Ole Miss finds worried fans on annual road trip
GREENVILLE, Miss. (AP) Johnny McRight is one of the diehard Ole Miss football fans and he's got a seat front and center to hear coach Hugh Freeze speak on a Monday morning. This is the Rebel Road Trip: A normally joyous occasion when Freeze and athletics director Ross Bjork take a weeklong tour to pump up the program's most ardent followers.
But this year, some of that joy has given way to uneasiness.
The Rebels are knee-deep in an NCAA investigation that threatens to stop all the momentum the program has gained over Freeze's first five years as coach. The NCAA has accused Ole Miss of 21 rules violations, including 15 in the category the governing body deems most serious.
Ole Miss has already self-imposed several penalties, including a one-year bowl ban for the upcoming season. More sanctions could follow when the case is heard - likely later this year.
The bad news has been coming so fast that even the most loyal fans are shaken, even if they try not to show it.
''I've been disturbed by it, but I've tried not to be worried,'' McRight said. ''For whatever reason, I've got confidence that they've done their best to do right and it's going to work out.''
The task of this year's Rebel Road Trip is to try and justify that optimism. Freeze, Bjork and Ole Miss chancellor Jeff Vitter were all on the big tour bus Monday, making stops in towns like Greenville, Olive Branch and Corinth, where a mix of average fans, high-dollar donors and even some former players listen intently to every word.
''It's definitely coming at a time when it has merit that we need to be seen,'' Freeze said.
After Vitter and Bjork speak for a few minutes at each stop, it's Freeze's turn on the stage. The coach is good at this sort of thing - mixing a down-home personality with the passion of a Southern Baptist preacher. His main message: Ole Miss will get through the NCAA issues and emerge stronger than ever.
''I think I'm very candid and speak from my heart,'' Freeze said. ''And I think that relates to people.''
The stakes are high for everyone involved at Ole Miss. Freeze, who grew up in nearby Senatobia, is trying to hang on to his self-described dream job that pays more than $5 million per year.
It's understandable why Ole Miss wants to keep him despite the NCAA issues: He's brought some of the most successful football to Oxford in decades. The Rebels peaked during the 2015 season, when they had a 10-3 record and won the Sugar Bowl for the first time in more than 40 years.
But the program dipped to 5-7 last season as the seriousness of the NCAA infractions case became more evident. The case has also made it hard for Freeze to replenish the roster in recruiting with highly-rated talent.
Off the field, Ole Miss is also trying to continue an impressive run of raising money for facilities upgrades. The school's website says they're $169 million into a $200 million campaign that's being used to pay for a new basketball arena and upgrades to several other facilities.
But cracks in the momentum for football are already starting to show.
Bjork said season-ticket sales - while still high by the school's historical standards - are lagging behind last year's numbers. The athletic director's main task on the trip was to help explain the process of what happens during an NCAA infractions case.
Bjork didn't face any angry questions on Monday. Just a whole lot of worry.
''A lot of people think that there is some negotiating process with the NCAA enforcement staff, and there's not,'' Bjork said. ''A lot of people wonder who decides our fate. What's the makeup of the panel? What's the room look like?
''People want to know that stuff. So I think sort of de-mystifying the process was very important for us this time around.''
Former Ole Miss quarterback Romaro Miller was one of about 100 fans who listened to Freeze and others speak in Olive Branch. He said that Freeze and Bjork have done the best they can to keep fans informed, but there are simply a lot of things out of the school's control.
Sometimes, that's hard to accept.
''With the NCAA, they move to their own beat,'' Miller said. ''Everybody wants it to be over and Lord knows I do, but that's just not the way it happens.''
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