Last Updated on July 15, 2023
According to a decision by a panel from the Division I Committee on Infractions, the Tennessee football program committed a total of 18 Level I violations over a span of three seasons. These violations encompassed more than 200 individual infractions, with the majority relating to breaches of recruiting rules and direct payments made to prospects, current student-athletes, and their families. Additionally, four Level I unethical conduct violations occurred, involving former university employees.
The violations led to the provision of impermissible inducements and benefits amounting to approximately $60,000. Consequently, Tennessee was found to have failed to adequately oversee its football program. Furthermore, the former football head coach (Jeremy Pruitt), due to personal involvement in the violations, violated the rules regarding head coach responsibility. Pruitt has received a six-year show-cause order.
Paid Unofficial Visit Scheme
The majority of the violations in this case pertain to a systematic paid unofficial visit scheme that was consistently employed by the football program over a period of two years. In total, the scheme involved 29 prospects, 39 family members of those prospects, 10 currently enrolled student-athletes, three family members of currently enrolled student-athletes, nine individuals associated with a prospect (such as high school coaches or nonscholastic coaches), and three boosters. At least a dozen members of the football staff were also involved in the scheme.
The resulting violations encompassed at least 110 impermissible hotel room nights, 180 impermissible meals, 72 instances of providing impermissible entertainment or other benefits, 41 impermissible recruiting contacts, 37 instances of providing impermissible game day parking, and 14 instances of impermissibly providing gear to prospects.
How the Recruiting Scheme Worked
Here’s how the scheme worked . . .
Prior to a prospect’s visit, the former recruiting director collaborated with an assistant coach, who served as the prospect’s main recruiter, to arrange hotel accommodations. These accommodations were then paid for in cash prior to the prospect’s arrival.
The recruiting staff also frequently contacted restaurants and entertainment venues ahead of time, requesting that the bill for a prospect’s visit be held. After the prospect’s departure, a member of the football staff would visit the establishment and settle the bill in cash. During the Committee on Infractions hearing, the former recruiting director acknowledged that funding for these visits was often provided by a former assistant coach (“former assistant coach 1”) and a former director of player personnel.
Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the recruiting staff concealed these impermissible visits from Tennessee’s compliance department by creating two separate itineraries. One version, submitted to compliance, contained only permissible activities, while the second version included additional activities, meetings, and other benefits.
NCAA rules governing recruiting and unofficial visits prohibit schools from covering expenses for prospects during unofficial visits. Therefore, the provision of these benefits by the school constitutes impermissible recruiting inducements.
Even during the pandemic, when NCAA members implemented a recruiting dead period to prioritize the health and safety of student-athletes, prospects, and athletics department staff members, the football program continued to organize and finance these visits in violation of the dead period rules. On nine separate occasions, the football program arranged visits for six prospects and their companions.
The football staff did not inform compliance when prospects were visiting the campus and frequently arranged activities in the Knoxville area, occasionally enlisting enrolled student-athletes to host the prospects. Following the return of students to campus, the recruiting staff organized activities further away from campus.
Direct Payments Made to Athletes and Their Families
In addition to the impermissible paid visits, a further layer of misconduct came to light involving two prospects who later became student-athletes. These individuals received cash payments from the former head coach and/or his wife, raising serious concerns about ethical standards and compliance.
Let’s delve into Prospect 1’s case. During the prospect’s recruitment process, a troubling episode unfolded. The former head coach or his wife (it’s worth noting that the wife is not implicated in this case) provided the prospect’s mother with a substantial sum of $6,000 in cash. This cash infusion was specifically intended as a downpayment for a new car, a clear violation of NCAA rules and an outright recruiting inducement that undermines the principles of fair play.
The improprieties continued after the prospect signed a National Letter of Intent and commenced studies at the university. The head coach’s wife persisted in offering the prospect’s mother monthly cash payments of $500, spanning at least 25 occasions, purportedly for car payments. Furthermore, she facilitated the prospect’s mother’s connection with a real estate agent who, incidentally, was also a Tennessee booster. The real estate agent assisted in finding a rental home in the Knoxville area.
Notably, when the student-athlete’s mother signed the lease agreement, an upfront payment of $1,550 was required. Seemingly orchestrated, the head coach’s wife conveniently handed her $1,600 in cash to fulfill the deposit requirement. To compound matters, the head coach’s wife arranged for an additional $1,600 payment to be made by assistant coach 1 to the prospect’s mother upon her move-in to the rental property later that month.
As a direct consequence of these cash payments and inducements during the impermissible paid visits, the prospect was permitted to participate in 23 games, including a bowl game, while remaining technically ineligible. This revelation raises serious questions regarding the integrity of the athletic program and its adherence to the established standards.
Now let’s shift our attention to Prospect 2. This individual, upon enrollment at Tennessee, arrived accompanied by their mother and sister. During their visit, the prospect’s mother disclosed to the head coach her dire financial situation, specifically her inability to cover a necessary medical procedure due to lingering medical debt. Astonishingly, before her departure from Knoxville, the head coach presented her with an envelope containing an approximate sum of $3,000 in cash. This unanticipated financial assistance was earmarked for the payment of the medical bills she was facing.
As the school’s investigation progressed, a trail of evidence emerged. Records revealed that the prospect’s mother deposited $5,100 into her bank account a mere two days after the former head coach withdrew a similar amount ($5,000) from his own account. Additionally, the head coach provided the prospect’s mother with $300 in cash to cover gas expenses.
These cash payments and inducements, unveiled during the impermissible paid visits, ultimately allowed the prospect to partake in 23 games, including a bowl game, while being formally ineligible. The gravity of this situation casts serious doubt on the program’s commitment to upholding the highest standards of conduct and compliance.
Unethical Conduct of Coach Pruitt and Members of His Staff
As a result of the former head coach’s direct involvement in intentionally providing impermissible inducements and benefits to prospects, student-athletes, and their families, he flagrantly violated head coach responsibility rules. Furthermore, his failure to adequately oversee his staff, despite more than a dozen members of the football staff committing over 200 violations of NCAA rules during a two-year period, compounded his violations. It is worth noting that none of these violations were self-reported.
“During the head coach’s tenure, he and other members of his staff acted with general and blatant disregard for rules compliance,” the panel said.
The coaches and recruiting staff members involved knowingly violated NCAA rules governing recruiting, official and unofficial visits, inducements, and impermissible benefits. Consequently, these individuals were found to be in violation of NCAA ethical conduct rules.
Additional ethical conduct violations arose when the former director of recruiting influenced a prospect’s mother to provide false or misleading information during the school’s investigation. Moreover, both the former director of recruiting and assistant coaches 1 and 2 failed to cooperate with the investigation, providing false or misleading information. These actions underscore a clear departure from the expected standards of ethical conduct.
Even after their departures from Tennessee, the former head coach, director of recruiting, recruiting assistant, and assistant coach 1 further violated ethical conduct rules by furnishing false or misleading information to both the school and NCAA enforcement staff. Such actions demonstrate a lack of integrity and further contribute to the ethical concerns surrounding their conduct.
How the Violations at Tennessee Were Found
The violations in this case were initially brought to light when an athletics department staff member reported an overheard conversation about student-athletes receiving illicit payments within the football program. The school swiftly launched an investigation, confiscating cellphones, gathering evidence from local establishments, and notifying NCAA enforcement staff.
Within a few months, the school took decisive action by terminating implicated coaches and staff, implementing scholarship reductions, and recruiting restrictions to address the violations.
“Tennessee’s cooperation throughout the investigation and processing of this case was exemplary by any measure,” the panel said. “Although this case involved egregious conduct, (Tennessee’s) response to that conduct is the model all institutions should strive to follow.”
Although NCAA rules and penalty guidelines require a 1-2 year postseason ban for violations of this level, a new constitution adopted in January 2022 says, “to the greatest extent possible that penalties imposed for infractions do not punish programs or student-athletes not involved nor implicated in infractions.”
So, instead of a postseason ban, the panel chose an enhanced financial penalty of $8M, meant to represent the financial equivalent of missing two postseasons. In addition, there is a legislated fine of $5,000 plus 3% of the football budget, plus a fine to address ineligible play in the 2020 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl Game.
There are many more sanctions, and we have the full list of penalties against Tennessee and former coaches and staff.