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The question came some 17 minutes into the University of Tennessee's 28-minute press conference to address the Monday firing of Jeremy Pruitt as the Vols' football coach.

"When you look back at the last three years," the question began to the threesome of retiring athletic director Phillip Fulmer, UT chancellor Donde Plowman and school president Randy Boyd, "how do you think Jeremy Pruitt's tenure is going to be remembered?"

Wisely handing it off to the man who hired Pruitt, Boyd and Plowman heard Fulmer reply, "We found the program in quite a mess at the time."

And just exactly how is that different from where it is today?

(READ MORE: On and off the field, UT's Jeremy Pruitt era ends in disgrace)

When Plowman has just labeled the alleged NCAA violations against Pruitt as "stunning" and "shocking", when the program hasn't reached a significant bowl game since the Fiesta Bowl at the close of the 1999 season, when the overall record over the last four years is 20-27 and Pruitt exits with a 16-19 mark that included a 3-7 record this past season, how could anyone label the current state of Big Orange football as anything other than quite a mess?

Heck, mess might be an understatement. Really, what could possibly be a bigger mess than this? At least there were no NCAA issues when Pruitt was hired. Now you've apparently got, by Plowman's own words, "a significant number of serious NCAA violations," a program that could easily see a stampede to the transfer portal, and a program whose lone selling point is that it wants to win with integrity, which pretty much any program would be wise to espouse when staring down the barrel of a significant number of serious NCAA violations.

But did Fulmer end his thoughts on Pruitt with that fascinating quote about the mess they inherited?

No. Instead, he said this of how Pruitt's tenure might be remembered: "Certainly the recruiting has been good."

(READ MORE: As the Tennessee turnover continues yet again, Fulmer is hoping for a 10-year coach)

And this: "Have definitely upgraded the program in general."

Not to state the obvious, but recruiting is usually pretty good in most programs when Level One and Level Two recruiting violations are taking place. In fact, that's usually the first sign that there may be something amiss in the recruiting department. Especially when it happens not long after a new coach — especially a new coach with no previous Power Five head coaching experience (or in Pruitt's case, ZERO head coaching experience at any level) takes over a program that was a mess when he got there.

But while we're dissecting Monday's news and where the Vols go from here, is it not fair to ask where Fulmer was during all of this?

Wasn't the whole point of replacing the clueless and arrogant John Currie with Fulmer after something like 137 major college coaches had supposedly turned down Currie steeped in the notion that Fulmer — as he was always quick to point out after he was removed as the Vols' head coach at the close of the 2008 season — knew the kind of person it would take to bring the Big Orange back?

Mississippi State might have said thanks, but no thanks to Pruitt when it was looking for a coach, but Fulmer apparently saw something special in the Alabama defensive coordinator that no one else did.

Or was it that Pruitt saw an inexperienced AD he could snow?

After all, when he was hired on Pearl Harbor Day (December 7th) of 2017, Pruitt made quick to point out that whenever he needed advice about how to run the UT program, "Coach Fulmer's office isn't far from mine."

Of course, in that same press conference, Fulmer said of Pruitt: "He will honor our university's values, operate with integrity and be a role model for our student-athletes."

(READ MORE: Jeremy Pruitt's turbulent timeline as Tennessee's football coach)

(Side note to whomever replaces Fulmer as AD: Butch Jones was also hired on a Pearl Harbor Day. Might want to avoid that date in the future for hiring anyone.)

To hear Plowman tell it, few on the football staff operated with much integrity under Pruitt, lest a total of 10 staffers, including the head coach, wouldn't have been terminated.

"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," Plowman noted.

Yet that also fails to answer a couple of key questions. No. 1, with all his experience and knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes of a championship program, how could Fulmer neither see nor hear of any red flags over the past three years?

No. 2, who decided to pull back the curtain on these activities? Could it have been former defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh, who was fired by Pruitt in October? Plowman said word of the violations first reached the administration on November 13th, and they were from a credible source. She refused to say whether they came from someone inside or outside of the program.

For those who believe Pruitt may have thrown Brumbaugh under the bus, Brumbaugh may have thrown Pruitt under a steamroller.

Regardless, here we go again in Big Orange Country, about to hire UT's fifth head football coach since Fulmer was fired, as well as hiring the fourth AD since Mike Hamilton stepped down in 2011. Only this time there's the added issue of what appears to be a serious NCAA investigation to overcome.

Said Fulmer of UT's sudden woes, "We're going to have to work really hard to keep this from setting us back."

You'd certainly have to think really hard to find a time when the Vols have been in a bigger mess than now.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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