Jeremy Pruitt was introduced as Tennessee's new football coach in December 2017 on the heels of the most chaotic search in college football history.
Chaotic also describes the past several months for Pruitt, whose three-season tenure with the Volunteers has ended in disgrace.
University Chancellor Donde Plowman announced Pruitt's termination Monday afternoon at a news conference after an internal investigation into the football program revealed "a significant number" of NCAA Level I and Level II violations. Also terminated were outside linebackers coach Shelton Felton, inside linebackers coach Brian Niedermeyer, four members of the on-campus football recruiting staff, the director and assistant director of football player personnel and a quality control coach.
"Coach Pruitt hired and was responsible for monitoring all nine employees that we have issued termination letters to today," Plowman said. "Based upon what we know, it is clear that Coach Pruitt did not adequately promote an atmosphere of compliance and/or monitor the activities of the coaches and the staff who reported to him."
Plowman was made aware of potential violations within Pruitt's program on Nov. 13 from someone she described as "a credible source." Within a week of that notification, Plowman said, the university engaged the outside law firm of Bond, Schoeneck & King, which specializes in NCAA compliance matters, and the investigation became public on Dec. 19.
During Monday's news conference, Plowman sat between athletic director Phillip Fulmer and university President Randy Boyd, who was candid in his disappointment and frustration with Pruitt.
"If you can't win the right way, then you don't belong here," Boyd said. "If there is anyone in our athletics department, in Knoxville or elsewhere, who hasn't heard that message yet, you're hearing it now. If you can't win the right way, you don't belong here."
Pruitt had a turbulent three seasons with the Volunteers that yielded a 16-19 record, including a 3-7 finish this past season against a 10-game schedule consisting solely of Southeastern Conference opposition due to the coronavirus. A 35-12 victory over Missouri on Oct. 3 marked Tennessee's eighth-straight win dating back to the 8-5 team of 2019 that won the Gator Bowl over Indiana, but that was followed by six consecutive double-digit losses, a dubious feat that represented a program first.
Included in that spiral was a 34-7 loss to Kentucky on Oct. 17 at Neyland Stadium, where the Wildcats had not prevailed since 1984, and Pruitt wound up 0-9 against the rivalry trio of Alabama, Florida and Georgia by the average score of 42-16. Plowman and Fulmer did not allow Pruitt the opportunity to address his players face-to-face to inform them of his ousting.
By firing Pruitt with cause, the university says it will not be responsible for his contract buyout of roughly $12 million, though Pruitt could try and fight that.
"None of us, obviously, are pleased to be here under these circumstances," Fulmer said. "We are all deeply disappointed in the individuals who engaged in the behavior described in the report."
Tennessee's coaching recruitment after the 2017 season included public rejections from Dan Mullen, who went from Mississippi State to Florida; Duke's David Cutcliffe; Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy; Purdue's Jeff Brohm; and North Carolina State's Dave Doeren. Former athletic director John Currie endured backlash for trying to hire Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano and was in the process of landing Washington State's Mike Leach when he was fired and replaced by Fulmer.
Fulmer will not be making this hire, however, as he announced Monday that he would step aside as soon as his successor is identified. The Parker Executive search film will assist Tennessee in its athletic director hiring, which Plowman said will precede the naming of Pruitt's replacement.
"I realize many people would prefer we make those hires in the opposite order," she said, "but I hope everyone will accept the judgment that this is the way for us to have the long-term success we all want."
Former Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who was hired as a Tennessee defensive assistant last week, will guide the Vols in the interim.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.
The Tennessee Volunteers are again having to hit the reset button when it comes to reclaiming the stability and success under Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer that yielded five Southeastern Conference football titles and the 1998 national championship. Since the start of Fulmer's final season in 2008, the Vols are 78-82 with a winless record against Alabama and only one triumph versus Florida.
The four coaches who have followed Fulmer have combined for a 72-73 overall record, and Tennessee has lost 37 consecutive matchups against opponents ranked among the Top 10 nationally. With Jeremy Pruitt's firing on Monday, here are the last four head coaches' overall records:
Lane Kiffin (2009): 7-6
Derrick Dooley (2010-12): 15-21
Butch Jones (2013-17): 34-27
Jeremy Pruitt (2018-20): 16-19