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One year ago, the University of Tennessee announced an investigation into NCAA violations in its football program.
Coach Jeremy Pruitt and other football staff members were fired. Serious recruiting malfeasance was alleged and self-reported by Tennessee. And all parties made strategic moves and settled in for a long process.
There’s been no resolution, but rather a trickle of developments. Since the investigation was announced on Jan. 18, 2021, here’s what we know.
UT investigation is over, but no word from NCAA
On Nov. 4, Tennessee announced it had completed its internal investigation. Athletics director Danny White, who was hired after the investigation began, said the university was the NCAA’s “partner” in the probe.
That’s where the process went cold, at least publicly. Chancellor Donde Plowman confirmed to Knox News that Tennessee has not received a notice of allegations from the NCAA, and there is no timetable for that. Some NCAA investigations can take months while others are adjudicated years later.
Fired coaches, staff members have moved on
Pruitt, two assistant coaches and seven additional staff members in recruiting, player personnel or quality control were fired for cause a year ago. They landed at jobs elsewhere.
Most notably, Pruitt became a senior defensive analyst for the New York Giants in his first NFL role in a 25-year coaching career. Giants coach Joe Judge was fired last week, presumably ending Pruitt's tenure there. In October, his attorney said Pruitt intends to remain in the NFL.
Inside linebackers coach Brian Niedermeyer is a high school social studies teacher and assistant football coach at St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Outside linebackers coach Shelton Felton served the 2021 season as interim coach and then head coach at Valdosta (Georgia), one of the best high school programs in the country. Felton replaced Rush Propst, who was fired in April when Valdosta was hit with sanctions from the Georgia High School Association for improper recruiting activities.
UT has paid $1 million in legal fees
Tennessee paid $1.08 million in legal fees to the firm Bond, Schoeneck & King through November for its internal investigation, according to invoices the university provided to Knox News after a public records request. The December invoice is not yet available.
The legal team is led by attorneys Kyle Skillman and Michael Glazier, who is well-known for his work on investigations involving college athletics.
The legal fees pale in comparison to the $12.6 million buyout that Tennessee declined to pay Pruitt after firing him for cause. But it’s still a steep price tag. Records show the largest monthly fees of $189,171 were billed for work in January 2020, when the NCAA began its investigation.
Pruitt threatened to sue, but hasn’t followed through
In October, Pruitt's lawyer, Michael Lyons, threatened to sue the university and alluded to exposing other rules infractions if Tennessee doesn't settle with his client and pay some of the vacated buyout.
Lyons asked for a settlement by Oct. 29 or the university would face a lawsuit that the lawyer claimed had the potential to “cripple UT’s athletic program for years.” That deadline came and went. But there's no indication Lyons has filed a lawsuit or that Pruitt has received any settlement.
UT self-reported Level I and Level II violations
Tennessee administrators said the university has been cooperative with the NCAA, initially self-reporting what Plowman called a “significant number of serious” and “disturbing” violations that “warranted immediate action.”
Plowman said they were Level I and Level II violations, the two most serious categories in the NCAA’s four-level violation structure, which was introduced in 2013. But the specific rules violations are unknown.
“What is so disturbing … is the number of violations and the number of people involved and their efforts to conceal the activities from our compliance staff and from leadership in the athletic department,” Plowman said on Jan. 18, 2021.
Self-imposed penalties already began
Tennessee did not self-impose a bowl ban because it felt penalties should focus on the area of the violations — in this case, recruiting. The Vols lost to Purdue 48-45 in overtime in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30 to cap coach Josh Heupel's first season with a 7-6 record.
The allegations against Pruitt and his staff center on recruiting malfeasance. Tennessee could opt to self-impose penalties such as scholarship reductions or recruiting limitations, and sources told Knox News that process began no later than September.
The football program did not host recruits for its season-opening game against Bowling Green on Sept. 2. Other self-imposed recruiting restrictions could’ve also included limiting the number of official visits by recruits and coaches’ contacts with prospects.
Self-imposed penalties have the potential to soften the blow from the NCAA if the program is found to have violated rules, but they offer no guarantee of protection from further sanctions.
NCAA policy changes could lighten Tennessee's sanctions
An NCAA convention this week could impact the sanctions against Tennessee. The NCAA is expected to adopt a new constitution, which includes amended language to “ensure to the greatest extent possible that penalties imposed for infractions do not punish programs or student-athletes innocent of the infraction(s).”
The purpose is to reduce postseason bans as a penalty for infractions, especially when the coaches and players that committed the violations are no longer with the team. That could apply to Tennessee's situation if Pruitt and his staff members are found to be responsible.
Another potential policy change calls for the NCAA to mitigate penalties for schools that self-report and cooperate with investigations. The recommendation was made by LEAD1, an association representing all 130 FBS athletics directors in petitioning the NCAA Division I Board of Directors to change its approach to infractions.
If the NCAA adopts legislation to reflect that change in approach, it could take much longer.
Tennessee is represented by both groups recommending the policy changes.
Deputy athletics director Cameron Walker, who shares lead administrator duties over Vols football, is one of 17 members of the working group that created the LEAD1 report. And Tennessee faculty athletics representative Donald Bruce is among 28 members on the NCAA constitution committee and one of two employees from an SEC school.
Reach Adam Sparks at email@example.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Tennessee football NCAA investigation: What we know one year later