Wiedmer: Were Jeremy Pruitt's alleged NCAA crimes embellished to fit the punishment UT wanted for him?

AP photo by Vasha Hunt / Jeremy Pruitt yells at officials while coaching the Tennessee Volunteers in an SEC football game at Alabama on Oct. 19, 2019.

The words coming from University of Tennessee chancellor Donde Plowman on Jan. 18 regarding potential NCAA violations within the football program could not have been more somber or serious.

"Stunning," she called them.

And "shocking."

And "serious," as in "a significant number of serious violations."

Asked for details about those violations, she added, "Level I and Level II violations. We don't yet know how many."

She also noted in a school release: "What is so disturbing, as demonstrated by the scope of these actions, is the number of violations and people involved and their efforts to conceal their activities from our compliance staff and from the athletic department's leaders. Despite a strong compliance culture in our athletic department, we must look for ways to further strengthen our processes."

Sound like a mess likely to be quickly cleaned up? Or do those words sound much more like a school bracing for the kind of NCAA penalties that arrive with the dreaded "lack of institutional control" charge that often leads to serious scholarship reductions and bowl bans?

Even now retired athletic director Phillip Fulmer, who was supposed to be in charge of the athletic department while all this was going on under Volunteers football coach Jeremy Pruitt - the man Fulmer tabbed for the job on Pearl Harbor Day in 2017 - said of the situation moving forward: "We're going to have to work really hard to keep this from setting us back."

photo Knoxville News Sentinel photo by Brianna Paciorka via AP / Donde Plowman, chancellor of the University of Tennessee, speaks during a Jan. 18 news conference in Knoxville. During the conference, Plowman discussed the school's firing of football coach Jeremy Pruitt, two of his assistants and seven members of the Vols' recruiting and support staff for cause after an internal investigation found what she called "serious violations of NCAA rules."

If all of this was meant to serve as irrefutable evidence the alleged behavior of Pruitt and his staff richly deserved termination without a buyout, which in Pruitt's case alone would have cost more than $12 million, it did its job.

And Plowman made that clear with the following words: "His termination is for cause," she said, pausing briefly, "which means no buyout."

Remember, all of the above words were spoken on Jan. 18, less than two weeks ago. Beyond that, at some point during that news conference, Plowman also noted the investigation was not yet done, particularly the NCAA's portion, because the matter of looking into possible rules violations by Pruitt and his staff had been started by the university itself as far back as November.

But let us move closer to today, to this past Wednesday to be precise, to the news conference in Knoxville at which new athletic director Danny White announced the hiring of Josh Heupel - both of them having come from the University of Central Florida - to lead the Vols.

"I had very frank conversation with every person of leadership about what had transpired, what their knowledge is, what they believe is going to transpire as far as any penalty," Heupel said of the status of the investigation. "I believe that there's a minor speed bump that we're going through, but the kids that are in our program right now and the kids that are being recruited are all going to have an opportunity to go play and chase championships."

Doesn't sound so stunning and shocking and dire now, does it, Big Orange Nation?

But let's not stop there. Let's add White's thoughts from that same conference.

"This is a short-term problem," the AD said. "I say fairly quickly in comparison to some other examples that we've seen historically in college athletics. That doesn't stop us from building our long-term vision now and for starting to build the foundation now while managing what I think our new head football coach called it: a speed bump."

Let's be clear. Level I and Level II violations - there are four such levels in the NCAA, with Level I the worst - are not normally a speed bump. More like a sinkhole, with the road closed. Especially when Plowman volunteered there were a "significant number of serious violations."

photo Knoxville News Sentinel photo by Caitie McLekin via AP / From left, new University of Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel, UT athletic director Danny White, school chancellor Donde Plowman and UT system president Randy Boyd speak after a news conference introducing Heupel this past Wednesday at Neyland Stadium.

So what gives here? Has the Vols' brass, so quick to preach the need for character and integrity throughout this process, practiced anything but? Were the charges made to sound worse in order to usher the largely unpopular Pruitt out the door without paying him his $12 million-plus buyout? Were whatever NCAA crimes allegedly committed by Pruitt and/or his staff made to fit the punishment the UT administration wanted for them?

Moreover, if Kevin Steele - hired as an assistant coach less than a week before Pruitt was fired for a total of $900,000 guaranteed over two years - isn't retained, as seems to be the case, who takes the blame for that? Is that state money? Booster money? Play money? What gives?

Maybe Plowman was always on the up-and-up about the seriousness of these charges, and maybe White is merely trying to keep the fans from jumping off a cliff. After all, the day after Pruitt was fired, respected national radio host Dan Patrick said one of the violations against the Vols was reportedly filling McDonald's bags to recruits with more than Big Macs. Something the color of green, and it wasn't lettuce - which, if true, would be about as serious a Level I wrong as you can commit.

Moreover, nearly two weeks later, no one at UT has exactly refuted that.

But if the NCAA delivers a penalty far closer to a speed bump than closing the Vols' roads to recruits, bowl games and Southeastern Conference football titles for a reasonable period of time, one might also hope Pruitt's attorneys find a way to get at least a decent portion of that $12 million back to him.

Integrity, character and winning the right way - as UT system president Randy Boyd likes to say - cut both ways. And embellishing charges to save paying a buyout to an unpopular football coach is disturbing both in scope and the people involved who are supposed to possess far more integrity and character than those they've just fired.

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.