By Mark Nagi

I’m speechless. Actually, no I’m not speechless. I’m just perplexed.

How does Tennessee’s football program continue to screw things up, time after time?

Last week, the University of Tennessee fired Jeremy Pruitt “for cause.” That means they expect that his dismissal will not trigger a buyout of over $12 million (although Pruitt’s lawyers and agent Jimmy Sexton will have something to say about that plan).

That was the reason given for the firing. Not his 16-19 record. Not the coaching staff defections nor the massive amount of his players that entered the transfer portal. Nor the de-commitments by multiple recruits.

Instead, it was rule breaking that sealed his fate.  An internal investigation into recruiting violations forced Tennessee’s hand. The last thing they wanted was to fire Pruitt, but from the sounds of it, they had no choice.

“We are deeply disappointed in the activities that led to the action taken today (January 18) regarding Coach Pruitt,” said UT Chancellor Donde Plowman. “We are proud of the great history and traditions of our football program, and we will restore integrity and win at a championship level.”

Also shown the door were assistant 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.

Plowman added, “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… 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.”

Tennessee athletics director Phillip Fulmer, who had signed an extension through the year 2023, announced that he was retiring. He will be replaced by Central Florida AD Danny White. Fulmer had been tasked with getting Tennessee football back on track and expressed regret that he wasn’t able to accomplish that goal.

“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… My only desire is to do whatever it takes to give Tennessee the best opportunity to succeed.”

Tennessee’s football program has been trying to get back to its place among the SEC’s elite teams since 2007, the last time they won the eastern division and played for the conference championship. Since 2008, the Vols have had five different head coaches (going on six), and only twice have they had a realistic opportunity to win the East.

UT has learned first-hand just how difficult it is to get back to being a top level program after you’ve been knocked down a few notches. They’ve made lousy coaching hires, been unlucky, and watched their three biggest rivals (Alabama, Georgia, Florida) take multiple steps ahead of them. They’ve also watched as other SEC programs have gotten better as well.

Newly hired Kevin Steele will serve as Tennessee’s interim head coach. He’s not the long-term solution.

Whatever the solution is… Tennessee can’t afford to screw up this next hire.