Tennessee fires Pruitt, 9 others for ‘serious’ NCAA issues

Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel

The Tennessee football program is starting over yet again, this time after coach Jeremy Pruitt and nine others were fired Monday for cause when an internal investigation found what the university chancellor called “serious violations of NCAA rules.”

Chancellor Donde Plowman said Pruitt was responsible for overseeing the program. Tennessee has been conducting an internal investigation since a tip Nov. 13 about alleged recruiting violations.

Also fired were two assistants and seven members of the recruiting and support staff.

“While the investigation is continuing the information provided to us indicates serious violations of NCAA rules,” Plowman said. “They occurred. These serious infractions warrant immediate action.”

Among those fired Monday were inside linebackers coach Brian Niedermeyer and outside linebackers coach Shelton Felton, four members of the on-campus football recruiting staff, the director and assistant director of football player personnel and a football analyst/quality control coach.

The Volunteers went 3-7 last season. Pruitt’s firing means Tennessee will be looking for its fifth different coach since the Vols last won the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title in 2007.

Attorneys from Bond, Shoeneck & King from Kansas were retained on Nov. 19 to assist the investigation and they updated Plowman, President Randy Boyd and athletic director Phillip Fulmer about the investigation Friday.

The chancellor said the potential NCAA issues involved Level I and II violations with a number of people and incidents. Plowman said she did not know how many violations or other specifics. NCAA investigators opened a case in December and became more actively involved within the past 10 days.

“It was stunning, the number of people involved … and the number of incidents,” Plowman said. “And so, yes, that was shocking. That’s partly what you see in the level of the actions that were taken today.”

This means Tennessee will not be paying Pruitt a $12.6 million buyout after he went 16-19 in three seasons.

“His termination was for cause, which means no buyout,” Plowman said.

Attorney Michael Lyons of Lyons & Simmons in Dallas issued a statement Monday night saying Pruitt was “extremely disappointed.” Lyons said Pruitt didn’t have a chance to respond and that his termination letter was leaked immediately as part of “an orchestrated effort to renege” on Pruitt’s contract.

“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. 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,” Lyons said in the statement.

“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 Vols played an SEC-only season in 2020 and each loss was by double digits. Tennessee had been picked to play in the Liberty Bowl but withdrew a day later after a batch of positive COVID-19 results, including Pruitt.

Fulmer, 70, will be retiring, and Tennessee is retaining Parker Executive Search to help hire a new athletic director. Plowman said that athletic director then will hire the new coach.

“We’re looking for someone who is a strong leader, who has principles and values, who also has experience in hiring coaches, and who can help us look to the future,” Plowman said. “We’ve got a great future here. As disappointed as we are, we’re determined to get this right.”

Boyd made clear that anyone who can’t win “the right way” doesn’t belong at Tennessee.

“If there is anyone in our athletic department in Knoxville or elsewhere who hasn’t heard that message yet, you’re hearing it now,” Boyd said.

Fulmer said he always expected to move on from athletics, and the timing makes sense now so a new athletic director and coach can work together. Fulmer also said he thinks the program went from “quite a mess” to having “lots of good things” that have happened.

“This is very unfortunate in the sense that we’re going to have to work really hard to keep it from setting us back,” Fulmer said.

Kevin Steele, hired last week as a defensive assistant coach, will be the acting coach. Plowman and Fulmer planned to meet with the football team later Monday. The next national signing day is Feb. 3.

Pruitt ends a tenure that started after a tumultuous coaching search highlighted by Tennessee replacing John Currie as athletic director with Fulmer.

The first-time head coach guided Tennessee to an 8-5 record in his second season capped by a Gator Bowl win over Indiana. That earned Pruitt a contract extension and raise. The Volunteers opened the 2020 season ranked 16th and extended their winning streak to eight straight.

That’s when the season started falling apart.

Tennessee wound up matching the longest skid in program history, losing six in a row. Pruitt fired defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh in October only months after hiring him, and the former defensive coordinator took over the defensive line.

Tennessee wrapped up the season with a 34-13 loss to No. 5 Texas A&M.

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
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Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.