later that said in part, “enforcement understands the significance of these behaviors, and we’re addressing them actively to ensure fairness for schools that are playing by the rules.”
For Pruitt and staff, extra benefits went well beyond cash—they paid for hotel rooms, some of them at the Crown Plaza in Knoxville, airline tickets, dozens of meals and more. In one allegation, coaches delivered $500 in university apparel to prospects while under the cover of a parking garage. In another, the staff paid $225 in nail salon treatments for families. During one unofficial visit, coaches took prospects and family members on a fishing trip that included a meal from Knoxville’s famous Calhoun’s restaurant and coaches spending $175 on a meal for a prospect’s family at Dead End BBQ.
On at least two occasions, the staff spent $225 at McDonald’s for prospects and their families, though the fast-food bags included only food and not cash, as was erroneously reported by TV and radio host Dan Patrick. Staff members also bought Chick-fil-A breakfasts for recruits.
During his three years in Knoxville, Pruitt was heralded as an elite recruiter, having worked under the best—Nick Saban at Alabama and Kirby Smart at Georgia. His two full signing classes in 2019 and 2020 ranked 13th and 11th nationally. However, the Volunteers went just 16–19 in his three seasons, winning only three games his final year. The school fired him for cause, refusing to pay his $12.6 million buyout. Pruitt’s attorney, Michael Lyons, threatened a lawsuit if the school didn’t reach a settlement with his client. Thus far, no suit is known to have been filed.
Pruitt is now believed to be out of coaching after a one-year stint on the New York Giants coaching staff. Pruitt and other staff members were dismissed when the Giants fired head coach Joe Judge this past January.
None of the other staff members listed in the NCAA document are believed to be in the college ranks. Ansley, who spent two stints under Saban at Alabama, is now the defensive backs coach for the Los Angeles Chargers. Hughes is the player personnel director for the Jaguars. Felton is coach at Valdosta High School in Georgia, and Niedermeyer is the defensive coordinator at IMG Academy in Florida. Gunn and Boone’s employment status is not clear.
The allegations come 11 years after an NCAA investigation found serious enough violations by basketball coach Bruce Pearl that the school fired him. He received a three-year show-cause penalty. In the same investigation, then-coach Lane Kiffin and staff were found to have committed 12 secondary violations over 10 months. The school self-imposed probation and recruiting sanctions in basketball and football.
Pearl and Kiffin are both back in the SEC. Pearl is at Auburn and Kiffin is at Ole Miss.
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