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Fired Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt is not going quietly.
Pruitt and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville are in a standoff over the $12.6 million buyout that Pruitt believes he’s owed.
Tennessee is having none of it, pointing out repeatedly since firing Pruitt for cause on Jan. 18 that it has no intention of paying him severance and believes its for-cause firing was justified because officials think Pruitt's staff committed repeated and serious NCAA violations and Pruitt failed to monitor his staff and promote compliance.
The parties appear headed for a courtroom.
What is each side saying?
Michael Lyons, Pruitt’s Dallas-based lawyer, told the USA TODAY Network on Tuesday his client plans to sue Tennessee after he school refused to discuss a settlement.
Lyons set an Oct. 29 deadline for Tennessee to settle with Pruitt. If it doesn’t, Lyons wrote in his letter dated Oct. 7, the university can expect a lawsuit that will show impropriety stretched above and beyond Pruitt’s football program, including high-ranking administrators, and impermissible booster involvement with multiple Volunteers athletics programs.
In a letter responding to Lyons dated Monday, Tennessee General Counsel Ryan Stinnett said the university is prepared to mount a “vigorous defense” if a lawsuit follows.
“You raise vague and unsupported allegations of other violations by the University and threaten to embarrass the University publicly by revealing these alleged violations," Stinnett wrote.
“The University emphatically denies these allegations and will not be intimidated into settling with your client based on your unsupported assertions.”
The USA TODAY Network obtained the letters on Monday via a public records request and spoke with Lyons on Tuesday.
Does Jeremy Pruitt have dirt on Tennessee?
He's only made allegations, but hasn't provided any proof.
Lyons’ letter names several individuals, and he hints at impropriety, but his letter is scant on details and offers no evidence that anyone engaged in impermissible conduct.
Lyons says this is no bluff.
Why would Lyons’ letter hint at potentially damaging information but not outline it in detail? The lawyer declined to discuss his strategy.
He could be keeping the genie corked in the bottle in an effort to persuade Tennessee to settle with Pruitt and prevent him airing his findings in a lawsuit.
Tennessee isn’t buying it and doesn't seem intimidated.
"The University maintains that it had proper cause to terminate (Pruitt) for breach of his employment agreement in January, and our position has only strengthened since then," Stinnett wrote to Lyons.
What did Tennessee say about Jeremy Pruitt?
The university, when it announced Pruitt’s firing, outlined that it expects the actions of Pruitt and his staff will result in multiple NCAA Level I and/or Level II violations. Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman called the extent of malfeasance "stunning," based on the number of people involved and number of incidents.
In Pruitt’s termination letter, the university said it used good-faith judgment to conclude conduct by at least two of Pruitt’s assistants and several other staff members likely will result in NCAA Level I or Level II violations and that this occurred because of Pruitt’s neglect or lack of reasonable preventative compliance measures.
The termination letter also said the school expects Pruitt will be found responsible for a Level I or Level II violation for a failure to promote compliance within the program or monitor the activities of coaches and staff who reported to him.
Stinnett wrote to Lyons that the lawyer’s letter “contains no denials of your client’s actions.”
That’s intentional, Lyons told the USA TODAY Network.
“There is no discussion about anything made the subject of the NCAA’s investigation because my client can’t talk about it under NCAA bylaws. Neither can Ryan Stinnett. That’s disingenuous,” Lyons said.
“Of course, my client denies (the allegations), but he’s not going to talk about it. He can’t."
What did Michael Lyons say about Tennessee?
Not anything supported with details or evidence.
Lyons, in his letter to Tennessee, wrote that his firm has learned several self-reported NCAA violations were ignored or covered up by Tennessee administrators before and during the Pruitt era. He also wrote that Tennessee administrators were involved in or encouraged impermissible recruiting tactics and several Volunteers boosters have been involved in impermissible recruiting across multiple sports, spanning multiple coaching staffs.
But Lyons declined to offer proof to back up his allegations.
“They’ve made some very strong allegations against my client, and they’ve indicated that that’s the basis upon which they’ve terminated his contract for cause,” Lyons told the USA TODAY Network, “so it seems to me that their good-faith belief that a violation has occurred in the context of other violations, which may have occurred in the past involving other people within the athletic department, is important and germane to the issue of whether they’re in good faith.”
Who did Michael Lyons name?
In Lyons' letter, he asks Tennessee to preserve documents connected to specific individuals so he may inspect them. Such requests are typical in a lawsuit. What's notable are the names. Lyons does not back up the name-dropping with evidence the individuals are actually tied to his allegations.
Among Lyons’ requests:
– Documents regarding Larry Pratt, Bobby Maze or Rick Barnes and the use of any organization in connection with providing benefits to athletes or recruits.
Pratt is a well-known donor for Tennessee athletics. Maze is a former Tennessee player and an AAU basketball coach. Barnes is Tennessee’s men’s basketball coach. Barnes denied any wrongdoing in an interview with ESPN.
– Documents regarding Donde Plowman and releases or settlements entered into between Tennessee administrators and students for incidents occurring in the past three years.
Plowman is Tennessee’s chancellor. She signed the termination letter firing Pruitt for cause.
– Documents regarding Phillip Fulmer, Carmen Tegano, Butch Jones, Willie Martinez, Tommy Thigpen, Buck Fitzgerald, and others, regarding allegations of athletes receiving impermissible monetary benefits.
Fulmer is the former Tennessee football coach and later the athletics director who hired Pruitt. Fulmer stepped down as AD on the day of Pruitt’s firing. Tennessee labeled it a retirement and awarded Fulmer a $1.3 million retirement package, matching the amount he would have been owed if he were fired. Fulmer denied any wrongdoing in an interview with ESPN.
Tegano is a former associate AD. Jones was Tennessee’s football coach from 2013-17. Martinez is a current Vols football assistant who was also an assistant under Jones. Thigpen was an assistant under Jones and is now at North Carolina. Fitzgerald is a former Vols player who operates the National Playmakers Academy in middle Tennessee.
To reiterate, Lyons did not substantiate his allegations in the letter. He says that’s intentional.
“I’m not going to spoil the surprise of what information that we’ve learned,” Lyons said. “I would think that Tennessee would be concerned about that.”
Tennessee fired back.
“Your attempts to drag innocent donors and other coaches into this matter is tactless, highly offensive, and only serves to exacerbate this dispute,” Stinnett wrote to Lyons.
Who is Michael Lyons?
Pruitt’s lawyer is a founding partner of Lyons & Simmons. He lists a wide range of trial experience, including representing plaintiffs in catastrophic personal injury and wrongful death cases.
Lyons has represented Pruitt in his quest for severance since Pruitt’s firing. Lyons previously represented former Kansas coach David Beaty. Kansas fired Beaty for cause in 2018 and withheld his $3 million buyout. Beaty sued, received a $2.55 settlement and subsequently was cleared from an NCAA probe into Kansas athletics.
Where is Jeremy Pruitt?
Pruitt, 47, is a senior defensive analyst for the New York Giants. He aims to stay in the NFL, according to his lawyer’s letter.
The NFL avenue is Pruitt's best approach, considering he’s probably viewed as a persona non grata in the college ranks given the ongoing NCAA investigation, combined with his threat to sue his former employer and lob allegations against others at Tennessee.
“Coach Pruitt has settled into his position with the New York Giants,” Lyons wrote to the school.
The Giants are 1-5.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Jeremy Pruitt in standoff with Tennessee over buyout: What to know