Rexrod: As Vols Football closes the door on a lost era, let’s raise a glass to Jeremy Pruitt

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Nashville, Tenn. – Jeremy Pruitt was in the basement of the greatest program in college football history, from 2007 to 2009 under Nick Saban as Director of Player Development at Alabama, a youngster who landed his first full-time job at the college level.

His role at the time was similar to that of a young Tennessee staff whose college athletics careers were essentially scorched, along with him, in the UT cheating saga that mercifully ended Friday with a test score but no postseason ban. Pruitt was then Saban’s defensive coach from 2010 to 2012. He continued to climb with jobs under Jimbo Fisher at Florida State and Marc Richt at Georgia, evaluating talent and buying a large part of his appeal. Two more seasons at Alabama where Saban’s defensive coordinator got him the Tennessee job.

The SEC will come down to Nashville this week during Media Days and we’ll be looking at Georgia and Alabama, two of the three most powerful entities in sports. We’ll talk about football in Tennessee, which is obviously with a momentum it hasn’t seen in many years. We would welcome Hugh Freese back into the league. And we might have some spare words, probably jokes, about the disgraced Pruitt, embarking on a show sentence of six years with no marketability and none of the $12.6 million acquisition of UT snatched away when he fired him for cause. in January 2021.

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It’s all very absurd. It is a reminder of the fine line between the celebrated and the outcast in the sport and the way they often intertwine. I don’t want to overstate Pruitt’s sympathy, because the blatant fraud he, his wife, and his UT henchmen committed was laid out in the 127-page infractions committee report that accompanied the rulings Friday.

But if I can get some insight into any of this, it would be from some of the people who helped him with these other programs—Pruitt and Brian Niedermeyer, a five-year UT assistant with Show Cause who previously served as a graduate assistant under Pruitt at Georgia and Alabama. Were they shocked by the way Pruitt was found to be doing stretch things that resulted in 18 Level 1 violations and five years of probation that includes scholarship cuts and nearly $9 million in fines?

Tennessee assistant coach Brian Niedermayer (R), who received a five-year prison sentence, told NCAA investigators that his big withdrawals around recruiting weekends included spending extravagantly on his girlfriend. (Brian Lane/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Or were they more amazed that one of them saw the light of day? Perhaps the biggest misconception here is that Tennessee had no choice but to move on as it did. I can’t prove that nothing happens if Pruitt is having a winning season in 2020, nor that the NCAA smells none of this without UT doing a tremendous job of investigating itself. But I feel good about both statements.

And I find the investigative committee’s argument that the postseason ban would have been the result had it not been for “exemplary” Tennessee cooperation laughable. It’s a nice jab to the head hoping other schools will act accordingly in future cases, but the NCAA knows and basically confirmed postseason penalties for kids who have nothing to do with transgressions of previously serving adults that can’t happen anymore. Also, I’m not sure what counts as an override anymore.

The ones described in those 127 pages sure seem strange and not worth the effort, given how college athletics has evolved in the past couple of years. This was just a glimpse into a slice of what happened, about $60,000 in unearned benefits to several leads over two years, without getting into any of the actual bidding wars that are now more prevalent.

There is high comedy, as on pages 11 and 12 the Inquiry notes that the Pruitts explain that their constant withdrawals of large sums of cash “derived from their rural upbringing, where many people related to their families did not have credit cards and carry cash with them at all times.”

And as first reported by the Knoxville News Sentinel, Niedermeyer told investigators that his massive withdrawals around big weekends were related to Knoxville’s wild nightlife and lavish spending on his girlfriend. It’s absurd, but also, it’s very difficult to care about any of these transactions. We won’t do that again, thank God.

The most troubling aspect to me, and perhaps an underestimated element of things unraveling for Pruitt, is explained on page 27. Recruiting director Bethany Jean, who has been on the offer for five years, told investigators that she never reported the abuse because she ” He fears retaliation, violent reaction and even extortion.

A lot is to be expected from CYA when it comes to explaining itself to COI. Still, there are too many stories, to go along with ample marginal evidence, of Pruitt’s angry outbursts while coaching the Vols. Someone was excited to take this to consultant Dondy Plowman and start that process, and the Vols’ poor football trajectory as a program in 2020 may not have been the only factors.

Also, Tennessee might be better off today if it just fired Pruitt and paid him back then, without the painful self-review. That’s a lot of buyout money but that also erases more than two years of this suspension on the program and brings back lost scholarships and employment opportunities.

Regardless, the most important thing Plowman did in the aftermath was appoint Danny White to replace Philip Vollmer as sporting director. White brought Josh Hupel with him from Central Florida, and Hupel performed beyond expectations given the circumstances.

It’s easy now to forget how bad things looked in January 2021. But it was bleak. It couldn’t look more promising today. Whether it was necessary or not, Plowman’s approach worked and Heupel didn’t have to answer these questions anymore.

“The hardest thing for our entire staff has been hiring and because it has nothing to do with us who are currently there,” Heupel said Friday on ESPN’s “Paul Finebaum Show.” People have tried to use it against us recruiting passively, so you had to build a lot of trust with the recruits and their families. You talk about the culture you’re building, you talk about what happened and what you think the end result will be with the NCAA. (This judgment) gives us the power to leave it behind, while it is in the open. It’s done and they can all know we’ll have a chance to go play tournaments.”

We’ll talk about that a lot this week. We’re going to zoom in on Georgia and Alabama. We’ll hear Freeze lay out his plan for Auburn. He will likely quote some scripture along the way. Pruitt can finally be discussed in the present tense, and he will no doubt be the subject of some comments and comments about his integrity. But his biggest transgressions are still losing and creating rivals.

I, for one, hope Jeremy Pruitt will find his way back into this league one day, if for no other reason than to entertain us. He fits in better than a lot of the people who will be in Nashville this week would like to admit.

(Top photo: Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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