The University of Tennessee’s legal fees have exceeded $1 million for its yearlong NCAA internal investigation into allegations that fired football coach Jeremy Pruitt and his staff committed egregious recruiting violations.
The legal fees pale in comparison to the $12.6 million buyout that Tennessee declined to pay Pruitt after firing him for cause in January 2021. But it’s still a steep price tag.
Tennessee paid $1,077,638 in legal fees to the firm Bond, Schoeneck & King through November for its internal investigation, which began Nov. 19, 2020, according to invoices the university provided to Knox News after a public records request.
The documents obtained by Knox News included a quarterly bill of $134,170 from September to November. The December invoice is not yet available.
Pruitt's lawyer, Michael Lyons, threatened to sue the university and alluded to exposing other rules infractions if UT doesn't settle with his client and pay some of the vacated buyout. But there's no indication Lyons has filed a lawsuit.
Meanwhile, Knox News has learned Tennessee has not received a notice of allegations from the NCAA.
Topping $1 million in legal fees is the latest development in the Vols’ NCAA ordeal that’s gone mostly silent since Nov. 4, when the university announced it had finished its internal investigation and declined to comment further.
“NCAA bylaws prevent us from sharing details of the investigation at this time, but we do commit to providing that information when we are able," a university statement said.
Where Tennessee could self-impose sanctions
Tennessee did not self-impose a bowl ban “in the interest of protecting the rights of innocent student-athletes,” the university said in its statement in November. 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. The Vols finished the season at 7-6.
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.
Tennessee's statement suggested the possibility of self-imposed penalties specific to the “nature of the violations.” The allegations against Pruitt, two assistants and seven additional staff members - who were fired for cause on Jan. 18 - center on recruiting malfeasance.
Tennessee football: Vols will not self-impose bowl ban following internal investigation
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.
Despite those hindrances, Heupel’s staff landed the No. 15 ranked recruiting class in December, according to 247 Sports Composite. The class included 20 signees with the possibility of adding more during the late signing period in February.
Could scholarship cuts affect 2022 roster?
Heupel said he intends to sign a full class, which can be a maximum of 25 players. That indicates any potential scholarship cuts would come from Tennessee's existing roster rather than its incoming signing class.
The Vols must show contrition to the NCAA without limiting their level of play for the 2022 season. But past scholarship cuts should give them room to maneuver or keep their roster about the same size.
Tennessee played the 2021 season with only 71 scholarship players, well under the maximum 85 allotted by the NCAA, in addition to seven super seniors. Super seniors are players whose eligibility was extended one season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They do not count against the cap of 85 scholarships.
That means Tennessee had 78 active scholarship players, but it had the option to add as many as 14 more players. It’s a scholarship reduction the university likely will present to the NCAA as a self-imposed penalty.
In November, Heupel said “roster management” has never been more complicated in college football. Potential sanctions could add another layer to that task, which makes each offseason roster move notable.
Cornerback Alontae Taylor and offensive lineman Cade Mays declared for the NFL Draft despite having college eligibility remaining. Since the end of the regular season, running backs Tiyon Evans and Dee Beckwith entered the transfer portal.
Tennessee football: Vols have self-imposed recruiting penalties. Here's what else they could do
But other players have announced they will return in the 2022 season despite graduating, already playing four seasons or being a potential NFL prospect. Some of them will take advantage of a COVID exemption to extend to eligibility.
Quarterback Hendon Hooker, wide receiver Cedric Tillman, offensive lineman Jerome Carvin, linebacker Solon Page, safety Trevon Flowers and tight ends Princeton Fant and Jacob Warren have announced they will return.
If Tennessee self-imposes scholarship reductions or anticipates such penalties from the NCAA, it must plan accordingly. But Heupel, one of the winningest first-year coaches in college football this season, has been positive about the situation.
He said he thinks the effect of the NCAA investigation will be a “speed bump for our program” because “our university found out about what was going on, reported it, and has been transparent from the very beginning.”
University of Tennessee legal fees for NCAA investigation
*University changed to quarterly invoices
Source: Invoices for fees billed by firm Bond, Schoeneck & King
Reach Adam Sparks at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @AdamSparks.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Tennessee tops $1 million in probe of football recruiting violations