KNOXVILLE, TN (WSMV) - Head football coach Jeremy Pruitt and several assistant coaches were dismissed on Monday as a result of an internal investigation into recruiting allegations in the football program, UT-Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman announced Monday.
Plowman said on Monday that she accepted the recommendation of athletics director Phillip Fulmer for the dismissal.
“We are deeply disappointed in the activities that led to the action taken today regarding Coach Pruitt,” Plowman said. “We are proud of the great history and traditions of our football program, and we will restore integrity and win at a championship level.”
Pruitt compiled at 16-19 record in three seasons as head coach at Tennessee.
In addition to Pruitt, assistant football coaches Brian Niedermeyer and Shelton Felton, four members of the on-campus football recruiting staff, the director and assistant director of football player personnel and a football analyst/quality control coach were dismissed.
“What is so disturbing, as demonstrated by the scope of these actions, is the number of violations and people involved and their efforts to conceal their activities from our compliance staff and from the Athletic department’s leaders,” Plowman said. “Despite a strong compliance culture in our athletic department, we must look for ways to further strengthen our processes. We deeply regret the impact this may have on our many student-athletes, particularly the vast majority of our football players who have had no involvement in this matter at all.”
The chancellor said the investigation found no one involved in the allegations outside the football office.
Kevin Steele, hired last week as a defensive assistant after serving as defensive coordinator at Auburn, will serve as the interim head coach.
Plowman also announced that Fulmer will retire as athletics director, who will hire the new football coach. She noted that Fulmer came out of retirement to become athletics director in 2017 to accept the position on a short-term basis.
She thanked Fulmer, who she called a "legend," for his long history of service to Tennessee and for providing a smooth transition to the next AD.
“Tennessee has been a big part of my life,” Fulmer said. “I was happy to step into the athletic director role when my university called. When I began this role three years ago, I told the administration I would stay for a few years to provide stability. Unfortunately, the unexpected need to hire a new head football coach has accelerated the succession plan the Chancellor and I have been discussing.
“Our next football coach needs to be on the sidelines for 10 years or more, and he will need to know who his athletic director will be for the duration. It only makes sense that I make this move now, so a new coach and a new athletic director can implement their vision together. My only desire is to do whatever it takes to give Tennessee the best opportunity to succeed.”
Plowman said the university has hired Parker Executive Search Firm to assist in hiring the new director of athletics. The new athletics director will then hire the next football coach.
“We take pride in the history of this program and its tradition of winning the right way,” Plowman said. “I know our students, alumni, and fans are eager to return to win an SEC Championship and write the next chapter of that history. We plan to move swiftly, and we feel a profound sense of responsibility to get this right. I am highly confident we will do so.”
Fulmer was hired as athletics director on Dec. 1, 2017, after a botched coaching search led to the dismissal of athletics director John Currie. Fulmer hired Pruitt as the school’s 26th football coach six days later to replace Butch Jones.
Pruitt's 2020 team was ranked No. 12 in the nation after winning games at South Carolina and Missouri to open the season. The Vols then lost six straight games before defeating Vanderbilt on Dec. 12. Tennessee lost its final game at home to Texas A&M to finish 3-7.
Tennessee had high hopes for the 2020 season after winning the Gator Bowl 23-22 against Indiana to close the season at 8-5. The Vols had won five straight games to end the regular season.
Pruitt was hired at Tennessee after working two seasons as defensive coordinator at Alabama, helping the Crimson Tide win a national championship. He was also defensive coordinator in 2013 for the Florida State team that won the national championship.
Fulmer was previously head coach at Tennessee for 17 seasons, posting a 152-52 record and winning a national championship after the 1998 season.
He was hired in June 2017 as a special advisor for community, athletics and university relations before being named Director of Athletics. He was promoted to Vice Chancellor/Director of Athletics in 2019.