Dan Fleser: UT Gives Exuberant Freshman Recruit A Lot To Take In Over 1 Day

Monday, January 18, 2021 - by Dan Fleser

Rather than punctuate his words with exclamation points, Kaidon Salter wrote them in capital letters to convey his excitement.

 

“KNOXVILLE IM HERE”

 

The University of Tennessee football signee arrived on campus Sunday along with several other early enrollees.

His message via Twitter reflected an eagerness to get started. Sadly, it perhaps said something about youthful innocence, too.

 

He was welcomed a day later in sobering fashion. During an afternoon press conference, UT Chancellor Donde Plowman confirmed reports that head coach Jeremy Pruitt – along with nine other football staffers – had been fired for alleged recruiting violations under Pruitt’s watch. Included were assistants Brian Niedermeyer and Shelton Felton.

 

Plowman also confirmed a Knoxville News Sentinel report that athletic director Phillip Fulmer will retire to allow his successor to choose the next football coach. Fulmer suggested the move.

 

Plowman said Fulmer’s decision is not tied to the university’s internal investigation of the football

program. She said the probe has revealed “serious rules violations.”

 

Plowman said that the NCAA also has opened a case.

 

“When the investigation reached a point where (Plowman) had enough information, she acted decisively,” UT President Randy Boyd said.

 

Kevin Steele, who was hired as a defensive assistant last week, has been named acting head coach.   

 

That’s a lot of news for a teenager to process, especially someone who’s simply happy to be here.

 

Monday’s events were part of the orientation. This sort of drama has become UT football’s embarrassing claim to fame. The lead characters of Monday’s drama were born from the chaos that surrounded the last coaching search in 2017. The related events cost previous AD John Currie his job. He was replaced by former football coach Fulmer, who hired Pruitt.

 

Currie now is the AD at Wake Forest. Wonder what he’s thinking today?

 

Before Pruitt’s hire, there were the ill-fated coaching regimes of Butch Jones, Derek Dooley and Lane Kiffin. This saga has gone on for so long that Kiffin has had time to crash and burn at Southern California, rehabilitate his coaching career and return to the SEC at Ole Miss.

 

There was a brief reprieve in 2019 when Pruitt recovered from a shocking season-opening loss to Georgia State to lead UT to six consecutive victories to conclude the season. The Vols finished by beating Indiana 23-22 in the Gator Bowl.

 

Fulmer was buoyed enough by the success to tell fans at a post-signing day gathering last February: “The Vols are back. Before long, we’ll be taking a bite out of everybody we play’s (bleep).”

 

But then Tennessee fell on its bleep, going 3-7 this fall during a SEC-only schedule mandated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Pruitt’s shortcomings caught up with him in a hurry.  News of the internal investigation broke during the season-ending loss to Texas A&M on Dec. 19. Pruitt referred to the news as “typical compliance stuff.”

 

Pruitt, who received a contract extension in the fall and was under contract through the end of the 2025 season, went 16-19 in three seasons.

 

There’s so much going here that Monday, for all of its finality, doesn’t even feel remotely like the end of the beginning of yet another saga. Since Pruitt was fired for cause, Plowman said he would not be paid a buyout. He was due $12.6 million. Since Pruitt is represented by powerful agent Jimmy Sexton, stay tuned on this matter.

 

There’s still the matter of the investigation. And searches for a new AD and new head coach.

What a welcome to Tennessee for the newcomers.

 

* * *

 

Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.


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