'I wore my mask wrong:' Jeremy Pruitt explains change after Tennessee football draws SEC fine
Sankey’s letter detailed that Pruitt “failed to substantially comply with the masking requirements” established by the SEC after the conference reviewed footage from Tennessee's Oct. 10 loss at Georgia. Sankey assessed Tennessee with a $100,000 fine.
“I wore my mask wrong,” Pruitt said Saturday. “I’ve worn it the right way, I’ve tried to be a good leader in our organization and do things the way it’s supposed to be done. And during that game (at Georgia) I had problems communicating and I pulled my mask down and I didn’t realize it until after the game was over with. Obviously, it’s not something that I wanted to do.”
The fine will be taken in the form of a $100,000 reduction in conference revenue distribution. If Tennessee commits a second violation, the fine will increase to $200,000 and could result in suspensions for staff members involved, according to Sankey’s letter.
Sankey’s letter and two memos to SEC athletic directors and head football coaches explaining the conference’s face-covering expectations were obtained in an open records request by Knox News.
Pruitt wore an orange-and-white checkerboard gaiter for Tennessee’s games against Missouri and Georgia. Pruitt wore the gaiter over his head and neck, but it did not cover his mouth and nose.
He wore a black facemask against Kentucky on Saturday in Tennessee’s 34-7 loss at Neyland Stadium.
“I felt like I needed to find something that possibly didn’t limit my communication skills during the game,” Pruitt said. “So I went with this mask here and it seemed to work a lot better. So I’ll probably stick with it.”
Sankey sent a memo on Sept. 30 outlining the conference’s policies on face coverings and masks. The memo stated that coaches, staff and non-competing athletes are required to wear a face covering on the sideline. It added that the the face covering “must completely cover both the nose and mouth such that neither nostrils nor the tip of the nose is visible.”
Sankey sent a memo on Oct. 6 to “serve as a reminder for the need for vigilance among everyone associated with SEC athletics programs.”
The Oct. 6 memo explained the fine structure, which starts at $100,000 and increases by $100,000 with each repeated violation and could lead to additional punishment. Any reduction in conference revenue distribution for failure to comply with the SEC’s policies is determined by Sankey.
“Do not relax — and do not let those around you relax — because of a few weeks of success,” Sankey wrote.
Pruitt said Saturday that Tennessee has not had any positive COVID-19 tests within its program in four weeks.
“Nobody knows the numbers because nobody knows what the other team has within our conference, but I would say — just based off what I hear — we have probably had the least amount of COVID as anybody,” Pruitt said. “Now, we had a ton of contact tracing.”
Tennessee has not dealt with a large number of unavailable players for any game this season.
Tennessee had totaled 23 positive tests as of Aug. 17, many of which Pruitt attributed to giving his players an eight-day break to return home for the Fourth of July.
The Vols had to pause their preseason twice for COVID-19 issues.
Pruitt paused Tennessee’s practices on Aug. 28 after “a few” positive tests, but the Vols returned to the field the next day. He canceled a scrimmage on Sept. 5 because UT had “seven or eight” players who had active cases of COVID-19. Pruitt said more than two dozen other players were unable to practice because of contact-tracing protocol that requires them to quarantine for at least 14 days.
Pruitt also said Tennessee has had 48 players who have, at some point, been required to quarantine as of Sept. 5.
Since the season started, Pruitt has not disclosed whether players tested positive for COVID-19 or are in required contact-tracing quarantine.
“One thing that we’ve really tried to do is protect everybody in our organization, starting with our players first,” Pruitt said. “I think with Dr. (Chris) Klenck’s guidance, he’s done a really nice job educating all of us on the proper procedures that we need to follow.”
News Sentinel reporter Blake Toppmeyer contributed to this report.
Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.