An attorney representing Jeremy Pruitt has given University of Tennessee officials until Oct. 29 to reach a financial settlement with the former Vols football coach, or face a lawsuit that he says will include details of myriad NCAA rules violations in the football program and other sports and result in debilitating NCAA sanctions.
In an Oct. 7 letter to Tennessee general counsel Ryan Stinnett, attorney Michael Lyons of Dallas requested a meeting to resolve Pruitt's demands for a $12.6 million buyout that he claims he is owed after being fired in January for alleged rules violations in his program. The university said he was terminated with cause and is owed nothing.
"As we have previously discussed, a public lawsuit with its related discovery, document productions, depositions, disclosures, and court filings is a no-win situation for UT," Lyons wrote in the letter, which was obtained by ESPN on Tuesday through an open records request. "Even if UT prevails on its claimed defenses to the contract, which is unlikely, the public revelations from the lawsuit will invariably embarrass UT, its athletics department and the administration. All of the parties to this dispute should try to avoid that."
Contents of the letter were first reported by the USA Today Network.
Lyons warned in his letter that a lawsuit "could ensnare the parties for years to come, impugn the university's reputation further, and potentially cripple UT's athletic programs for years."
Furthermore, Lyons alleged in his letter that UT's upper administration "ignored and covered up" several self-reported NCAA violations during Pruitt's coaching tenure, and some violations that occurred before he was hired.
Lyons added in his letter: "We have learned that UT upper administration was involved in or encouraged impermissible recruiting tactics. We have also learned that several prominent UT boosters have been and are involved in efforts to impermissibly recruit student athletes across multiple sports spanning multiple coaching regimes -- some of which are still in place."
In a response to Lyons on Monday, Stinnett wrote that the university "declines to participate in any informal or formal settlement negotiations with your client. The University maintains that it had proper cause to terminate your client for breach of his employment agreement in January, and our position has only strengthened since then."
Stinnett noted in his response that the "evidence already gathered is sufficient to persuade any factfinder that your client's termination for cause was fully justified."
Sources have told ESPN that Tennessee has yet to receive a notice of allegations from the NCAA.
In his letter, Lyons requested that Tennessee and its employees preserve "all documents and communications regarding impermissible benefits provided by UT donors to student athletes" and the "use of any Foundation or organization in connection with providing benefits to student athletes or recruits." He also requested the preservation of documents related to Volunteers basketball coach Rick Barnes, former athletic director Phillip Fulmer, former football assistant coaches, specific boosters and other individuals.
Fulmer and Barnes both responded Tuesday, criticizing Pruitt's actions.
Fulmer, the Vols' Hall of Fame former head football coach, hired Pruitt in December 2017, a week after being named athletic director.
"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."
Barnes, who is entering his seventh season as the Vols' basketball coach, echoed Fulmer's sentiments.
"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," he told ESPN. "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."
In a notice-of-intent-to-terminate letter sent to Pruitt in January, the university concluded that "the conduct by at least two assistant coaches and several recruiting staff members are likely to lead to an NCAA finding of Level I and/or Level II violations of one or more Governing Athletic Rules. The University also has concluded that these likely findings were the result of either your material neglect or lack of reasonable preventive compliance measures."
The school also fired 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.
Chancellor Donde Plowman in January said it was "stunning" and "shocking" the number of people involved and the amount of incidents the university's internal investigation had uncovered.
"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."
Lyons, in comments to ESPN, questioned Tennessee's decision-making.
"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?"
Lyons previously represented former Kansas football coach David Beaty, who sued the Jayhawks in March 2019, after they withheld his buyout because the university claimed he committed a Level II NCAA violation. In June 2020, the sides agreed to a $2.55 million settlement.
Earlier this month, the Independent Accountability Resolution Process notified Beaty that it had withdrawn the allegation against him and that he was no longer part of the case.
"If anybody thinks I'm a bluffer, go talk to Kansas. See what they say," Lyons said. "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?"
Just prior to the 2020 season, Tennessee announced it had rewarded Pruitt with an extension and a raise, taking his contract through the 2025 season. Pruitt was set to earn $4.2 million annually starting in 2021.
Pruitt was 16-19 overall at Tennessee and 10-16 against SEC opponents. The Vols were 2-11 against AP-ranked opponents under Pruitt, who was in his first stint as a head coach. He was previously the defensive coordinator at Alabama under Nick Saban. He currently works as a senior defensive analyst for the New York Giants.