Jeremy Pruitt vs. Tennessee is about to get good — and I’m here for it | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

You didn’t think Jeremy Pruitt was just going to disappear quietly, did you?

That was never going to happen. Too much money at stake.

The University of Tennessee once agreed that Pruitt would be owed a buyout of $12.6 million if he was fired without cause. In January, UT fired Pruitt for cause – meaning Pruitt was owed nothing. I’d imagine Pruitt disagreed, and needless to say, he was going to lawyer up and fight for his $12.6 million.

Wouldn’t you?

Evidence of the inevitable legal scrap wasn’t the surprising part of Tuesday’s bombshell exclusive by USA TODAY Network colleague Blake Toppmeyer

No, the surprising part of the correspondence was that Tennessee isn’t negotiating a settlement and doesn’t appear to be backing down at all to threats from Pruitt's side.

Oh, yeah?

Yeah.

UT is puffing its chest out, too. It appears willing to go to court – and risk all types of unflattering information coming to light - rather than give Pruitt a nickel. Bring it on, the university seems to be telling Pruitt's attorney Michael Lyons.

So grab your popcorn, folks. This is about to get goooood.

Who's right? Who's wrong? Who knows? Since I still don’t know the specifics of these violations that UT uncovered in firing Pruitt, I can’t say how strong either side's case would be in court or whether it’s wise or foolish that the university is refusing to settle.

TENNESSEE FOOTBALL MAKES COACHING CHANGE:Jeremy Pruitt fired as Tennessee football coach for cause after internal investigation

TENNESSEE CHANCELLOR RESPONDS:After firing Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee chancellor vows Vols football will operate 'with integrity'

TENNESSEE FOOTBALL INVESTIGATION:Here's the latest on the Tennessee football investigation, per Chancellor Donde Plowman

I just know you don’t see this very often, and for good reason.

Disputes like these involving big-time athletics programs hardly ever make it to court, because both sides have much to lose when a messy, gutter brawl becomes a matter of public record. Typically, neither side wants dirty laundry aired like that. It’s worth it for a wealthy university to throw a few million dollars at a coach to make him or her go away quietly and without embarrassment.

That’s why I’ve assumed since January that Pruitt would end up agreeing to a settlement that kept his mouth shut – let’s say for an amount roughly half of the $12.6 million, though that’s just a guess – while UT officials would be able to turn their full attention to a pending NCAA infractions case.

It has been about 10 months since Pruitt was fired, though. You figure if Tennessee was interested in settling, it would have by now.

You also figure if Pruitt wanted to file a big, nasty, ugly lawsuit, he would have done that by now, too, rather than just threatening to do it. The ultimatum reported by Toppmeyer from Pruitt’s legal team was designed to coerce UT to the negotiating table. It doesn’t seem to have worked.

Is the money UT is trying to save over Pruitt worth avoiding the legal fees and potential embarrassment – not just for football, but other Vols sports – of this thing landing in court? UT needs to really think about that. The verdict with Pruitt wouldn't be as significant as the information that gets out on the way to a verdict.

If this has become a matter of principle for UT, I can respect that. Because, honestly, in January it seemed very much a matter of saving money. 

Vols officials may not have been searching for violations, but once violations were uncovered, they became a convenient way for the university to rid itself of a struggling and unpopular football coach without having to pay his expensive buyout.

UT Chancellor Donde Plowman, upon firing Pruitt in January, shortsightedly cast the violations as grave misdeeds. At a news conference, she described “a significant number of serious NCAA rules violations.” She used words like “stunning” and “shocking” and said Tennessee was “looking at Level 1 and Level 2 violations.”

Good luck walking those admissions back in front of the NCAA infractions committee.

And what are we even talking about here? The public still doesn’t know what Pruitt and his recruiting staff were accused of doing. Tennessee kept telling everyone how bad it was, but the school never said what it was.

It's surprising that Pruitt is eager to settle and not sue. It's also surprising that UT seems unwilling to settle and unafraid of a lawsuit.

"He's going to file a lawsuit," Lyons said. "They're not leaving him much choice."

I’m here for it.

And, I assure you, NCAA enforcement staffers would be, too.

Reach Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.