In a move that could spark litigation, Tennessee fired head football coach Jeremy Pruitt “for cause” on Monday. The move not only removes a coach whose team has struggled but allows the public university to avoid paying Pruitt nearly $13 million over the next five years. A statement released by Pruitt’s attorney Monday evening suggests that Pruitt intends to challenge the legality of how the school reached its decision.
That Pruitt was fired is not, by itself, a major surprise. The Volunteers were 16-19 under his leadership and 3-7 in 2020. The team has languished behind rivals in the Southeastern Conference.
The far more controversial aspect of the firing is its classification and the financial repercussions. Tennessee on the same day announced that two assistants and seven staff members would be removed for the program, and that athletic director Phillip Fulmer, who hired Pruitt in 2017, will retire from the position as soon as a replacement is found.
Tennessee could have fired Pruitt without cause or for cause. A “without cause” firing is the typical way schools dismiss coaches. The school decides it wants a new coach, often because the team has underperformed. The coach hasn’t done anything “wrong” per se—there is no “cause” to fire him or her. The firing is simply the first step in a coaching change.
Contracts normally guarantee the coach substantially more compensation when fired without cause than for cause. Pruitt’s contract called for him to receive 60% of the remainder of his base pay and supplemental pay in a buyout. Also of benefit to Pruitt: the contract lacked a mitigation clause, which refers to an offset whereby if a fired Pruitt had landed another job, Tennessee’s obligation to him would have reduced (a crucial issue in Bret Bielema’s litigation with the Razorback Foundation). Pruitt was set to earn about $21 million over the next five years, meaning he would have been owed nearly $12.6 million (60% of $21 million) in the event he was let go early.
Pruitt was instead fired “for cause.” Tennessee believes that Pruitt engaged in types of wrongdoing outlined by the contract. Such a firing relieves the school of further obligation to pay, including with regard to salary, compensation and benefits. It only owes him monies earned or accrued but unpaid before the termination date.
Pursuant to Pruitt’s contract, cause is determined by Tennessee—not by a neutral party—and in the school’s “reasonable and good faith judgment.” Among the many examples of cause-worthy events detailed in the contract are conduct or omissions “likely to lead to a NCAA finding of a Level I or Level II violation.” Failure to monitor employees is also grounds for cause, as is conduct that brings or is likely cause “public disrepute, embarrassment, contempt, scandal, or ridicule.”
Last year, Tennessee retained a law firm, Bond, Schoeneck & King, to investigate possible NCAA violations. The firm has a practice group devoted to collegiate sports issues, including compliance controversies.
In a press conference on Monday, university chancellor Donde Plowman revealed that two assistant coaches and seven other members of the football program were dismissed along with Pruitt. The dismissals, Plowman explained, followed an internal investigation that revealed “shocking” findings.
Knox News reports that the school’s termination to Pruitt invoked six for-cause provisions as justification to fire him for cause. Those provisions concern, at least in part, recruiting violations and Pruitt’s supervisory responsibilities. Extra benefits, ESPN has learned, were given to football recruits while on unofficial visits. The NCAA, which has been investigating Tennessee football, has not announced findings.
It remains to be seen if Pruitt legally challenges Tennessee, but he appears to be leaning in that direction.
Pruitt’s attorney, Michael Lyons, released a statement to Stadium‘s Brett McMurphy in which Lyons insisted the school had denied his client a fair process and sufficient notice. The firing, Lyons wrote, is “the culmination of an orchestrated effort to renege on contractual promises”. Lyons further maintained the school only shared “limited portions of the investigation”—thereby implying Pruitt could not wage a legitimate defense if the school wouldn’t share the basis of its findings. He also asserted that during a meeting with Pruitt on Monday, Plowman had: admitted the university’s investigation was incomplete; acknowledged she hadn’t read Pruitt’s interview transcript; and disclosed there was a lack of evidence connecting Pruitt to wrongdoing.
One hurdle for Pruitt and his legal team is contract language limiting possible remedies and waiving potential claims. The contract refers to Pruitt releasing claims against the school and its employees, including in a “for cause” firing scenario. Yet the contract also recognizes that Pruitt might nonetheless sue.
Pruitt’s contract lacks a mandatory arbitration clause, meaning Pruitt could file a complaint in court. He could conceivably sue the public university for breach of contract, wrongful termination, defamation (Lyons’s statement noticeably refers to “intent to disparage and destroy Coach Pruitt’s reputation”) and denial of due process.
Pruitt could argue that Tennessee reached a decision without adhering to the “reasonable and good faith judgment” standard. To that end, he could insist university-hired attorneys were biased since they were paid by the school. Perhaps Pruitt would argue he is Tennessee’s sacrificial lamb to the NCAA in hopes the organization imposes only a mild punishment for the recruiting violations. The counter argument is that the law firm’s practice group specializes in NCAA investigations and has substantial expertise in uncovering evidence.
Another line of strategy for Pruitt would be to identify procedural mistakes made by the school during the process of evaluating and firing him. Pruitt’s contract contains notice requirements and opportunities to be heard. It appears that Pruitt was provided an opportunity, if not multiple opportunities, to explain the situation. However, Lyons (Pruitt’s attorney) charges the school acted before the investigation complete and Pruitt was denied a chance to review investigative materials. Whether the school checked off each and every procedural box remains to be seen.
A coach’s lawsuit doesn’t have to succeed to pose serious problems for a school. Litigation could lead to pretrial discovery where school officials would be required to turn over sensitive documents, including confidential emails and texts, and answer hostile questions while under oath. University administrators run the risk of seeing their careers damaged in a coach’s lawsuit. Evidence could surface that suggests they were involved in wrongdoing or suspected recruiting issues but took no action.
Pruitt and his attorneys likely also recognize that Tennessee athletics is in a uniquely turbulent and vulnerable position. The school faces a serious infractions matter and Fulmer’s retirement.
Sometimes schools would rather settle and pay off a coach than deal with litigation. Last year, fired Kansas football coach David Beaty negotiated a $2.6 million settlement with the Jayhawks. He sued after Kansas refused to pay him $3 million in a buyout on account of NCAA infractions.
Of course, if Pruitt is guilty of committing NCAA violations, then he might think twice about suing. A lawsuit would magnify evidence of his wrongdoing and likely damage the 46-year-old’s prospects for future employment in college sports.