Why Tennessee didn't include Phillip Fulmer among those fired for cause

Blake Toppmeyer
Knoxville News Sentinel

Retiring University of Tennessee athletics director Phillip Fulmer will receive more than $1 million over three years as part of his separation agreement, Knox News has learned.

The university announced Monday that Fulmer, 70, will retire as soon as a new national search to hire his successor is finished. The announcement came the same day UT Chancellor Donde Plowman fired football coach Jeremy Pruitt with cause over allegations of unspecified major NCAA violations.

Plowman told Knox News this week Fulmer's resignation is not tied to Pruitt's firing, and those who committed the violations went to such great lengths to conceal them that it wasn't reasonable that Fulmer would have known what was happening.

Fulmer's separation payments are equal to what he would have been owed if he had been fired without cause, though Tennessee officials have repeatedly said it was his choice to retire. The separation deal amounts to half of Fulmer's $900,000 annual salary. He will continue earning his full salary until a new AD begins work.

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In addition to Pruitt's firing, the university also fired with cause assistant coaches Brian Niedermeyer and Shelton Felton and seven staff members in recruiting, player personnel or quality control. In their termination letters, the university outlined its expectation that it faces multiple NCAA Level I or II violations as a result of their conduct.

Fulmer’s contract includes fire-for-cause provisions if he committed major NCAA rules violations, or if he failed to adequately promote compliance to help prevent major violations.

Among the provisions, Fulmer could have been fired for cause if someone he supervised engaged in conduct likely to result in an NCAA Level I or II violation and if the university decided Fulmer should have known but failed to act.

So, why was Fulmer seated alongside Plowman and System President Randy Boyd during a Monday news conference to announce the football firings, rather than holding a termination letter himself?

“He was so far removed from where all these infractions were that it wouldn’t have been reasonable to expect him to know about these infractions,” Boyd said Tuesday during an exclusive interview with Knox News, “and so we don’t feel like there’s any reason to be terminating him for cause.”

Plowman pointed directly to a concealment effort within the football program that she has described as “very deliberate.”

“We have a very active compliance department, and they didn’t know about it,” Plowman told Knox News. “A considerable effort went into concealing it from compliance and from anyone outside this little operation – inside football.

"So, I think in one sense, making a decision about replacing a head football coach, our athletic director stepped up and made that call. And that’s a way of him holding the football coach accountable. And I feel like Phillip did his job as soon as we found out there was something going on.”

When an AD is hired, Fulmer will step down after more than three years on the job, allowing his successor to hire Pruitt’s replacement.

Phillip Fulmer will remain on Tennessee's payroll through 2023

Fulmer is under contract through Dec. 31, 2023, after Plowman awarded him with a two-year contract extension in May.

After a new AD is hired, the university expects to pay Fulmer at a rate of $450,000 annually throughout the duration of his contract, university spokeswoman Tyra Haag wrote in an email to Knox News. That matches the separation terms in Fulmer's contract.

Using Feb. 1 as a start for the next AD, Fulmer would earn more than $1.3 million in separation payments throughout the end of his deal. Final terms of the transition, including health insurance and other fringe benefits, are still being finalized. 

Fulmer coached the Vols from 1992-2008. He became Tennessee’s AD on Dec. 1, 2017. Chancellor Beverly Davenport hired him hours after firing John Currie, ending Currie’s wayward search for a football coach before it reached the finish line.

Fulmer hired Pruitt in his first move as AD, and he awarded him a fresh deal in September that extended his contract through Jan. 31, 2026, increased his buyout and outlined a raise that was set to kick in this year. Pruitt’s buyout was $12.6 million, but UT does not intend to pay Pruitt’s severance because it fired him for cause.

What is Phillip Fulmer's history with the NCAA?

Fulmer had an eye for spotting impropriety elsewhere when he was Tennessee’s football coach.

In 1998, Fulmer faxed a memo, obtained by ESPN, to SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer in which he accused Alabama players of receiving payments.

Fulmer, in 2000, reportedly told an NCAA investigator about improper dealings he was aware of involving Alabama boosters and recruits. Alabama was placed on probation in February 2002 for major violations that included a Memphis booster’s payments to help the Crimson Tide land recruit Albert Means.

Fulmer committed an NCAA Level III violation while athletics director for helping coach the offensive line during a September 2018 practice, violating NCAA rules about the number and duties of coaches. The SEC banned Fulmer from attending practice for five days.

How Tennessee investigation started

The investigation into the football violations began Nov. 13, Plowman said, after her office received a credible allegation of impropriety occurring within the football program. Plowman said the allegation came from someone within the athletic department, but she has declined to name the individual.

UT’s general counsel began an investigation, and the university engaged outside lawyers Nov. 19 to help steer the probe.

The investigation has not shown that Fulmer had any involvement in the violations, Plowman and Boyd said.

“We had over 10 weeks’ worth of investigations, many, many interviews and a lot of research, and there’s been nothing that came anywhere near implicating Coach Fulmer in any way, at all,” Boyd said.

“When he found out, he took immediate action,” Boyd added. “He did the right thing.”

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at blake.toppmeyer@knoxnews.com 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.