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Tennessee Football: History suggests NCAA issues are no concern

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There is good reason for Tennessee to be concerned about the NCAA’s ongoing investigation into serious violations that took place under former football coach Jeremy Pruitt. After all, the NCAA is unpredictable and still has the power to slow the Vols’ rapid growth. However, if history is any indication, there’s no need for UT administrators to lose sleep over the seemingly never-ending inquisition.

Tennessee is known for self-reporting, compliance, and working with the NCAA to resolve infractions. Former UT athletic director Doug Dickey believed in being an “open book” when the NCAA came calling. That has served the Vols well. While Dickey is long gone, his practice of working with the NCAA – and not fighting the governing body – to resolve some pretty serious issues is still in place.

Pruitt’s malfeasance isn’t the first time the Vols have been in trouble with the NCAA. Far from it. The Vols were involved in a football ticket scandal in 1986 in which players sold their tickets that were intended for friends and family. The Vols had about 50 players suspended for the first game and some others suspended for the second game of the season. The Vols finished 1-1 against New Mexico and Mississippi State, respectively, in those games. It would be the last time that the Vols were hit with such a strong penalty from the NCAA.

Fast forward to a phone scandal in 1995 in which players were using phone cards for long-distance calls and sharing the cards with others. The charges were enormous, but no serious penalties were doled out.

Then, one of Tennessee’s star players, quarterback Tee Martin, allegedly received money from a Tennessee booster to attend UT. The allegations became public in 1999, but Tennessee was able to prove that Martin and the booster knew each other before Martin was a highly coveted collegiate prospect. Disaster averted. 

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The Vols also overcame an academic fraud scandal in 1999 before basketball drew the NCAA’s ire almost a decade later. Former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl was fired for his role in a recruiting scandal, but the Vols weren’t adversely affected otherwise because of their strong response in the matter. A similar instance occurred in 2014 when Donnie Tyndal was quickly removed as UT’s head basketball coach.

That’s nearly four decades of the Vols being able to avoid serious NCAA punishment as they had to endure in 1986. Maybe the Vols learned their lesson when so many players were sidelined. Maybe the NCAA has gone soft. Whatever the reason, the track record clearly indicates that Tennessee can manage the NCAA. Why? That’s up for debate.

The NCAA usually isn’t as tough as it used to be. The SEC has also taken a larger role in leadership in all aspect of football so the conference office likely has a say with so much television money at stake. Tennessee is also one of the programs that the NCAA would like to be successful. As a pillar of college football, the Vols having success is good for the NCAA as a whole.

Now, with all that being stated, Tennessee is still facing serious charges from the NCAA despite the fact that some coaches and administrators agreed to their penalties this week. The closest comparison to what Tennessee did would likely be what Southern California was punished for in 2010, which was paying players. The Trojans got hammered by the NCAA with scholarship reductions and a two-year postseason ban. That seems unlikely to happen to the Vols considering all guilty parties have departed Tennessee and there was much more money involved in the USC issue. Plus, everything is viewed differently nowadays with NIL payments being so prevalent.

Tennessee could still get hit hard by the NCAA, but history tends to repeat itself. If that’s the case, the Vols don’t have anything to worry about.

Jimmy Hyams contributed to this report.

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