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AP photo by Chris O'Meara / Donde Plowman, second from left, chancellor of the University of Tennessee, celebrates with the Vols after they beat Texas A&M to win the SEC tournament title Sunday in Tampa, Fla.

If the NCAA Committee on Infractions' bite proves to be no harsher than its bark regarding its investigation into alleged University of Tennessee recruiting violations, the next bronze statue the school erects outside Neyland Stadium should be of UT chancellor Donde Plowman.

Eighteen Level One violations. That's what the NCAA charged the Vols with on Friday under the brief, brazen, broken regime of former football coach Jeremy Pruitt. For the uninformed, Level One is supposed to be the worst violation a school can commit, the word "egregious" usually accompanying the described wrongs.

And it's still conceivable that UT could pay a hefty price for such violations, which included everything from Pruitt's wife Casey making 25 cash payments to a recruit's mom to help her with a car loan, to paying someone $3,200 to cover a rent deposit, to providing nail salon treatments.

(Side note: Here's hoping the nail salon treatments were for a mom, sister or girlfriend. I mean, do real young men, at least the kind needed to turn around a football program, really need to be visiting a nail salon?)

But perhaps we digress.

So to return to the justification for Plowman's proposed statue, soak in this quote from the NCAA regarding her leadership throughout this mess: "The actions taken by the institution during the investigation should be the standard for any institutional inquiries into potential violations. 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."

It could be argued, of course, that most of the charges mentioned were uncovered to deliver an outcome the school deeply wanted by the late fall of 2020: Firing an unpopular football coach in Pruitt who wasn't producing on the field.

For all the smoke generated by EIGHTEEN LEVEL ONE VIOLATIONS, the reality is that most of these charges are being routinely committed in almost every Power Five program, though with perhaps a wee bit more camouflage than Pruitt's pathetic posse of underlings could muster.

After all, per the NCAA, the impermissible benefits totaled roughly $60,000 for 12 student-athletes. Do the math. That's basically $5,000 per athlete and his family. You could hide more money than that paying them to water the indoor artificial turf practice field during the summer. Heck, in this new Name-Image-Likeness world in which Vols Nation is reportedly one of the biggest players, boosters are probably paying $60,000 for a competent backup long snapper.

As has been the case for decades, a Big Orange apologist could even argue that to not help a couple of mothers out on personal money woes — allegedly handing out $3,000 to one for medical bills and $6,000 to another for car issues — would be worse from a Golden Rule standpoint than breaking arcane NCAA rules by helping them.

What shouldn't be an argument, or of consideration to the NCAA, is that most of the organization's rules are being rewritten in a way that will probably put an end to most of these types of violations. Pruitt and his staff broke these rules to gain a competitive advantage. The school, Pruitt and his staffers need to suffer fairly serious consequences for those actions if only to send a message that cheating doesn't pay.

And please spare me the notion that this unfairly affects those who signed with the school after these violations occurred, and thus they shouldn't suffer the consequences of those actions.

This clearly seems to be a Tennessee defense tactic at the moment, given athletic director Danny White's Friday proclamation that while, "As a university, we understand the need to take responsibility for what occurred, we remain committed to protecting our current and future student-athletes."

And you can't fault him that stance. But the NCAA should remain committed to punishing the school, Pruitt and his staff. After all, what university, down on its luck in its chief revenue sport, wouldn't look the other way as an unethical coach rebuilt its football/basketball/baseball program if the only penalty was firing that coach? Because it could certainly be argued that your program is better off than before that coach got there unless the school is punished with postseason bans, scholarship losses and possible forfeits of games won for that coach's violations.

It is folly to say no one in the UT athletic department knew what was going on. Especially when the initial investigation conducted by the school — not the NCAA, the SCHOOL — came after someone within the football program allegedly blew the whistle. Too much of this wreaks of what has long gone on in successful Power Five programs. It's how the sausage gets made but is rarely discussed.

Moreover, almost all of these coaches — especially Pruitt — had been known as excellent recruiters at previous SEC stops. Are you telling me they only started breaking rules when they got to UT?

That said, Plowman was smart enough and savvy enough to get ahead of the story, to clean house and start from scratch with a new AD in White, a new football coach in Josh Heupel and a wise hunch that the charges were bad enough to legitimately part ways with Pruitt for just cause (thus voiding the $12.4 million he would have been owed) without being bad enough to cripple the Vols longterm.

But one question shouldn't be ignored as this moves into the penalty phase: Would UT have investigated any of this or self-reported its findings to the NCAA if Pruitt had gone 9-1 in 2020 instead of 3-7?

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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