Tennessee's embarrassing fall capped with inevitable failure of Jeremy Pruitt and Phil Fulmer

With the firing of Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt and the unceremonious knee-capping of athletic director Phil Fulmer, which is being masqueraded as retirement, the University of Tennessee finalized the coda of administrative ineptitude for a singular hire that will long be a gold standard in college athletics.

As infamous lows in college athletics go, this will be filed under plain-old incompetence, starting from the highest level of the administration at the university and then coursing through a completely hapless athletic department.

And the saddest part of everything that’s happened at Tennessee is that it was totally and completely predictable, as it tried to microwave the school’s glory years by bringing back Fulmer. That experiment ended on Monday in a cringy news conference where Tennessee’s suits awkwardly tried to salute Fulmer as they were shoving his undeserved administrative career in the trunk of a rental car.

Instead of reestablishing glory, Tennessee ended up microwaving rotting salmon. Fulmer was the fish at the SEC poker table from the moment he sat down. And Tennessee officials were the only ones in the league who failed to realize he was under-qualified, overmatched and destined to transition the corpse of Tennessee’s football program from a shallow grave to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. There’s a new batch of administrators now who would dream of the issues the program had under Butch Jones.

But for those schadenfreude fans — and there’s certainly a coach in New Jersey and an athletic director in North Carolina who’d qualify — the legacy of this latest Tennessee disaster is that we get to squeeze years more of mockery from the way they handled the Pruitt firing.

FILE - New Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt, right, receives a personalized jersey from athletic director Phillip Fulmer during his introductory news conference in Knoxville, Tenn., in this Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, file photo. Tennessee fired Pruitt Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. The university also announced Monday that Phillip Fulmer will retire as athletic director.  (AP Photo/Steve Megargee, FIle)

This marks Tennessee’s fifth coaching search in 12 years, so it’s understandable if you chuckle at the sober administrative declarations that this time they are going to get it right. And this time they plan to incorporate integrity instead of nostalgia. New suits. New clichés. Can you envision new results? Not as players flee to the transfer portal and recruits rush to decommit.

To rewind for those unfamiliar with the latest stanza of the 15-year country ballad of Tennessee athletic underachievement, here’s how the university got here. They fired Butch Jones in 2017 and then ran off former athletic director John Currie when the fans and a skeptical blogger disagreed with Currie’s hiring of Greg Schiano as head coach.

Schiano was a proven head coach, program builder and developer of talent from 11 seasons at Rutgers and two years as an NFL head coach. His hiring would have been an acknowledgement that Tennessee needed to slowly build back to competence through evaluation, the weight room and a coach who understands roster building.

When the Schiano hiring famously imploded under the pressure of fan revolt, Tennessee tried to fast track the road to relevancy. They hired an unproven coach with no experience who hired an overmatched staff. A play for SEC recruiting will end in a predictable place — likely infractions hearings, bowl bans and scholarship losses.

Pruitt attempted to recruit the Vols back to relevance, which will be the subject of much legal scrutiny in the upcoming years. And it has the potential for much more second-guessing of Tennessee’s administration. By firing Pruitt, two assistant coaches and seven other staff members, the school appears to be positioning itself to not pay the more than $12 million in buyout money to Pruitt. (That’s what they would have paid if he’d just been fired for general incompetence, not allegedly breaking NCAA rules.)

But here’s where the same SEC officials who marked Fulmer as the fish long ago are now breaking out their popcorn. In the effort to save the buyout money, Tennessee officials are also risking throwing out the baby with the bathwater. By bringing in an outside law firm to confirm the recruiting violations, does the university risk setting the football program even further back than its own administrative sins already have? Will the potential violations lead to scaring off coaching candidates, scaring off recruits and keeping fans away? That would cost much more.

“There’s a clear tension between throwing these violations on Jeremy Pruitt’s doorstep and protecting yourself from even greater sanctions being levied by the NCAA,” said Tom Mars, an attorney with experience in NCAA cases who is not involved in this case. “And I don’t know what their intentions were, but whatever they are doing they are threading a needle.”

And with Tennessee athletics and its football program, any thread of the needle is much more likely to end up with bloody fingers than any sort of deft tactical maneuver.

Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt, right, talks with offensive lineman Cooper Mays (63) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt, right, talks with offensive lineman Cooper Mays (63) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

It’s unfathomable that Pruitt walks away from the $12 million without a legal fight. And it’s equally hard to justify why Tennessee still appears to be set to pay Fulmer’s millions for three more full years when he oversaw all the alleged indiscretions.

“Unless Jeremy Pruitt is stone-cold guilty, and there’s no evidence of that and I seriously doubt that’s the case, he’s going to sue Tennessee,” Mars said. “He’d be crazy not to.”

Pruitt’s attorney, Michael Lyons, issued a statement later Monday saying they’d pursue legal action after the decision if necessary.

“The timing of the University’s actions and decision appear to be preordained and more about financial convenience and expediency than a fair and complete factual determination by the University,” the statement read. “Moreover, it seems clear the recent leaks to the press are indicative of an interest to steer the narrative in a way that is desirable to the University to justify a decision likely made weeks ago.

“Coach Pruitt and I look forward to defending any allegation that he has engaged in any NCAA wrongdoing, as well as examining the University’s intent to disparage and destroy Coach Pruitt’s reputation in an effort to avoid paying his contractual liquidated damages.”

The group dynamics of the Tennessee presser on Monday involved UT system president Randy Boyd and Chancellor Donde Plowman alternately praising Fulmer and saying a new athletic director would be inserted before hiring a new coach. It was one last binge of nostalgia, which included Boyd invoking the night Fulmer won the 1998 national title. Thankfully, the cheerleaders were left at home.

Plowman and Boyd weren’t around when Tennessee’s last coaching search nearly broke the internet with GIFs of mockery. You could argue they deserve a fresh chance, if you ignore Plowman’s signature on the completely unwarranted extensions both Fulmer and Pruitt received within the last year. They need to break a cycle of unqualified hires getting undeserved raises in order to stop the laugh track.

It’s hard to project who Tennessee will hire as its coach before it hires an athletic director. (Perhaps the duo of Louisiana AD Bryan Maggard and coach Billy Napier could come and save the day, as both have been selective about next steps.)

Regardless, a job that requires toppling Florida, Georgia and Alabama annually now comes with impending NCAA sanctions from an aggressive internal investigation and a rich history of administrative bungling. It will be set to the soundtrack of slow NCAA justice and legal wrangling over Pruitt’s contract.

The people sure to win as Tennessee moves on from Pruitt and Fulmer are the lawyers. Billable hours are the only certainties for a once-great program that will spend years unburying itself from an ill-advised dalliance of nostalgia. The legacy of that is the stench hovering over the program, which doesn’t promise to fade anytime soon.

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