The Case Against Ole Miss: amid significant allegations, will the NCAA find smoke or fire in Rebels' football program?
For nearly four years, NCAA Case No. 189693 trudged on without much notice outside of the state of Mississippi and college football circles. The NCAA's investigation into the University of Mississippi's athletic department includes allegations of academic fraud, illicit booster involvement and significant extra benefits in its football program. As the school shielded NCAA documents from public record and consistently downplayed the severity of the investigation, a veil of mystery hung over the case.
It remained that way until April 28, a day that should have been a celebratory one for the Ole Miss football program. Three Rebel players were projected to go in the first round of the NFL Draft that night, a triumphant coda to a successful recruiting class three years before. Instead, two stunning twists cast a shadow over the program and thrust the NCAA investigation of Ole Miss into the public conversation.
The first came 10 minutes before the draft. A now-infamous video of star left tackle Laremy Tunsil smoking marijuana out of a gas mask bong leaked out on his Twitter account (Tunsil later admitted it was him in the video but said it had been taken years earlier). Tunsil, the top tackle prospect and once a candidate to be the No. 1 pick, lost millions as he slid to Miami at No. 13 in the wake of the video going viral.
Later that night, a screenshot was leaked from Tunsil's Instagram account showing a text message exchange between him and an Ole Miss football official asking for $305 to pay his mother's electric and water bill. During a televised press conference that evening, when he was asked if he had taken money from an Ole Miss coach, Tunsil stunningly said: "I'd have to say, yeah."
Tunsil's interview distilled the expansive and complex case against Ole Miss into one compelling sound bite. It also amplified a question buzzing around the SEC and college football since the Rebels improbably recruited the nation's No. 8 class, headlined by Tunsil, back in February 2013: Where there's smoke, is there fire?
The fate of the ascendant Ole Miss program—fresh off a 10-win season and Sugar Bowl victory—hinges on that question. The NCAA's ongoing investigation began with the women's basketball program in 2012 and has spanned four years, three sports and 28 NCAA allegations. Thirteen of those are in the football program, including fixing ACT tests, significant booster involvement and nearly $15,000 in extra benefits for 11 football players, recruits and their families. The Notice of Allegations was released and the university responded to it. Both documents were released publicly on May 27.
The case will ultimately be decided (likely sometime in 2017) after the conclusion of the NCAA's investigation and a hearing before the Committee on Infractions. It's impossible to predict the level of sanctions the school will face, but independent experts consider the scope of the allegations severe. As the Ole Miss case slogs toward its fifth year, it highlights a process that's unpredictable, flawed and inherently reliant on people who have turned against a school, or in this case, their own family.
Multiple football allegations are tied to NCAA interviews with Lindsey Miller, Tunsil's estranged stepfather. During a recent meeting with SI, Miller detailed the extent of the extra benefits that he claims Tunsil and his family received. Miller, a first-hand witness and aggrieved party, says he laid everything out for the NCAA during more than 100 hours of interviews. Among the things Miller says he told the NCAA: Ole Miss had an intricate system in which the school arranged for Tunsil and his family through boosters to get loans, money and free lodging at hotels and residences around Oxford, Miss. He claims he told the NCAA of benefits that spanned nearly three years.
Included among them: Miller says he told the NCAA that he and Desiree Polingo—Tunsil's mother and Miller's now-estranged wife—moved from Lake City, Fla., to the Oxford area in 2014 along with Miller's two sons from a prior relationship thanks in part to financial assistance from Ole Miss coaches and boosters.
"It's like that movie Blue Chips with Nick Nolte, with Shaquille O'Neal in it," Miller says, referring to the 1994 fictional film about corruption in college sports. "It really is."
The NCAA declined to comment, citing its policy of keeping silent on open cases. But Polingo denies Miller's allegations, saying she and her estranged husband had enough money saved to move there on their own.
In a statement to SI through a lawyer, she said: "[Miller] continued receiving his pension, child support and military benefits. Why he keeps telling people that Ole Miss promised us something or did something wrong is beyond me, and frankly makes me very angry."
Those divergent stories highlight the inherently flawed nature of NCAA investigations. Without subpoena power, NCAA investigators often end up relying on information from biased parties and often have to choose whom to believe. And Miller is far from an impartial witness. In June 2015 he was involved in a domestic dispute at his home with Tunsil; a week later he agreed to cooperate with the NCAA. Two days before the NFL Draft, Miller filed a civil lawsuit against Tunsil stemming from the domestic incident, citing "intentional infliction of emotional distress." He's seeking unspecified damages. (Polingo filed for divorce soon after Miller filed the lawsuit.)
Tunsil declined to comment about the case and his time at Ole Miss through his attorney. "My only comment would be that you have to consider the source," said Steve Farese, Tunsil's lawyer, of Miller.
While Ole Miss has admitted to 12 of the 13 NCAA violations in football, the school disputes the severity and is hoping the smoke will clear in the aftermath of an NCAA investigation Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze recently termed to CBS as "a four-year colonoscopy."
The NCAA case against Ole Miss is the first major football proceeding that primarily falls under the NCAA's new penalty structure for infractions cases, which was instituted in 2013 in part to hold head coaches more accountable and to more clearly define punishments. (Violations, which formerly were classified as major or secondary are now placed on a scale of Level I, the most serious, to Level IV.)
"This is a very serious case," says Michael Buckner, a Florida-based attorney who frequently works on NCAA cases but is unaffiliated with this one. "The number of Level I violations involved (16 overall, eight in football) coupled with the number of coaches and boosters involved. Those are all very serious violations that threaten the integrity of the sport."
Will the Committee on Infractions decide the allegations are much ado about nothing? Or, as rival coaches have wondered, will they take a last stand for amateurism amid a changing landscape?
In the days leading into Signing Day three years ago, Ole Miss's improbable recruiting success emerged as the talk of college football. The Rebels ended up landing the No. 8 class in the nation, including the country's No. 1 ranked player at three positions, according to 247 Sports. Ole Miss signed wide receiver Laquon Treadwell from Crete, Ill., defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche from Loganville, Ga., and Tunsil, an offensive lineman from Lake City, Fla. All became NFL first-round picks in 2016 after three years and 27 wins in Oxford.
There was immediate suspicion about how the Rebels beat out top national programs for such high-caliber players. Freeze was so irked by the reaction from rival fans that he tweeted prior to Signing Day in 2013: "If you have facts about a violation, email firstname.lastname@example.org. If not, please don't slander the young men." (Plenty did email, and Freeze later deleted the tweet).
The average ranking of Ole Miss's previous 10 recruiting classes, according to 247's composite rankings, was 26.8. Freeze offered plausible explanations for his success in 2013. The Rebels landed Tunsil after promising his half brother, Alex Weber, a scholarship in 2014 even though the 6-foot 176-pound receiver received no significant recruiting interest at any level. (Weber is still on Ole Miss's roster).
Nkemdiche and Treadwell also had ties to the school, as Nkemdiche's brother, Denzel, and Treadwell's high school teammate, Anthony Standifer, were already on the team. "I say it's God's favor," Freeze told SI on Signing Day in 2013. "We had a really good plan, we're selling a really good vision and we have some luck."
Lindsey Miller's portrait of Tunsil's recruitment is more complex. Miller recently sat at an oversized conference room table at his lawyer's office in Lewisburg, Tenn., and laid out for SI, in a matter-of fact tone, how Ole Miss landed his estranged stepson .
Miller, who was dating Tunsil's mother during the recruitment and married her in July 2014, says he provided the NCAA with text messages, e-mails and Facebook messages to back up his claims. He showed multiple Facebook and text messages to SI that appear to verify some of the claims in the NCAA Notice of Allegations. He also says he provided his bank and financial records to the NCAA, which helped investigators verify an $800 payment from a booster in August 2014. At one point, Miller says NCAA investigators took his three cell phones to capture all the data.
In one Facebook message, dated Feb. 8, 2013, Miller appears to write to Ole Miss defensive line coach Chris Kiffin: "Plz do all the u you said to help me and desiree and my 2 sons I have been ole miss biggest fan 2 times he committed to ga I was there foor u be there for us when its time ok."
Kiffin appears to have responded: "You know I will!"
Miller provided SI with the Facebook messages, but they could not be independently verified.
(When reached by Sports Illustrated, Kiffin declined to comment citing the on-going NCAA investigation.)
Miller says he spoke to the NCAA for more than 100 hours. He says he told investigators about Ole Miss arranging connections with boosters that led to money, free hotel rooms and lodging.
Not only did Ole Miss coaches break the rules, Miller claims, they were also brazen and calculating in how they did it. In its response to the NCAA, Ole Miss paints the boosters as rogue and stresses that there was no connection between their actions and the coaching staff. The distinction between those two will ultimately go a long way to determine the case against Ole Miss
"Are these multiple isolated incidents?" says Buckner, the independent lawyer. "Or is there a pattern of behavior or one or two networks involved? Is there coordination between coaches and boosters? Or were they independent? If I were a hearing panel member, I'd be concerned about it."
The NCAA has spent much of the last year trying to corroborate Miller's claims. Miller says NCAA investigators have come to Mississippi to visit with him "four or five" times, a sign of how serious the organization is taking the case. Miller says NCAA director of enforcement Chris Howard has visited Mississippi to meet with Miller and lead investigator Mike Sheridan has made multiple trips to the state. Miller says his interviews with NCAA investigators include marathon sessions on FaceTime and meetings at both a McDonald's in Oxford, Miss, and later in that restaurant's parking lot when he and Sheridan grew worried about being seen together.
"I got kind of tired of them," Miller says of the NCAA. "It was everyday for, I'm going to say, two to three weeks. (One day) we spoke for 12 or 13 hours, I took a lunch break and I took a dinner break. I cooperated fully, but it was a hassle."
One of Freeze's favorite phrases when speaking about the NCAA investigation into Ole Miss is "the narrative." He's referred in interviews to "the narrative" of Ole Miss paying recruits that is perpetuated by other schools. He mentions Ole Miss's ability to "rock the narrative" of college football, which he claims has spawned jealousy and animosity from rivals. Freeze and Ole Miss officials downplayed the severity of the allegations until the school released its answer to the Notice of Allegations—in which it admitted it committed 27 of 28 of the NCAA's alleged violations—on May 27, the Friday before Memorial Day weekend.
Freeze, who took over as coach in December 2011, may minimize the NCAA's case, but nine of the 13 football allegations relate to his tenure there. (Four allegations, including fraudulent ACT scores, occurred under former coach Houston Nutt.) There are four Level I violations under Freeze and a significant Level II failure to monitor charge in which the NCAA says the athletic department and football program failed to monitor Tunsil driving three different loaner cars between August 2014 and June 2015. (That latter allegation is the one Ole Miss is disputing.)
In February, Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork incorrectly claimed that the investigation was over in an interview with the The Clarion Ledger, a statement NCAA officials viewed as inappropriate.
"From our standpoint, the investigation involving the Notice of Allegations we received in January was over," Bjork told SI. "We had no way to predict (what happened on) draft night. Obviously things changed on draft night. Now we're working to get to the bottom happened on draft night. It's still an ongoing process."
The NCAA's case against Ole Miss got a lot stronger after June 25, 2015, when Tunsil was involved in an altercation with Miller and was arrested the following day. (Miller turned himself in a few days later and charges against both were dropped in August). Miller released pictures to TMZ of his swollen right eyelid, an injury he alleges was inflicted by Tunsil. He also sent red flags up at NCAA headquarters by telling police they were arguing over Tunsil "riding around with football agents."
Freeze defended Tunsil, saying that he was "proud of [Laremy] for standing up for his family." Tunsil later testified in a July 10 court hearing that he saw Miller shove his mother into a chair. Miller declined to comment on the incident.
Miller met with NCAA investigators one week after the incident, and some of the information he gave appeared to lead to Tunsil serving a seven-game suspension for extra benefits to open the 2015 season. Significant portions of the NCAA's case against Ole Miss reflect information from Miller, as three Level I allegations appear to contain information he provided to the NCAA. The Level I violations the NCAA alleges include the loaner cars that led in part to Tunsil's suspension, accepting $800 from a booster and $2,253 in free lodging at a hotel owned by a booster and a house and condo arranged by boosters.
Miller says he told the NCAA that Kiffin, the lead recruiter on Tunsil, introduced him to an Ole Miss booster who provided Miller with free hotel rooms and lodging in the Oxford area.
Miller showed SI a text from his phone that appears to illustrate the charge in the NCAA's Notice of Allegations: "We'll be there Saturday May 10 to pick up Laremy for the summer. Do you have anything at the Hampton or the house. Let me know if you can help either way."
Along with free hotel rooms, Miller says two boosters helped arrange stays at local residences during Tunsil's freshman year. Miller showed SI a text that included the location of a key "under the flower pot" at a residence. The orchestrated living arrangements amounted to a Level I violation.
The NCAA's Notice of Allegations is consistent with Miller's claims in numerous places, including 12 occasions of free lodging that totaled $2,253. Miller says he told the NCAA those nights were arranged by boosters he met through Kiffin, but the NCAA never found that link. Kiffin's name appears 13 times in the Notice of Allegations, but none of those prove he set Miller up with boosters.
Ole Miss admits in its response to the Notice of Allegations that "had it not been for the altercation (between Miller and Tunsil) …. it is unlikely the University or enforcement staff would have discovered (Miller's) connection to the two boosters."
With nine of the 13 football-related allegations now tied to Freeze's time as coach, Freeze breaks down the violations this way: Of the eight Level I violations, four happened before his tenure and three of the four under his watch are tied to Lindsey Miller taking benefits and Tunsil's loaner cars.
Freeze has kept an edge, but he's backpedaled to a more defensive stance since his infamous tweet. "At this time, all I have seen are mistakes and not an intent to circumvent the rules by our staff," Freeze told SI. "I strongly believe that the NCAA staff has done a thorough job of looking into every accusation made against us."
The Ole Miss case is being viewed around college sports as a test for how the NCAA Committee on Infractions will handle major investigations in the future. College football's escalating popularity has brought higher coaching salaries, bigger television contracts and massive exposure opportunities that have increased the stakes of every game.
Meanwhile, the NCAA has faced a host of lawsuits claiming that its member schools unfairly exploit athletes in the revenue sports. Public perception about players receiving extra benefits has changed significantly, but the NCAA's rules and stance have not. A question looms: Will shifting opinions mark a shift in how the Committee on Infractions judges cases? There's no evidence to suggest that they will, which is why this case is being watched so closely. That puts Ole Miss squarely at a crossroads between evolving ideas and old ideals.
The theory in SEC circles is simple. If Ole Miss doesn't get hit hard after significant academic fraud, heavy booster involvement and a nationally televised admission of a player taking money, the SEC West will turn into the Wild Wild West. The NCAA has a chance to make a statement as a deterrent for future behavior.
"Schools continue to engage in really egregious behavior," says Jo Potuto, a former chair of the Committee on Infractions. "Is the penalty high enough that there's a calculus shift (where the risk isn't worth the punishment)? I'm not sure we're at the point where we're hitting schools with sufficiently serious penalties."
So what will happen to Ole Miss? Considering the NCAA is still investigating the text exchange that surfaced on Tunsil's draft night, the possibility exists Ole Miss could face more allegations. Even if the investigation were over, it would be impossible to predict the sanctions because of NCAA bureaucracy. A majority of the alleged football violations occurred after Oct. 30, 2012, which means the program will be judged primarily by a new penalty structure that hasn't been tested in a case of this caliber and profile. One key tenant of the new structure is head coach responsibility, which theoretically could expose Freeze to a suspension despite him not being alleged with any specific wrongdoing.
"[Does the NCAA] stick to their guns like they said a few years ago and hold the head coach accountable?" asked a veteran SEC head coach. "Or is the NCAA going to wipe their hands of this? If they do, it's going to turn college football into college basketball, which is a free for all. They need to make a damn statement, sooner or later."
Few will argue that the allegations related to ACT fraud during Nutt's tenure are the most serious of the charges against Ole Miss. The fraud was allegedly orchestrated by former Ole Miss staff member David Saunders and assistant coach Chris Vaughn in 2010, according to the Notice of Allegations. The Notice states that three Ole Miss recruits were guided to a rural Mississippi testing center by Vaughn. According to the NCAA, Saunders arranged for the ACT testing supervisor to "complete and/or alter their exam answer sheets." The recruits experienced five to eight-point jumps in their test scores. (Saunders has already been given an eight-year show-cause penalty by the NCAA for orchestrating an ACT fixing scheme at the same testing center and providing extra benefits to a recruit while at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.)
Vaughn was fired earlier this year by the University of Texas for his role in the case against Ole Miss, which included an allegation of interfering with the NCAA investigation by communicating with an NCAA witness. Saunders was fired by ULL and now coaches at Pearl River Community College. It's difficult to project the potential punishments tied to Ole Miss's four Level I allegations considering they are six years old and happened under the last staff. Ole Miss admits to the allegations in its response to the NCAA, but maintains: "This fraud was an isolated occurrence planned, directed, and/or carried out by two rogue staff members long-since separated from the University."
Saunders and Vaughn did not respond to SI's attempts to contact them for comment.
Ole Miss has already self-imposed penalties—taking away 11 football scholarships, disciplining Kiffin and fellow assistant Maurice Harris by limiting their recruiting, disassociated four boosters, paid a fine of $159,325 and placed itself on three years probation.
One outside lawyer, Tyrone Thomas of Mintz Levin in Washington, D.C., considers those "large starting points" for the framework of the penalty structure. (All three outside lawyers SI spoke to generally agreed that Ole Miss has done a thorough job putting together the case in its response to the allegations.)
Ole Miss opens its football season with games against Florida State, Wofford and Alabama. If the Rebels lose two of those three, it's reasonable to consider that they'd self-impose a postseason ban in the same manner than Syracuse and Louisville's basketball programs have done in recent years. That would serve as both a preemptive strike toward a more significant NCAA penalty and potentially help the program move forward.
Ole Miss has still not fired any football coaches, which could lead to skepticism by the NCAA of whether the school has sufficiently acknowledged the extent of its missteps. "Schools are probably not doing what they would have issued under the old system," Buckner said. "You really don't know. Why penalize yourself when the hearing panel may not impose them?"
The final narrative of the case against Ole Miss will be written when the Committee on Infractions decides the football program's ultimate fate. It's not an overstatement to project that the repercussions of the difference between the NCAA finding smoke and fire in Case No. 189693 will reverberate through college sports for years to come.