As Hugh Freeze aims to defend his own name, his only hope lies in murky Ole Miss case and unpredictable NCAA
HOOVER, Ala. — Hugh Freeze dipped repeatedly into the Bible on Thursday, and the verse he chose explained his mindset more thoroughly than the thousands of other words he spoke. In each room the Ole Miss coach entered, he was asked the same questions about the NCAA's investigation into the Rebels and what it means for himself and the program. In each room, he offered similar answers that referenced the NCAA's gag order and his fervent desire to explain everything to the NCAA's Committee on Infractions. In most of the rooms, he offered some version of the first verse of the 22nd chapter of Proverbs.
A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.
Freeze has grown frustrated during the course of the three-year investigation because his name has become intertwined with the (more serious) accusations lobbed by rivals and the (less serious) specific allegations spelled out by the NCAA in the notice sent to Ole Miss in January. The Rebels stand accused of breaking NCAA recruiting and impermissible benefit rules during Freeze's tenure. None of the allegations contained in the Notice of Allegations specifically accuse Freeze of anything, and he considers that a critical point. It is unclear if the NCAA has found anything to corroborate text messages that surfaced in an Instagram post on the first night of the NFL draft that appear to be a conversation between former Ole Miss tackle Laremy Tunsil and John Miller, the Rebels' assistant athletic director for football operations. In the messages, Miller and Tunsil appear to be negotiating the amount of a payment that Tunsil planned to use to pay his mother's utility bill. Any corroboration on that front could change the tenor of the case, but it is useless to speculate until the NCAA reveals what, if anything, it found.
At present, Freeze is named in one of the allegations. It involves what the NCAA calls "a representative of the institution's athletic interests"—which is NCAA-speak for booster—giving recruits transportation to and lodging in Oxford and attending an in-home visit in which Freeze was present. Ole Miss is not contesting the allegation, but, per the school's response to the Notice of Allegations, Ole Miss officials will argue that the actions of the booster, a "huddle leader" for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the Memphis area, did not "involve either a third party seeking to benefit from his association with a prospect or a wealthy booster seeking to persuade a prospect to attend a particular institution by providing lavish gifts or benefits." Freeze considers this a misunderstanding of the rules and not evidence of intent to cheat. Multiple times Thursday, he said he had no desire to "cut corners."
That might matter only to Freeze because the public typically ties head coaches to the results of any NCAA investigation. This is only natural; they are the faces of their programs. Just like any other CEO, a head coach will get credit or blame for the performance of his organization—and this includes all dealings with any regulatory body. To most of us, whatever happens to Ole Miss during Freeze's tenure, good or bad, will go on the mental résumé that pops up every time his name is mentioned. He's the guy who beat Alabama in consecutive years. He's the guy who led his team to consecutive New Year's Six bowls. He's also the guy who was in the head coach's office when Ole Miss football got in trouble with the NCAA.
Though he might wish it were otherwise, Freeze seems to understand that most people won't separate him from any of the acts that wound up in the Notice of Allegations. "Everybody's got a narrative," Freeze said Thursday. "You have one, I have one, our rivals have one. All of us have one in regards to us going on in the world and in our world with the NCAA. It's obvious that the allegations have come. We've got our notice. I would encourage you to read our response, and we look forward to that day. But with everybody's narrative going on, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle and the facts are this: There will come a day where we get to stand before the Committee on Infractions, which are the ones that matter, and we will be held accountable for any wrongdoing that is found, and that's the way it should be."
For a guy warned by the NCAA and by his school's own attorneys against offering specifics, Freeze did as good a job as possible answering the repetitive questions Thursday. He's had practice, and he stayed on message without getting as frustrated as some of his counterparts did this week when the questions slanted away from the positive. Mistakes were made. The football program should be held accountable. The COI will ultimately decide.
Freeze wants this to be an Ole Miss matter and not a Hugh Freeze matter, but that's where it gets complicated and difficult to predict. In 2013, the schools passed a rule that allows the COI to discipline a head coach for the actions of his assistants even if the head coach didn't know what the assistants were doing. In NCAA parlance, the head coach is now "presumed responsible" for more serious violations. The COI has the power to suspend the head coach for between 10% and 100% of a season.
What will come of the Tunsil revelations on draft night remains the great unknown, but it's equally tricky to predict what the COI would do even if nothing is found and the Rebels go before the committee to defend themselves against the existing NOA. Though Ole Miss has made a recommendation, the committee will determine how many scholarships the Rebels lose. It will determine the tools available to them in the recruiting process going forward. It will determine whether any coach or staffer gets suspended. It won't directly determine whether anyone loses a job, but it can hand down "show cause" penalties that can inspire schools to fire coaches or staffers.
What makes this case even more intriguing is that what the NCAA finds doesn't seem to matter to the coaches who recruit against Ole Miss. In the minds of people in some of the ACC, Big 12 and SEC programs that routinely run up against Ole Miss on the recruiting trail, the Rebels are presumed guilty. Freeze was adamant Thursday that no coaches are accusing Freeze of breaking rules. He's correct. But they are accusing Ole Miss of breaking rules. One member of a rival staff suggested this week that if the NCAA's Committee on Infractions doesn't hit Ole Miss hard, other schools will take it as a signal that everyone is free to break the NCAA's rules with impunity*.
*There is a great argument to be made that paying people a rate determined by the open market for being good at football isn't a bad thing and that people should be allowed to do it. I've made that argument many times. But the schools make the rules, and coaches, administrators and NCAA officials claim they're important. So for the purposes of this discussion, we'll focus on the rules on the books and not any common-sense improvements that could be made.
This puts the COI in an odd position. From a public relations standpoint, a harsh penalty with no new allegations will satisfy Mississippi State fans and Alabama fans. But outside the fanbases whose schools play Ole Miss on an annual basis, it would appear the NCAA is decimating a program over a little more than $15,000 in extra benefits. Among those with no dog in the hunt, such sanctions will play quite differently in 2016 than they would have in 2006 or even in 2010. Freeze and every other coach in the SEC West make at least $4 million a year. The SEC rakes in millions from its network partnership with ESPN. The general public no longer views a few hundred dollars here and there—or a few hotel stays*, as the Notice of Allegations alleges—as sins that could bring down the republic. But if the COI doesn't hammer Ole Miss, the people within the programs with skin in the game could view any leniency as a tacit approval to bring back Southwest Conference-style bidding wars. In its own way, the Ole Miss case might be as much of a referendum on the NCAA's ever-shifting definition of amateurism as any of the cases currently circulating through the federal court system.
*Making this situation even more complex is the very serious ACT fraud the NCAA alleges was committed by members of Houston Nutt's Ole Miss staff. That typically would result in a harsh penalty, but the principals have already been fired at Ole Miss and punished individually by the NCAA. How those facts might affect any penalties remains unclear.
It will be fascinating to see how the COI handles this case. Corroboration of the conversation in the text messages revealed on draft night would tilt the scales decidedly against Ole Miss, but failing that, the COI would have to decide between two types of punishment. One avoids the ire of a public increasingly sick of the NCAA quibbling over athletes getting a few extra hundreds while the head coaches and schools make millions. The other would avoid the ire of coaches and athletic directors who are—fairly or unfairly—convinced of the Rebels' guilt and ready to revolt.
While he defends his program, Freeze also will defend himself. It's important to him that his name remain free of specific allegations. But that esteem he values more than silver or gold can be handed out only by others. Many of those others will not separate Freeze from anyone else in Ole Miss colors. But the opinions that matter belong to the members of the COI. They'll be the ones who ultimately decide whether Freeze and the people named in the allegations are separate or inextricable.