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The lawyer representing former Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt gave UT an ultimatum this month: Either reach a settlement with Pruitt by Oct. 29, or face a lawsuit that the lawyer claims has the potential to “cripple UT’s athletic programs for years.”
The university intends to stand its ground, with no plans to settle, promising a "vigorous defense" if Pruitt chooses to go to court. A lawsuit is a certainty if there's no settlement, said Michael Lyons, Pruitt’s Texas-based lawyer, in an interview Tuesday with the USA TODAY Network.
"On behalf of my client, I can tell you that he’s not happy that this is the only choice they’ve left him with," Lyons said, "but he’s not going to walk away without getting his day in court.”
"He’s going to file a lawsuit," Lyons added. "They’re not leaving him much choice."
Lyons sent a letter Oct. 7 to UT’s general counsel requesting a meeting to discuss a settlement.
UT fired Pruitt for cause Jan. 18, saying it had uncovered evidence that members of Pruitt's football staff engaged in conduct likely to result in serious NCAA rules violations and Pruitt failed to monitor their actions or promote an atmosphere of compliance. Because UT fired Pruitt for cause, he did not receive any of the $12.6 million buyout that was part of his contract.
Lyons’ letter made no attempt to defend Pruitt, but instead threatened a lawsuit that would aim to embarrass the university and unmask widespread rule-breaking behavior Lyons alleges extends above and beyond Pruitt’s football staff.
University general counsel Ryan Stinnett wrote Monday in response to Lyons that UT has no intention of settling and is prepared to defend its actions.
“Your letter contains no denials of your client’s actions,” Stinnett wrote. “Instead, you raise vague and unsupported allegations of other violations by the University and threaten to embarrass the University publicly by revealing these alleged violations.
“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 Lyons’ letter and Stinnett’s response through a public records request. UT officials did not comment Tuesday.
Pruitt likely would accept a settlement that is less than his full buyout, but the university’s stance since firing a coach who went 16-19 in three seasons and is accused of serious NCAA violations has been it intends to pay him no severance.
Stinnett wrote to Lyons that "evidence already gathered is sufficient to persuade any factfinder that your client’s termination for cause was fully justified.”
Who is Jeremy Pruitt’s lawyer, and what do his allegations entail?
Lyons made several broad assertions in his letter to UT that are not supported with details in his letter, writing that his law firm unearthed “startling information” that points toward NCAA rule-breaking conduct dating back several years and across multiple sports.
Lyons alleges that university administrators ignored or covered up NCAA violations occurring before and during the Pruitt era, and he wrote that UT’s administration was involved in or encouraged impermissible recruiting tactics. Lyons wrote that his firm has learned of impermissible booster involvement in recruiting across multiple sports.
“If Coach Pruitt is forced to file a lawsuit,” Lyons wrote, “it is inevitable that this information will become public, embarrass UT and those associated with it, including its largest donors, and result in debilitating NCAA sanctions.”
A potential lawsuit, Lyons wrote, is a “no-win situation” for Tennessee.
Lyons followed the allegations with a request to preserve documents from prominent current and former UT administrators, coaches and athletes so that he can inspect them. Lyons' letter does not directly link those people to his allegations or provide any evidence of wrongdoing by any of them.
The lack of specifics in Lyons’ letter suggests that either the lawyer is bluffing, or he is intentionally withholding evidence of rule-breaking conduct to force UT to settle with Pruitt to keep Lyons’ findings corked and out of a court filing. In the latter case, Lyons' letter offers a peek at his cards without revealing his full hand.
Among the people whose records Lyons wants preserved are: Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee’s former football coach and later the athletics director who hired Pruitt; former football coach Butch Jones; current football assistant coach Willie Martinez, who also worked for Jones; former football assistant Tommy Thigpen, who is now on staff at North Carolina; former associate AD Carmen Tegano; men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes; Chancellor Donde Plowman; donor Larry Pratt; and AAU basketball coach and former Vols player Bobby Maze.
“We’re not here to bluff," Lyons said Tuesday.
"I can promise you that we’ve investigated it very carefully," he added, when asked about the lack of specific details regarding the allegations and individuals referenced in his letter, "and I’m not going to give them and spoil the surprise of what we have, but you can rest assured that we’ve done our homework.”
Lyons has represented Pruitt since his firing. On the day of Pruitt’s termination, his lawyer vowed to defend the coach against allegations of NCAA wrongdoing. His letter to UT’s general counsel this month suggests Lyons' defense of Pruitt will include a burn-down-the-house approach toward Tennessee.
UT has prepared for the potential of a lawsuit since Pruitt’s firing.
“We think it would be unwise and unfruitful, but we will be prepared,” UT System President Randy Boyd said in January, adding then that an “overwhelming amount of evidence” supports UT’s decisions.
Lyons has represented other fired college football coaches, including former Kansas coach David Beaty. Beaty sued KU after it refused to pay him a $3 million buyout following his 2018 firing. Kansas reached a $2.55 million settlement with Beaty, and he's no longer part of the NCAA infractions case involving KU athletics.
Where is Jeremy Pruitt now?
Pruitt, 47, is now a senior defensive analyst for the New York Giants, and Lyons wrote that Pruitt intends to remain in the NFL.
Tennessee launched an internal investigation of its football program in November into allegations of impermissible recruiting benefits. The NCAA enforcement staff became involved in the ongoing investigation in December. In January, Tennessee fired Pruitt and two of his assistants for cause, along with seven members of the football program’s recruiting, player personnel or support staff.
In the termination letters, the university stated that it expected the actions of members of Pruitt's staff will result in multiple NCAA Level I and/or Level II violations.
Pruitt’s lone winning season came in 2019. He received a two-year contract extension before the 2020 season that included a scheduled raise and increased his buyout.
Fulmer stepped down as UT’s athletics director on the day of Pruitt’s firing. The university described Fulmer’s exit as a retirement. He’s receiving a $1.3 million retirement package, an amount that matches what UT would have owed Fulmer if it fired him without cause.
Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed Jeremy Pruitt's record at Tennessee.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Jeremy Pruitt's lawyer threatens lawsuit that would 'cripple' Tennessee