Vols fire Pruitt, Fulmer retires & NCAA issues loom

The Jeremy Pruitt hire by Phil Fulmer was an epic failure that was finally blown up on Jan. 18.

UPDATE on Tuesday, 1/19/21 at 10:00 a.m. Eastern: When Blake filed his story on Monday, the odds on the next UT coach hadn’t been released yet. We’ve added them in a tweet from Blake at the bottom of this story.

Tennessee has fired head coach Jeremy Pruitt, according to Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports.

The Knoxville News Sentinel is also reporting that Athletic Director Phillip Fulmer will retire. Pruitt was fired with cause due to alleged NCAA violations, meaning he will not receive his $12.8 million buyout.

ESPN’s Chris Lowe is reporting that UT and Pruitt’s NCAA problems involve “multiple Level-1 violations.”

He went 16-19 in his three years as head coach and finished 15-19-1 against-the-spread. The Vols were 10-16 in SEC games under Pruitt’s guidance.

Reports of the investigation into NCAA violations began to come out during Tennessee’s regular-season finale against Texas A&M. Multiple Tennessee players, recruits and coaches have been involved in the investigation.

Pruitt signed a contract extension before the 2020 season began, which extended his contract through the 2025 season. He was set to have his salary increase to $4.2 million beginning in 2021.

Tennessee will hold a press conference Monday at 3:00 p.m. ET to discuss leadership changes with Chancellor Donde Plowman, President Randy Boyd and Fulmer.

Pruitt was hired in December 2017, making him the 26th coach in program history. He replaced Butch Jones after spending time as the defensive coordinator at Alabama. Then-Athletic Director John Currie was replaced by Fulmer following a disastrous coaching search.

Pruitt notched wins over No. 11 Kentucky and No. 21 Auburn in 2018. The Vols were 15.5-point underdogs at Auburn and were five-point home underdogs against the Wildcats.

They opened the 2019 season with a loss to Georgia State as 24.5-point favorites. Tennessee did not win a game as an underdog in 2020, finishing the year with a 3-7 record (3-6-1 ATS).

The Vols will now dive into their latest coaching search. They will be hiring a coach who must deal with the repercussions of NCAA violations.

“If the NCAA stuff is bad enough to get out of Pruitt’s buyout, then it’s probably bad enough to take Hugh Freeze out of the picture,” MajorWager’s Brian Edwards said. “Minus the NCAA stuff, this would be Freeze in a no-brainer. The fan base is beyond starved for winning, and Freeze will win and can win big—and he coaches an exciting brand of football.”

Another wrinkle has to do with Kevin Steele, who was hired by Pruitt to be a defensive assistant last week. Steele will be named the interim head coach, according to Football Scoop.

He served as Auburn’s defensive coordinator for the past five years and played for Tennessee during the Johnny Majors era. Steele also served as the Vols’ defensive backs coach in 1987-88.

His hiring could take former Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn out of play for this job opening.

“It would seem impossible that all the news about Steele and the Auburn boosters coming out in the days after his dismissal sat well with Malzahn,” Edwards said.

The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman listed Louisiana’s Billy Napier, Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell, Buffalo’s Lance Leipold and Louisville’s Scott Satterfield as viable options. He also reported that Tennessee legend Peyton Manning “will have a big role in the search process and great influence on who Tennessee’s next head coach will be.”

Manning was involved in the search process in 2017 as well. Former Texans and Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien could be another option. He went 15-9 in two seasons with the Nittany Lions and then went 52-48 in seven NFL seasons with Houston.

“Whatever the case, it’s a mess up on Rocky Top,” Edwards said. “And once again, the school faces a critical hire and it can’t strike out again like it has done EVERY SINGLE TIME since ousting Fulmer.”

Tennessee is currently listed at 100/1 to win the 2022 College Football Playoff. Quarterback Harrison Bailey is 66/1 to win the Heisman Trophy at Bovada.

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