Jeremy Pruitt deceived us: Tennessee responds to NCAA notice of allegations
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The University of Tennessee disputed the NCAA's finding that it failed to oversee the football program while recruiting violations were committed under fired coach Jeremy Pruitt.
Instead, the university said Pruitt, his wife, and his staff knowingly concealed their wrongdoing despite UT's efforts to follow NCAA rules in overseeing the football program. That was UT's only major disagreement in responding to the NCAA's statement of allegations.
A Chick-fil-A bag full of cash and Pruitt's babysitter were also new revelations in the case.
Knox News received the university's 108-page response to the NCAA Thursday morning.
In the document, UT had minor disputes with five of the 18 Level 1 violations found by the NCAA during its investigation. Otherwise, it was generally agreed that rules were being broken and that Pruitt, his wife, and numerous coaches, recruiters, and at least one booster provided nearly $60,000 in cash or gifts to the players and their families.
But UT argued that it was not guilty of the 18th infraction - the most serious against the institution, the failure to oversee the football program.
"Despite the university's monitoring efforts, track and field administrators and track and field compliance staff have been repeatedly deceived by the football program," UT said in response to the NCAA. "The University respectfully states that it is unrealistic to expect an institution to prevent or immediately detect the willful and covert misconduct in this case."
READ: Jeremy Pruitt paid parents of Tennessee football with cash in a Chick-fil-A bag, NOA reveals
The NCAA claimed the Level 1 violations -- the most serious in its four-level system -- were committed by Jeremy and his wife, Casey Pruitt; assistant coaches Derrick Ansley, Shelton Felton and Brian Niedermeyer; recruiting associates Drew Hughes, Bethany Gunn and Chantryce Boone; and an unnamed booster from 2018-21.
Tennessee says it did its best to prevent violations
UT argued that these individuals knew what they were doing was wrong and were purposely keeping the university in the dark.
"The factual information in this case demonstrates that experienced football coaches and non-coaching staff knowingly violated longstanding and generally accepted NCAA rules and made significant efforts to conceal their wrongdoing," UT said in its response. “The record also demonstrates that the university monitored football recruitment visits in line with industry standards.
"As part of the University's monitoring efforts, Athletics Administration and Athletics Compliance staff have had a physical presence in and around the football program (including embedding a senior compliance officer in the program)."
In its response, Tennessee cites anything but drastic penalties imposed on LSU by the Violations Committee in September. The NCAA accepted LSU's self-imposed penalties, including a $5,000 fine, a cap on official recruiting visits, a one-week ban on unofficial visits and recruiting communications in the football program, and the loss of seven recruiting evaluation days. The NCAA also ordered the school to have a one-year probationary period and a three-year show cause for a former LSU assistant coach, neither of which were self-imposed by the school.
LSU was cited for ignoring a recruiting dead time introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tennessee argues that since the NCAA did not materially increase penalties due to aggravating factors in this case, citing LSU's cooperation, it should treat UT similarly.
"Despite the university's best efforts, several members of the football staff, including (Jeremy) Pruitt, have disregarded the Office of Compliance's efforts" to continue recruiting under NCAA guidelines, the school said in its response.
In July, the NCAA filed the notice of 18 Level 1 violations. UT and those named in the report had until the end of October to respond to the allegations, but the NCAA granted a 30-day extension to that deadline.
NCAA enforcement personnel now have 60 days to respond to these responses. So the next phase of the case might not come until January.
The player's mother paid in Chick-fil-A-Bag, not at McDonald's
Some new details included in UT's response were not mentioned in the NCAA's allegation notice.
Pruitt used a Chick-fil-A bag to give a UT player's mother several hundred dollars after reaching out to him in late 2020, according to the report. He received a call from the mother and met her in front of the soccer field on campus, where she asked him for money.
Tennessee entertains former football coach Jeremy Pruitt, who saw her in October 2020 during a game between Tennessee and Missouri at Neyland Stadium, misleading the school about violations of NCAA rules committed by Pruitt and his staff.
Pruitt went to his car, where he had cash, and gave her either $300 or $400 in a Chick-fil-A bag because "it was the human thing, the right thing," Pruitt told investigators during a March 7, 2022 , Interview. According to the document, his statement in this regard is the only proof of the cash payment.
The notion of money being given away in a fast food bag was linked to Tennessee's football violations when Dan Patrick reported on January 19, 2021 that money in McDonald's bags was changing hands. The statement of allegations did not relate to McDonald's bags but to McDonald's groceries provided as an improper benefit to a recruit and his mother from March 30 to April 1, 2019. Value was provided.
Added Pruitt Babysitter to Investigations
Also add the Pruitts' babysitter to the suspected culprits in the case.
According to UT, Jeremy Pruitt paid a recruit's mother $6,000 for a down payment on a 2017 Nissan Armada. He promised the payment during a fall 2018 recruitment visit and paid the $6,000 on Dec. 26, 2018, according to UT's response.
The player's mother, whose name was removed from the report, told investigators Pruitt told her to "choose what I want and he will make the payment." Investigators confirmed it through the dealership.
That's where the babysitter came in.
The recruit enrolled at UT to play soccer. And from January 28, 2019 to March 26, 2021, Pruitt made 25 monthly payments totaling $500 for the car. The final two payments came after UT fired Pruitt in January 2021.
The player's mother told investigators that she received the money from Casey Pruitt or Pruitt's babysitter at Pruitt's home. Casey Pruitt also occasionally delivered the money to her apartment. Those car payments represented a large portion of the incentives and improper benefits paid to UT players and recruits, the NCAA report found.
Casey Pruitt at a news conference to introduce her husband Jeremy Pruitt as the head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers football team at the Peyton Manning Locker Complex at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville December 7, 2017.
It was also alleged that Casey Pruitt made $3,000 in cash rental payments for an unnamed UT player and his mother from September 2018 to March 2021. The gifts began during the prospect's recruitment and continued after he enrolled and played for the Vols.
In another violation, the NCAA says Casey Pruitt arranged for a real estate agent to meet with a recruit's family. Casey Pruitt's involvement in the allegations was revealing. Before marrying Jeremy, she worked in NCAA compliance at Troy University, Florida State and Oklahoma.
Brian Niedermeyer, Shelton Felton, accused of providing false information during investigation
The Vols' fired assistant coaches, Brian Niedermeyer and Shelton Felton, were not only accused of making false statements during the investigation. UT's findings agreed that both ex-coaches had failed in their "duties of cooperation" in the investigation.
Niedermeyer denied that he provided a player with $160 in cash to reimburse a student-athlete reinstatement condition relating to clothing received during a recruitment visit, which already constituted an injury. UT concluded that the factual information and the weight of the credible testimony provided sufficient evidence that the violation occurred.
Niedermeyer avoided the idea that he arranged for prospects to be taken on a boat down the Tennessee River and paid for their July 2020 dinner at Calhoun. Telephone records show that Niedermeyer arranged the conversation and provided false and misleading information about these violations.
He denied an allegation that he gave a prospect $750 in a high school parking lot after basketball practice in January 2019.
Niedermeyer also denied that in May 2019 he arranged or made a $1,600 cash payment for the first month's rent of a Knoxville rental home for a player's mother. UT's findings concluded that it is highly likely that this underlying breach occurred and that Casey Pruitt arranged the payment with Niedermeyer because she was out of town.
Felton said he was unaware of alleged recruiting violations, including a potential client who made four visits to Knoxville during the death of COVID-19. He also denied having knowledge that money was being made available to entertain prospects during visits in August 2020 and that Gunn was arranging and paying for visits from prospects during dead time. UT's findings said that Felton had "contemporaneous knowledge" of the violations and he was "not honest about his knowledge of these violations" "during an interview with the institution" on Jan. 13, 2021.
What has happened since the investigation for Vols under Josh Heupel
The ongoing Pruitt-era NCAA case is quite a contrast to the current UT football team under Josh Heupel, which is in one of its best seasons since a 1998 national title run. The Vols have a 9-2 record and are No. 10 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
If UT beats Vanderbilt on Saturday, they will record a 10-win season for the first time since 2007 and remain in contention for a New Year's Six Bowl.
UT football has changed dramatically in the 18 months since UT Chancellor Donde Plowman announced an internal investigation, fired Pruitt for cause, cleaned the house on the football program and accepted the resignation of athletics director Phillip Fulmer.
Plowman hired athletics director Danny White, who chose Heupel to be his football coach. In 2021, Heupel won the Steve Spurrier Award for best freshman college football coach with a roster that was undergoing self-imposed scholarship cuts.
This year's Tennessee team exceeded expectations. Quarterback Hendon Hooker is a candidate for the Heisman Trophy. Wide receiver Jalin Hyatt is a front-runner for the Biletnikoff Award. Heupel is an SEC Coach of the Year nominee. And the Vols have the No. 1 offense in college football, built largely on players from Pruitt's era.
But the NCAA case remains. And now comes the next step. UT was active in building its argument.
According to university documents provided to Knox News, the university paid $143,722 in legal fees to the law firm Bond, Schoeneck & King from June through August. That was the largest quarterly legal fee in a year. Invoices for September and October are not yet available.
UT attorneys traveled to Indianapolis, home of NCAA headquarters, on July 12 and August 9.
From the beginning, the university has taken steps to support the NCAA and potentially alleviate penalties.
UT self-reported violations, conducted an internal investigation with high-profile attorneys, spent about $1.4 million in legal fees over the course of the investigation, unearthed new violations NCAA investigators failed to discover, and fired Pruitt with cause , along with other coaches and recruiting staff accused of infractions.
The story goes on
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