On Tuesday night, former Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt’s relationships to his ex-colleagues took a quick and sour turn.
In a report released by Blake Toppmeyer of the USA Today Network, Pruitt’s lawyer, Michael Lyons, gave UT an ultimatum: reach a settlement by October 29th, or face a lawsuit that could “cripple UT’s athletic programs for years.”
According to Lyons, the full lawsuit would reveal wrongdoing in the UT athletic department dating back to the days of Butch Jones, and it would bring about NCAA sanctions across multiple sports.
Among the people whose records Lyons wants preserved for inspection are: Phillip Fulmer, UT’s former football coach and later the AD who hired Pruitt; former football coach Butch Jones; current football assistant coach Willie Martinez, who also worked for Jones; former football assistant Tommy Thigpen, who is now on staff at UNC; former associate AD Carmen Tegano; men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes; Chancellor Donde Plowman; donor Larry Pratt; and AAU basketball coach and former Vols player Bobby Maze.
Later Tuesday night, two of those individuals — Fulmer and Barnes — responded to their names being mentioned in connection with allegations that are said to go well above and beyond Pruitt’s football staff.
"The days I interviewed each candidate for the head football coaching position at the University of Tennessee, including Jeremy Pruitt, I emphasized that you did not have to cheat to win at the University of Tennessee and that cheating would not be tolerated," Fulmer told ESPN. "Jeremy has no one to blame but himself for his firing from UT. He had a great opportunity at a great university, and he simply screwed it up."
"I'm really disappointed that Jeremy would throw people's names around that he knows did nothing but support him the entire time he was here and make these unsubstantiated claims," Barnes echoed. "I would invite the NCAA to come in any day of the week and investigate our program. I have too much respect for our players, our school and our administration for somebody to ever think we were not doing things right here and make such ridiculous statements.
"Jeremy is not here because of the decisions he made and the way he led his program. Here's what I know: Our university has done everything it possibly can in working with the NCAA to clean up the mess he left behind and bring this to closure."
Per the USA Today Network, Tennessee’s general counsel, Ryan Stinnett, wrote back to Lyons’ letter earlier this week.
"Interestingly, your letter contains no denials of your client's actions," Stinnett wrote to Lyons. "Instead, you raise vague and unsupported allegations of other violations by the University and threaten to embarrass the University publicly by revealing these alleged violations. The University emphatically denies these allegations and will not be intimidated into settling with your client based on your unsupported assertions."
Still, Lyons — who also represented former Kansas coach David Beaty in a case that eventually settled for $2.55 million — continued to push the threats in a statement obtained by ESPN.
"Tennessee's dug in and made a decision not to pay Jeremy Pruitt, and my client is going to protect his interests," Lyons told ESPN on Tuesday. "That's what he's hired me to do. I'm not surprised. ... Someone in the Tennessee leadership is going to have to go back and look at this when it's all said and done and say, 'Was it worth it?' Is it worth the reputational loss that you're going to take among good, qualified coaches who are willing to come to Tennessee? I'm not just talking about football, I'm talking about any sport. Is it worth the pain that's going to be exerted through the NCAA process of self-reported violations that you find through this process?"
"If anybody thinks I'm a bluffer, go talk to Kansas. See what they say," Lyons added. "That's not my reputation. I'm an advocate for my client, but I'm ethically duty-bound to make sure that I don't misrepresent anything. I'm certainly not going to put something in a letter that would detail an NCAA violation that Tennessee has to turn around and go report. Because then what happens? I can't talk about it. It becomes the subject of an NCAA investigation, right?"
Pruitt is now a senior defensive analyst for the New York Giants, while Jones is at Arkansas State.
Meanwhile, the Vols have a new coach in Josh Heupel, who was hired shortly after Pruitt’s firing — the catalyst to this entire process — took place.
Ironically, Heupel is set to face another one of Pruitt’s former employers, Nick Saban, when Tennessee travels to Alabama (7 p.m. CT, ESPN) this weekend.
By the end of next week, the university should know whether Lyons’ claims about the Vols’ athletic department are true.
It should certainly be interesting to see how this off-field battle wages as the on-field work continues.