Coach Jeremy Pruitt was among those who tested positive. Pruitt said in a statement that he is experiencing mild symptoms but is “doing fine.”
The Vols (3-7) on Sunday had been selected to play West Virginia (5-4) in the Dec. 31 bowl game in Memphis.
“(Sunday’s) test results revealed an increase in positive cases among student-athletes and staff and subsequent contact tracing,” UT announced in a statement. “The decision was made in consultation with health officials, the Southeastern Conference and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
“The student-athletes and staff affected are taking the appropriate safety measures in accordance with University, (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and local health department guidelines. The University of Tennessee extends its sincere appreciation to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl and the city of Memphis and is disappointed it will not be able to fulfill its commitment on New Year’s Eve.”
Tennessee had two games postponed during the regular season, but neither postponement stemmed from COVID-19 issues within its program. Both games were rescheduled and played.
Tennessee is the first SEC team to drop out of its bowl game.
“Earlier today, I was informed by our medical staff that I have tested positive for COVID-19, and I immediately began isolating at home,” Pruitt said in a statement. “I am experiencing mild symptoms but doing fine. We are obviously disappointed that we will not be able to play in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, but the health and safety of our student-athletes will always remain our top priority. I am especially proud of our team and medical staff in safely navigating through a unique season where we played all 10 of our regular-season games.”
In November, Tennessee athletics director Phillip Fulmer and men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes tested positive for COVID-19. They have recovered from the virus.
Tennessee was without defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley and running backs coach Jay Graham for the regular-season finale on Saturday, a 34-13 loss to Texas A&M. UT did not announce a reason for the assistant coaches’ absence. The school has not publicly identified individual athletes or assistant coaches who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Ansley and Graham were unavailable Saturday after testing positive for COVID-19, a source close to the program told Knox News on Monday.
Pruitt did not participate in a Liberty Bowl news conference via Zoom on Sunday. His grandfather died late last week, and Fulmer said during the news conference that Pruitt was visiting with family on Sunday.
Tennessee enters the offseason facing plenty of questions – for starters, Pruitt’s future. He’s 16-19 after three seasons but is under contract through Jan. 31, 2026, after receiving a two-year contract extension in September.
If Tennessee fired Pruitt without cause – and a losing record doesn’t constitute cause – he would be owed a buyout of nearly $12.8 million.
Fulmer has mostly remained mum on Pruitt’s status for 2021, but in a news release announcing the Liberty Bowl selection on Sunday, he said the game would serve as “a tremendous development opportunity for our team and should serve as a primer to spring practice for Coach Pruitt and our returners.”
That’s the closest Fulmer has come to definitively saying that, if it’s up to him, Pruitt will be back in 2021 for a fourth season.
Pruitt said after Saturday’s game that he “absolutely” expects to be back next season, while acknowledging that a 3-7 season is “not where we want to be.”
Meanwhile, the University of Tennessee is conducting an internal investigation of the football program for alleged recruiting violations and alleged impermissible benefits to athletes, a source with knowledge of the investigation confirmed to Knox News on Sunday.
Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake’s subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.