Tennessee’s football team needed a lift. Then the NCAA stepped in.
“The best news of the day is Bryce Brown has been cleared,” head coach Lane Kiffin said, recounting his announcement to his team before the final period of Wednesday’s practice.
Kiffin received the news midway through practice from athletic director Mike Hamilton, who made his way to Haslam Field to share the NCAA’s final ruling on UT’s freshman tailback.
Brown, who was rated the No. 1 tailback prospect in the country and has been a standout in preseason camp, drew the NCAA’s attention for trips he took to college campuses during his sophomore season at Wichita (Kan.) East High School. Brown took the trip along with other eventual Division I-A signees but he was singled out for punishment. The investigation, which began in February and concluded last month, had nothing to do with UT’s or any other school’s recruitment of Brown.
Kiffin said the original penalty that UT appealed was a four-game suspension and a significant financial penalty to repay the travel costs.
“His penalties were waived,” Kiffin said. “He’ll miss no games and owes no money. So I think that’s a heckuva deal by the NCAA to get it done right and get it done with a sense of urgency. We’re very grateful for that.”
Kiffin commended associate athletic director for compliance Brad Bertani for helping UT and Brown work through the process, which required investigation into Brown’s trips and what — if any — knowledge he had of the funding.
“By no means was it something that Bryce was doing knowingly that would be wrong,” Kiffin said. “He was just part of the group and was actually younger than most of the other guys (taking the trips).”
Kiffin said providing prospects with the means to travel to college campuses is common and offers players a chance to better themselves.
“People or towns assist players as they grow up,” Kiffin said.
Kiffin declined to specify how much money Brown was originally asked to repay. But when Kiffin was asked if the figure was in the thousands, he said, “Up there.”
Kiffin said he surmised that Brown’s grade-point average — a 3.6 in high school and a 3.7 while at UT — helped his cause, as did a letter he wrote to the NCAA.
“He did a phenomenal job with the letter late last week,” Kiffin said. “He wrote a very detailed, long letter about the experience and about him and what he’s gone through.”
Kiffin said he also visited with the NCAA to strengthen Brown’s case.
“Without going into too much detail, I had some conversations with the NCAA and I felt they were going to get things right,” Kiffin said. “I spent time explaining who this kid is and what he’s about, how this is not a kid that should be punished for something like this.
“... I don’t know what were the final factors except for it’s what’s right. In the end, they got it right, that he shouldn’t be punished. He didn’t do something knowingly wrong. I’m very excited about that and I think that says a lot about the system.”
Kiffin said he hadn’t limited Brown’s practice snaps because he was optimistic the appeal would work.
“We were just playing all along as if he was going to be there,” Kiffin said.
Kiffin said last week that the Vols would eventually have to limit Brown’s practice time to get other players ready if the appeal drug on too long.
Kiffin wasn’t sure how his team would react when he told them of the decision. Admittedly, it was a tired, worn-down team that Kiffin said was feeling sorry for itself in the waning days of preseason camp.
The Vols certainly seemed rejuvenated by the news, letting out cheers that could be heard a block away.
“They were tired but you could tell they really like him a lot and were really happy for him,” Kiffin said. “Part of that is because he’s going to be a great player but I think a lot of that is because of who he is.”
Yet there was a more private moment that Kiffin also remembered. It came when he put his arm around Brown and informed him of the good news.
“His smile today, when I told him going into that last period ... it was pretty neat to see,” Kiffin said. “He was pretty excited.”