Rick Barnes fired back at Jeremy Pruitt on Tuesday night in a statement to ESPN, after Pruitt’s lawyer named Barnes and others associated with Tennessee athletics in alleged rule-breaking that extended beyond just the football staff.
Pruitt, who was fired on January 18 after an internal investigation at Tennessee found multiple possible recruiting violations, attempted to settle out of court with Tennessee, according to a report from the Knoxville News Sentinel, but the Vols declined.
In response, Pruitt’s lawyer threatened a lawsuit alleging other rules violations across the athletic department were covered up before and during Pruitt’s tenure.
Attorney Michael Lyons set a deadline of October 29 for Tennessee to settle the $12.6 million buyout that Pruitt was not paid after being fired for cause. The NCAA began investigating late in 2020.
Lyons, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel, which first reported the details of an October 7 letter written by Lyons to Tennessee, requested records be preserved for Barnes, former athletic director and football coach Phillip Fulmer, former football coach Butch Jones, current defensive backs coach Willie Martinez, former football assistant Tommy Thigpen, former associate athletic director Carmen Tegano, Chancellor Donde Plowman, donor Larry Prattand AAU basketball coach and former Tennessee point guard Bobby Maze.
Fulmer stepped down in January, when it was announced that Pruitt, along with multiple assistant coaches and members of Tennessee’s football recruiting department, were being fired. Martinez coached under Jones at Tennessee before following current head coach Josh Heupel from Central Florida back to Tennessee. Thigpen is currently on staff at North Carolina.
“I’m really disappointed that Jeremy would throw people’s names around,” Barnes said in a statement to ESPN, “that he knows did nothing but support him the entire time he was here and make these unsubstantiated claims. 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.”
Lyons told the News Sentinel on Tuesday that “we’re not here to bluff.”
“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. “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?”