Jeremy Pruitt fired as Tennessee football coach for cause after internal investigation

Blake Toppmeyer
Knoxville News Sentinel

Jeremy Pruitt is out as Tennessee's football coach, ending one of the worst tenures in program history.

Pruitt was fired for cause Monday after an investigation showed evidence of multiple Level I and Level II NCAA recruiting rules violations under his watch, according to his termination letter obtained by Knox News. The letter cites six fire-for-cause provisions violated by Pruitt. As a for-cause firing, the university will not pay his $12.6 million buyout.

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Pruitt lasted just three seasons and leaves behind a program that remains under investigation.

Additionally, athletics director Phillip Fulmer will retire after UT hires an AD to replace him. Fulmer wants his successor to choose the next football coach. Fulmer made the decision to step down, and his departure is not tied to the investigation.

"Our plan is to have an athletic director in place as soon as possible," UT Chancellor Donde Plowman said in a news conference Monday. 

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Tennessee also fired assistant coaches Brian Niedermeyer and Shelton Felton for cause on Monday, along with seven members of the football program’s recruiting and support staff.

As a for-cause firing, the university will not pay Pruitt any of his $12.6 million buyout or buyouts to Niedermeyer or Felton. The other staffers were at-will employees not entitled to severance.

Kevin Steele will serve as Tennessee’s acting head coach. The Vols hired Steele, a UT alumnus and former Vols assistant who played two seasons under Johnny Majors, last Tuesday as a defensive assistant. Steele coached Baylor from 1999-2002 and has been a defensive coordinator at four SEC schools, most recently Auburn.

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Pruitt's firing comes while the university is conducting an investigation of the football program into allegations of recruiting violations. The university retained lawyers Mike Glazier and Kyle Skillman to assist with the investigation. The Kansas-based lawyers are considered experts at representing universities during college athletics investigations.

Less than four months ago, Tennessee awarded Pruitt a contract extension that included a raise beginning this year and an increased buyout. He was under contract through Jan. 31, 2026.

Pruitt, 46, compiled a record of 16-19, including a 3-7 mark in 2020 against a conference-only schedule.

W.H. Britton and Derek Dooley are the only Tennessee coaches since World War I who compiled a worse overall winning percentage than Pruitt. Britton went 4-5 in 1935, his lone season, and Dooley went 15-21 from 2010-12.

Pruitt's contract includes more than 30 fire-for-cause provisions. Among them, he can be fired for cause if he engaged in conduct likely to result in an NCAA finding of a Level I or Level II rules violation, or if someone who reports to Pruitt engaged in conduct that constitutes a Level I or II violation or is likely to result in such a violation and the university determines Pruitt was negligent in his oversight or lacked reasonable preventative compliance measures.

Additionally, he can be fired for cause for a failure to promote and maintain an atmosphere of compliance or a failure to monitor employees who report to him.

A successful defensive coordinator at Florida State, Georgia and Alabama, Pruitt showed shortcomings as a CEO of a program. This was his first head coaching opportunity at any level.

Tennessee’s offense ranked among the SEC’s worst throughout his tenure, and Pruitt and his staff failed to develop quarterbacks.

Pruitt went 0-9 against Alabama, Florida and Georgia, including eight losses to those rivals coming by more than 20 points. He came under criticism in October after he claimed following a 31-point loss to Alabama that the Vols were closing the gap with the Crimson Tide.

Just as damaging were losses in games Tennessee is expected to win.

The Vols opened the 2019 season with a 38-30 loss to Georgia State, a 26-point underdog from the Sun Belt Conference that had gone 2-10 the previous season and received $950,000 to play in the game. The loss began a 2-5 start to the season.

Pruitt’s woes in 2020 began in earnest with a 34-7 loss to Kentucky on Oct. 17, during which the Vols had four turnovers, including two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. It marked Tennessee’s first home loss to the Wildcats since 1984.

Pruitt also lost to Vanderbilt in the 2018 finale, preventing Tennessee from making a bowl game, and he lost this season to Arkansas and its first-year coach, Sam Pittman.

The Vols enjoyed a few high moments under Pruitt, too. They beat ranked foes Auburn and Kentucky during his inaugural season. Those would remain his only victories against Top 25 opponents during his tenure.

Tennessee closed the 2019 season by rallying to a 23-22 victory over Indiana in the Gator Bowl, and UT announced Pruitt’s contract extension two days before the start of this season.

"I'm excited that this extension gives Jeremy the runway to continue to build on the momentum and energy we have around our football program coming out of last season," Fulmer said in a news release announcing that deal.

"He has made excellent progress entering just his third year and clearly realizes there is much work still to be done. This extension secures him to continue his efforts to return our program to a championship level and shows our commitment to him, his staff, this team and the future of the Tennessee Volunteers.”

As recently as early October, Tennessee had the longest active winning streak in the SEC at eight games after starting this year 2-0. The Vols entered an Oct. 10 game at Georgia ranked No. 12 nationally and led 21-17 at halftime before imploding in a 44-21 loss.

That started a six-game losing streak that matched the longest in program history.

Butch Jones remains the only Tennessee coach to last more than three seasons since Tennessee ousted Fulmer. Lane Kiffin bolted after the 2009 season for Southern California. Dooley was fired amid his third season. Jones was fired during his fifth season.

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake's subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.