Documents show the University of Tennessee‘s legal fees dropped sharply once it ended its yearlong NCAA internal investigation into allegations that fired football coach Jeremy Pruitt and his staff committed egregious recruiting violations.
It suggests the university is in a holding pattern, waiting for the NCAA to rule while still paying minimal attorneys’ fees.
In January, Chancellor Donde Plowman told Knox News that Tennessee had not received a notice of allegations from the NCAA, a necessary step if the governing body pursues disciplinary action. UT spokespeople declined to provide an update or comment without review by their attorneys because they are prohibited by NCAA bylaws from discussing specifics about ongoing investigations.
Some NCAA investigations can take months while others are adjudicated years later. Changes made earlier this year to the NCAA’s constitution are designed to encourage self-reporting and limit punishing new leadership teams if violations occurred under previous leaders, a development that could bode well for Tennessee.
Tennessee paid $1.08 million in legal fees to the firm Bond, Schoeneck & King from November 2020 through November 2021 for its internal investigation, according to invoices the university provided to Knox News after a public records request.
On Nov. 4, the university announced it had completed its internal investigation. Since then, it has been billed only $43,191 in legal fees from December to February.
That’s a reduction from $82,895 per month in the first 13 months of the NCAA probe to $14,397 per month in the ensuing three months. The documents obtained by Knox News included a quarterly bill from December to February. The March invoice is not yet available.
VOLS’ NCAA CASE: What we know one year later
Attorneys’ billable hours also declined from 205 in October — the last full month of the internal investigation — to 67 in November, 57 in December, 20.25 in January and 47.25 in February.
Tennessee’s legal fees have exceeded $1.12 million total. It still pales in comparison to the $12.6 million buyout the university declined to pay Pruitt when he was fired for cause over the allegations.
In October, Pruitt’s lawyer, Michael Lyons, threatened to sue the university and alluded to exposing other rules infractions if Tennessee doesn’t settle with his client and pay some of the vacated buyout.
Lyons asked for a settlement by Oct. 29 or the university would face a lawsuit that the lawyer claimed had the potential to “cripple UT’s athletic program for years.” That deadline came and went. But there’s no indication Lyons has filed a lawsuit or that Pruitt has received any settlement.
What happens when NCAA sends notice of allegations
Don’t expect Tennessee’s legal fees to remain low indefinitely.
Once the university receives a notice of allegations, it faces three possible paths in response: Negotiated resolution, summary disposition track or hearing track.
A negotiated resolution is like pleading guilty with a sentence attached in a plea bargain. Tennessee and the NCAA agree on the violations and penalties. NCAA’s committee on infractions panel approves it, and the case is closed.
A summary disposition track is like pleading guilty without a sentence attached. Tennessee and the NCAA agree to facts of the case and level of violations. NCAA’s committee on infractions panel issues penalties. Tennessee can appeal penalties.
A hearing track is like a trial. Tennessee challenges the NCAA enforcement staff’s allegations. Both parties review the allegations with the NCAA’s committee on infractions panel, which decides violations and penalties. Tennessee can appeal.
Are Vols done with scholarship cuts?
Pruitt, along with two assistants and seven additional staff members, were fired for cause in January 2021.
Tennessee said it had uncovered evidence that members of Pruitt’s staff engaged in conduct likely to result in serious NCAA rules violations and Pruitt failed to monitor their actions or promote an atmosphere of compliance.
Additionally, athletics director Phillip Fulmer stepped down and announced his retirement.
Athletics director Danny White, who replaced Fulmer, hired coach Josh Heupel to repair the football program. The Vols posted a 7-6 record in 2021 with a limited roster, and Heupel earned the Steve Spurrier Award as the best first-year coach in college football.
Tennessee football has moved on, but the NCAA case still looms.
The Vols played the 2021 season with 71 scholarship players, well under the maximum 85 allotted by the NCAA, in addition to seven super seniors. They have 72 scholarship players in spring practice, and 80 scholarship players are projected for the 2022 season.
Tennessee likely presented those reductions as self-imposed scholarships cuts to show contrition to the NCAA. It’s unclear if the Vols will replenish the roster before the 2022 season. They are considering multiple players to add through the transfer portal.
Tennessee also self-imposed recruiting restrictions in 2021, sources close to the situation told Knox News. But Heupel’s staff still signed a 2022 class ranked No. 17 by 247Sports, and it recently received a commitment from five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava in the 2023 class.
Self-imposed penalties have the potential to soften the blow from the NCAA when an infractions case is ruled upon, but they offer no guarantee of protection from further sanctions.
Could Tennessee still receive a bowl ban?
Tennessee leaders think penalties should focus on the area of the violations — in this case, recruiting. That’s why they balked on self-imposing a bowl ban, and new NCAA legislation should strengthen their case.
The NCAA’s new constitution is set to go into effect in August.
It includes amended language to “ensure to the greatest extent possible that penalties imposed for infractions do not punish programs or student-athletes innocent of the infraction(s).”
That means, when possible, the NCAA won’t directly punish current coaches and players for violations committed by coaches and players no longer in the program. Narrowing the use of a postseason ban is a big part of that change.
It could bode well for Tennessee if the NCAA finds that only Pruitt, his staff members and former players are found to be responsible. Tennessee has not publicly named players or recruits involved in the allegations, but only 34 players remain on the roster from Pruitt’s 2020 team.
However, the results of NCAA cases can be unpredictable. And there’s no indication whether Tennessee’s case will be settled before the NCAA constitution takes effect or if it will be grandfathered into the new process.
In November, Heupel said he thinks the effect of the NCAA investigation will be a “speed bump for our program” because “our university found out about what was going on, reported it, and has been transparent from the very beginning.”
The Vols are in their second spring practice since the NCAA investigation began, but there are no signs of when it will end.
University of Tennessee legal fees for NCAA investigation
*University changed to quarterly invoices
Source: Invoices for fees billed by firm Bond, Schoeneck & King
Reach Adam Sparks at [email protected] and on Twitter @AdamSparks.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Why Tennessee’s legal fees fell in NCAA investigation of football team