Former Tennessee football staffers under Jeremy Pruitt hit with NCAA penalties

Four former members of the Tennessee football staff have been hit with NCAA penalties related to the case involving recruiting violations and impermissible benefits under former head coach Jeremy Pruitt.

The NCAA announced Tuesday that four former Vols staffers reached an agreement with enforcement staff, including show-cause penalties that will vary from three to five years.

However, Tennessee and other individuals involved in the case — including Pruitt — have “contested” the alleged violations or proposed penalties. As a result, the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions will proceed with a hearing to wrap up that portion of the case, which includes potential penalties for the football program.

Sports Illustrated reported Tuesday that the four former Tennessee staffers who have agreed to NCAA penalties are defensive assistant coaches Brian Niedermeyer and Shelton Felton, as well as former director of player personnel Drew Hughes and former student assistant Michael Magness. Those individuals agreed that violations — including cash payments to recruits and impermissible contact with recruits during the COVID dead period — took place “over several academic years.”

The NCAA said the show-cause penalties, which essentially prevents individuals from working in collegiate athletics, for those four will begin immediately.

FILE - In this Oct. 19, 2019, file photo, Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt yells at the officials during an NCAA college football game against Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The SEC came into this season with a contingency plan to deal with coronavirus-related issues. “Obviously, we can’t predict the future,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “I believe we all knew when we started this, that there were no guarantees.” (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt, File)
Jeremy Pruitt was fired by Tennessee in January 2021 due to an array of NCAA violations. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt, File)

Tennessee was hit with 18 Level I violations

Last July, the NCAA sent Tennessee a notice of allegations that included 18 Level I violations, the most serious in NCAA enforcement.

The Tennessee football program under Pruitt’s watch was accused of giving out about $60,000 worth of impermissible benefits to recruits and their families over a three-year period. Pruitt and staff also allegedly hosted multiple recruits during the NCAA-mandated dead period at the heights of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pruitt and nine others were fired for cause in January 2021 after Tennessee opened an internal investigation into the violations. Pruitt went 16-19 in three seasons at Tennessee, including a 3-7 mark in 2020, and has not worked in college sports since. He had a one-year stint as an assistant with the New York Giants but did not coach during the 2022 season.

Major sanctions still possible for Tennessee football

Since Pruitt’s firing, the Vols have bounced back impressively on the field under new coach Josh Heupel. Heupel has an 18-8 record in two seasons, including going 11-2 in 2022.

All the while, Tennessee has been cooperative as it has negotiated with the NCAA in an attempt to reach a resolution. The school self-imposed sanctions, including reducing its football scholarship count by 12 for the 2021 season.

But with no agreement reached with the NCAA at this time, it’s still possible the school could still be hit with major penalties in the impending Committee on Infractions hearing.