How Hugh Freeze's Scandal Changes Ole Miss's NCAA Case—and How It Doesn't
- A former member of the NCAA's Committee on Infractions explains how Hugh Freeze's resignation might change the approaches both ex-coach and program take as the investigation into Ole Miss's recruiting tactics continues.
It wasn’t shocking that Hugh Freeze got pushed out at Ole Miss last week. It was shocking why Freeze got pushed out last week. Had someone predicted on July 1 that Freeze wouldn’t last the month, that outcome would have seemed entirely plausible. But we would have expected the reason to be the NCAA investigation into the Rebels’ recruiting tactics—not a “pattern of personal conduct” that was discovered after the attorney for former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt alerted Ole Miss officials to a call to a Florida-based escort service in Freeze’s phone records.
Things got very weird last week, and now it’s time to gather all the disparate strings in an attempt to figure out what happens next for everyone involved in this soap opera. We’ll start with the Rebels and the NCAA.
Ole Miss vs. the NCAA
Perhaps the strangest facet of this case is the fact that the Rebels have spent months building a defense around a man they no longer have to defend. The question now is whether this hurts or helps Ole Miss going forward. A former member of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions (who asked to remain anonymous) told SI.com that the Rebels’ best bet is to use the same defense they spelled out in their response to the NCAA’s second notice of allegations. That means Ole Miss will have to defend Freeze’s efforts at maintaining rules compliance in spite of the fact that Freeze resigned before athletic director Ross Bjork could fire him. The Rebels can’t now suddenly heap everything on Freeze and say “he did it” because he doesn’t work there anymore. (Besides, Ole Miss has already chosen its scapegoat in the form of former high school relations director Barney Farrar.) Any change in tack now probably would not be viewed favorably by the committee, but the former committee member said the attorneys for Ole Miss can adjust the language they use to attempt to tilt this turn of events in the Rebels’ favor.
The former committee member said the attorneys representing Ole Miss should repeatedly hit upon the fact that Freeze is no longer employed there while avoiding the reason why Freeze isn’t employed there anymore. Explaining why would reinforce to the committee members that Ole Miss had dug in behind Freeze—even going so far as to extend his contract—before last week’s discovery. The best thing that could happen to Ole Miss now is the committee believing the Rebels when they deny some of the more serious allegations. That is unlikely, but the next best scenario for Ole Miss would be a separation of Freeze and Ole Miss in the minds of committee members as they deliberate on a punishment. If committee members view Freeze as the driving force behind the violations and subconsciously view Freeze and Ole Miss as separate entities, it’s possible they hit Freeze with a harsh penalty and the school with a lighter one. Ole Miss officials also hope the decisiveness with which they acted after learning of Freeze’s behavior will strengthen their case that the institution was in control. But the committee also may look at the fact that the head football coach essentially led a secret life with no one the wiser as a lack of control.
If someone in the room repeatedly reminds the other committee members that Ole Miss had planned to back Freeze, none of this may matter. It all depends on how separate Freeze and Ole Miss are in the minds of committee members.
Hugh Freeze vs. the NCAA (vs. Ole Miss?)
The Rebels aren’t likely to throw Freeze under the bus with regard to NCAA matters because their defense is built upon some outright denials of certain accusations (mostly the ones from current Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis) and their assertion that Freeze attempted to promote compliance and that others—who, conveniently enough, don’t work for Ole Miss anymore—violated rules anyway. The Rebels will contend that they didn’t back Freeze for any abstract reasons such as character. While this isn’t entirely true based on the rhetoric out of Oxford in the past two years, Ole Miss can lean on a paper trail of compliance documentation. Whether committee members buy this is another question entirely.
The former committee member said the situation could change dramatically if Freeze doesn’t show up at the COI hearing—which should take place in late August or early September. A no-show from Freeze would almost certainly guarantee a harsh penalty for the coach that would render him virtually unemployable in college athletics for a length of time. The COI already has volumes of testimony from Freeze, but Freeze’s best bet is to go to the hearing and fight the charges against him. That’s why Ole Miss officials expect Freeze to come to the hearing.
At the hearing, Freeze and the Ole Miss delegation would occupy different tables. Freeze has his own attorney for NCAA matters and has not relied on university counsel. This is something every coach under investigation should do even if he is still employed. At some point, every coach who runs afoul of the NCAA should assume he and his employer will find themselves at cross purposes at some point. The late William Beaver was new to the business of defending clients against the NCAA when he was hired by college buddy John Blake as the NCAA came after Blake in a case involving North Carolina in 2010. Beaver had a great line when he learned UNC officials had told Blake he wouldn’t need to hire his own attorney: “When someone tells you that you don’t need a lawyer, hire two.”
Whether Freeze coaches again probably depends on how believable he is in the hearing. And even if he emerges from this with a relatively light penalty, he’ll still need to work to repair his reputation. Bobby Petrino had an affair with an underling at Arkansas and lied to his boss about it. He got fired there, but he has been hired for two head-coaching jobs (Western Kentucky and Louisville) since. Freeze’s transgressions are less common and more frowned upon, so he’ll need some serious image rehab—probably including actual rehab—before he attempts to get another job. The fact that Freeze was so publicly religious could make the image rehab more difficult. Petrino never pretended to be a holy man, and no one was surprised he did something duplicitous. Freeze banged the Bible hard during his time at Ole Miss, and getting run out of his job for a pattern of behavior discovered after a call to an escort service makes him look like a hypocrite. At some point, he’ll have to explain to an AD or a head coach (if he’s seeking a coordinator job) how he’ll convince recruits and their parents to trust him.
The Ole Miss football team vs. The Unknown
Ole Miss players made it clear last week that the season didn’t end for them with Freeze’s ouster.
We still here ...— Javon Patterson (@JPatterson__8) July 21, 2017
Just to let the rebel family know we are still here and we ain't backing down— quis haynes (@Quishaynes38) July 21, 2017
Offensive line coach Matt Luke will take over as the interim head coach, and the former Rebels walk-on seems uniquely suited to hold this thing together. When he thought he’d still be coaching Ole Miss, Freeze insisted that first-year coordinator Phil Longo would have full control of the offense. Now, there’s no question that’s the case. And Longo has a lot of toys to play with. Shea Patterson is one of the nation’s most exciting young quarterbacks, and the Rebels have a deep receiving corps and a serviceable line. First-year coordinator Wes McGriff has a lot less to work with on defense, so my prediction of YOLOball and shootouts hasn’t changed.
The toughest task will be keeping the Rebels—who are banned from postseason play because of self-imposed sanctions—together if they lose a few early, and that is a possibility with visits to Alabama (Sept. 30) and Auburn (Oct. 7) in consecutive weeks. The COI’s decision, which should come down sometime in November, also could challenge the coaching staff. If the COI tacks on a longer postseason ban, dozens of players would be free to transfer with no penalty. A coaching staff that probably won’t be around next season would have to try to retain players with every reason to want to leave. That could be a mess if the sanctions come down with games still on the schedule.
The Ole Miss Administration vs. a Coaching Search
Bruce Feldman put together a realistic list of people who might seek out the Ole Miss job on Friday, but the truth is we won’t be able to narrow the candidate pool until we know what the COI will hand down.
Here’s what we do know. Ole Miss dumped Freeze without paying him another penny, which means the Rebels will have plenty to spend on the next guy. Freeze was making almost $5 million, and the Rebels likely can go that high again for the right candidate. There are likely to be other high-paying Power Five jobs open this off-season that don’t carry the NCAA baggage the Ole Miss job will, but no matter the circumstances, a coach has to take that kind of money—and the length of the contract Ole Miss might have to offer if the sanctions are bad—seriously. The Rebels will have a qualified pool from which to choose, and someone probably will get richer than he ever dreamed.
A Random Ranking
In further Andy Is Old news, Appetite for Destruction turned 30 years old last week. So today we’ll rank the top 10 Guns N’ Roses songs, and the opening track of Appetite will lead us off…
1. “Welcome To The Jungle”
2. “November Rain”
3. “Paradise City”
4. “You Could Be Mine”
5. “Mr. Brownstone”
7. “Sweet Child O’ Mine”
8. “Don’t Cry”
9. “Rocket Queen”
10. “It’s So Easy”
Three and Out
1. With camp getting closer, various college football programs are testing maximum lifts. That produces some video that makes us mortals feel awfully weak.
Here’s NC State defensive end Kentavius Street squatting 700 pounds (and making it look easy).
Here’s Tulane linebacker Rae Marbley power cleaning 400 pounds.
2. Who cooked it better? Was it Auburn offensive line coach Herb Hand, whose players polished off 55 pounds of brisket last week?
Or was it Texas A&M defensive ends coach Terry Price?
3. Michigan holder Garrett Moores has launched his campaign to win a second consecutive Holder of the Year Award.
What’s Eating Andy?
Take it from someone who learned this the hard way, Texas coach Tom Herman. There is no way she’ll wait on you.
What’s Andy Eating?
In what might have been the most controversial power rankings I’ve ever done, I ranked Hot Chicken joints in Nashville: