As Tennessee Vols football fans wait for NCAA verdict, the damages mount | Adams

John Adams
Knoxville News Sentinel

Tennessee football fans are learning the value of patience. But not by choice.

They have learned that rebuilding takes time. So, most of them will give new coach Josh Heupel and his staff the benefit of the doubt as he tries to succeed where so many other UT coaches have failed.

While fans are waiting for the program to rise from the depths of the SEC East, their patience also will be tested on another front:  What damages will the NCAA inflict on the UT program?

Fans have been wondering about that ever since Tennessee’s internal investigation alleged that former coach Jeremy Pruitt’s staff was more intent on a coverup than recruiting on the up-and-up.

University of Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman speaks during a press conference addressing the leadership changes related to the University of Tennessee football program held at the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center in Knoxville on Monday, January 18, 2021.

In fact, the damages already are mounting. They just haven’t been detailed in an official letter from the NCAA. And there will be no progress report - no intermittent tweets on how the case is developing.

Meanwhile, UT conducts its football business as usual, even though the elephant in the room bears an NCAA logo.

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Some of Tennessee’s best players haven’t stuck around for the final verdict. They have transferred elsewhere.

The latest defection ranks as the most hurtful. Linebacker Henry To’o To’o, UT’s best returning defender, announced he was leaving the Vols for Alabama. Couldn’t he at least have had the decency to go play for Oklahoma, Clemson or some other national championship contender? Instead, he added to Tennessee’s long list of losses to Alabama.

You can’t measure how much the possibility of NCAA sanctions factored into the attrition. However, you can’t dismiss it, either.

The impact surely will be felt in recruiting. As competitive as recruiting can be in the SEC, the slightest negative could tilt a recruiting battle one way or the other. Opponents will make sure recruits are properly educated on what’s going wrong with their SEC compatriots.

None of this should be lost on the NCAA when its infractions committee finally gets around to the sentencing phase of its investigation. Prisoners get credit for time served in jail while awaiting their trial. NCAA violators deserve at least that much consideration.

Tennessee’s self-sacrifices also shouldn’t be ignored. Based on the conclusion it presented to the public, it didn't pull any punches in its investigation.   

You could argue that firing Pruitt for cause worked to the school’s advantage. Not only did UT rid itself of an inept coach, it saved millions of dollars by not having to pay what was left of Pruitt’s inflated contract.

But Tennessee didn’t just eliminate the leader of its most recent decline. The entire coaching staff is gone, too. So is former athletic director Phillip Fulmer, who wasn’t connected to the alleged violations but was negligent in overseeing the school’s most high-profile program. Technically, he “resigned,” but do you really believe upper-level management gave him an option?

Never mind that Tennessee hired a more qualified athletic director in Danny White, or that Heupel figures to be an improvement over Pruitt. The Vols took a hit on the timing.

If the firings and hiring had taken place in December instead of January, recruiting might not have suffered as much. With the late start, Heupel and his staff also are playing catchup in the 2022 recruiting cycle. In SEC recruiting, one month can make a huge difference.

The NCAA should consider all of that – the transfers, the staff upheaval, and the school’s extensive self-investigation – when it metes out penalties.

Its decision can’t come soon enough for a fan base whose patience is wearing thin.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or Follow him at: