When Coach Jeremy Pruitt was fired this week because of NCAA recruiting violations, it marked the lowest point in Tennessee's long football history. Yes, even lower than when Butch Jones was let go in 2017. Just when Big Orange fans thought it couldn't possibly get any worse, it got worse. As details of the investigation that was conducted internally by the University were released, it became common knowledge that players and recruits received bundles of cash, concealed in McDonald's bags. No burgers or apple pies, just money.
Most fans will tell you that all college programs cheat and they always have. But it really hits hard when they get caught. In the early 80s, there were rumors that after a game in Knoxville, cash would be dropped in players' helmets.
That would never be confirmed and, to my knowledge, Tennessee has never officially been in deep trouble with the NCAA, until now.
A lot of that can be attributed to the leadership of former athletic director Doug Dickey. Coach Dickey always seemed to be standing by with a fire extinguisher when the NCAA fires would appear. He ruled the athletic department with an iron fist and he kept Tennessee out of trouble for a long time. Obviously retiring athletic director Phillip Fulmer wasn't as diligent as Coach Dickey was. My how things have changed.
I have to laugh a bit when I think of how Tennessee could be 3-7 and still paying players to play. Someone said, "If you're going to cheat, you should be better than 3-7." They're probably right. When asked about Jeremy Pruitt's contributions to Volunteer Football, Coach Fulmer said, "Well, he did recruit well."
Former Vol player and assistant coach Kevin Steele is currently in charge of the Volunteers' program as interim head coach and a lot of people feel that he will eventually get the job full time. After all, most of the big name head coaching candidates are in place for next season so the coaches to choose from for Tennessee seem to be very limited. This is almost like it was for Ole Miss a few years ago when Hugh Freeze was fired after being caught committing NCAA rules violations. He was replaced by Matt Luke on an interim basis, then handed the job full time. Luke was eventually fired making room for the Johnny Rebs to hire Lane Kiffen,
As the search for an athletic director continues at Tennessee, the list of recruits that Pruitt had gotten commitments from is dwindling. So is the roster of players as this morning four more players entered the NCAA's transfer portal. You can figure that when the NCAA hammer falls on Tennessee, it will include scholarship reductions as well as a post season ban for at least one year. I hate to see this happen to the Volunteers because if fans from other schools weren't laughing at Tennessee before this happened, they're really laughing now.
This trouble comes on the heels of yet another national title for bitter rival Alabama and some of the Crimson Tide crazies have already had a lot to say. My advice to them would be to remember about 20 years ago when 'Bama was floundering on NCAA probation and going through head coaches like shift changes at McDonald's.
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Randy Smith can be reached at email@example.com