As it sought to tackle the growing concerns around concussions on the football field and how the injuries were diagnosed, the NCAA more than two years ago saw its autonomy group easily pass a rule that mandated full power to the school’s medical officials on a player’s clearance to return to the field of play.
The move was hailed as a positive step that would help minimize the chance a concussed player might be allowed to return to action. The Southeastern Conference actually had been at the forefront of this movement under Commissioner Greg Sankey.
Concussion studies – at all levels of the game, including an ongoing legal battle in the NFL and a brand-new medical study this week that addresses tackle football dangers prior to age 12 – have remained the foremost medical issue in football.
Yet, a potential unintended consequence of this development has been college football coaches who now have continued to want control of their medical staff similar to their control of their football and support staffs. There have been firings of head trainers by football coaches at Florida, Texas A&M, Oregon State and by Bobby Petrino at Western Kentucky in previous “clashes” between a medical staff and a new head coach.
To that end, three prominent and highly respected medical personnel at prestigious Southeastern Conference programs recently have been dismissed by new coaches.
At Texas A&M, first-year coach Jimbo Fisher dismissed both Owen Stanley and Phil Hedrick. Fisher, after talking with medical personnel from Florida State and Arkansas, among others, recently hired away Dan Jacobi from Mississippi State.
On Rocky Top, Jeremy Pruitt last week parted ways with Head Athletic Trainer John Burnside and sources said that more changes could come. Burnside was fired last Wednesday when Pruitt informed athletics director Phillip Fulmer he wanted to dismiss Burnside. Burnside – who already had returned home that evening – was then told by his direct supervisor not to return to work, per no less than four sources.
In a Chicago Tribune story from 2015, NCAA Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline said this about the importance of autonomy for a medical staff to make decisions without external influence or pressure:
“I believe it’s the most important piece of legislation in the history of the NCAA. It really defines who the primary athletics health care providers are.”
The Vols already this spring have sent multiple players to the noted Andrew Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center for additional evaluations, where players met with Dr. Lyle Cain, who, according to multiple sources, “is James Andrews’ right-hand man.” He’s also a long-time Pruitt confidante.
Burnside had just been tapped to head up the Vols’ football training staff when he joined the program in 2017 after a decade at Florida Atlantic. Stanley, a UK grad, and Hedrick, both had more than a decade apiece of experience. Hedrick had previous Power 5 stops at North Carolina State and South Carolina while Stanley’s experience included an impressive three-year stint with the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs.
Sources in the medical field, some with deep roots in athletic training, said all three trainers were victims of head coaches who want total control of every element of the program.
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