Technically, Hugh Freeze didn’t lose his job due to NCAA violations.
The Ole Miss head football coach resigned Thursday due to something else; if he hadn’t stepped down, he would have been fired for “a pattern of personal misconduct inconsistent with the standards we expect from the leader of our football team,” according to a statement made by university chancellor Jeffrey Vitter in an evening press conference. Reports came out earlier that Freeze, who was about to enter his sixth season as the Rebels coach, had made a call from his school-issued cellphone to a Tampa escort service. The discovery of that call prompted Ole Miss officials to investigate further, and clearly they didn’t like what they found.
Freeze’s departure wasn’t about NCAA violations, but none of this would have happened without the NCAA violations, which have been rumored from nearly the moment he became the Rebels head coach. That’s true in both a direct sense and an indirect one.
Let’s start with the direct sense, and Freeze’s phone records. They were revealed as part of a defamation lawsuit filed by Houston Nutt, Freeze’s predecessor as Ole Miss’s coach, over the school’s attempts to pin the majority of the allegations of NCAA violations on Nutt. He argues that this prevented him from getting another coaching job, in spite of his extremely active efforts to do so. In reality, the main reason Nutt is not employed as a coach (and hadn’t been for many years before the supposed defamation) is likely that his Ole Miss tenure began with a 9–4 football team and finished with one that lost 14 SEC games in a row. Regardless, Nutt felt that what Ole Miss did was a form of character assassination, and so he turned into a character assassin himself. He knows the tricks of the trade.
Nutt understands the power of the Freedom of Information Act. In 2007 he was the head coach at the University of Arkansas when a random fan realized that because Nutt was a public employee with a school-issued cellphone, Nutt’s phone records were a matter of public record. That fan used a FOIA request to reveal that Nutt had texted with a female local sportscaster more than a thousand times, and while Nutt, who is married, denied that he had an affair, he decided the time had come to get out of Fayetteville. He resigned from his post and hours later accepted a job at Ole Miss, all while learning a valuable lesson: Always pull the phone records. And in his quest for redemption, his legal team pulled Freeze’s, revealing the call to the escort. I love FOIAs so much.
Freeze could have hypothetically survived this. He told Yahoo Sports that the call was a misdial, an excuse that seems unlikely, albeit plausible. If Freeze’s call were simply the result of a typing error, the coach would have presumably called the slightly different, correct number directly afterward; if Freeze’s phone accidentally dialed the 10-digit number to an escort from his pocket, he has the most cursed, horny phone in the world and should throw it into a lake. But universities have stood behind coaches who’ve used flimsier logic in the past. And that brings us to the indirect way that the NCAA violations probably factored into Freeze’s demise.
I could see Ole Miss defending Freeze’s version of the story, or perhaps being reticent to explore whether a “pattern of misconduct” existed, had it not been for the coach’s history of being linked to NCAA violations. An Ole Miss fan can argue that the violations aren’t real, but Ole Miss doesn’t believe it; the Rebels self-imposed a bowl ban for the upcoming campaign and forfeited nearly $8 million in SEC postseason payouts. By making clear Thursday that Freeze’s exit is a result of his apparent moral turpitude, the school is now stuck in the uncomfortable position of still having to back him in its NCAA case. These things don’t exist in a vacuum, though, and the news of Freeze’s call seemingly pushed the university past its breaking point.
As for the football program’s alleged NCAA violations, none are particularly scandalous. My favorite, personally, is the NCAA’s allegation that the school paid $10,000 to a recruit who eventually chose to play for Mississippi State, and who then informed the NCAA that Ole Miss paid him $10,000. But there are so many violations — 15 of the most serious classification that the NCAA has. It’s an open secret that most elite college football programs attempt to skirt the rules and hustle cash to players, but they’re usually good at cheating; for starters, they don’t let the kid they paid $10,000 commit to their biggest rival. Of course, Ole Miss was led by a guy who must have assumed he could get away with calling an escort service from his phone with FOIA-able records. Obviously, he’s not the best at hiding missteps.
Talk of cheating followed Ole Miss everywhere. The school couldn’t even celebrate having a player getting picked in the first round of the 2016 NFL draft without it being revealed that he might have been paid money while at Ole Miss. (It’s funny — the thing that scared NFL teams the most about Laremy Tunsil on draft night was the image of a gas mask bong strapped to his face; the thing that raised eyebrows in the NCAA was the allegation that someone at the school might have helped an unpaid player fund an electric bill.) But amid all that talk of cheating, Ole Miss’s team played better than it had in decades. Freeze was hired in December 2011 as the high school coach from The Blind Side. Just over a year after arriving in Oxford, he began to land heralded players such as Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell, and Laremy Tunsil: the top overall prospect, the top receiver, and the top offensive lineman in the recruiting class of 2013, respectively. Did Freeze cheat to get them? Not officially, but dots can be connected. Those players and others helped Ole Miss knock off mighty Alabama twice in a row (to be fair, they’ve been playing since only 1894), ascend to a top-four spot in the College Football Playoff rankings, and in 2014 come about a yard shy of serious national-championship contention. (A bad thing that you should not click this link to watch happened in that yard.)
So Ole Miss stuck by Freeze. He might have broken some rules, but he won games and was regarded as a man of character — the winner of the coaching world’s Christianity contest. Except men of character aren’t supposed to use their school-issued phones to call escort services. When a coach’s primary argument to avoid being fired for his role in an NCAA infractions scandal is his character, a one-minute phone call is all it takes.
So the SEC’s salacious coaching carousel keeps spinning. Nutt left his job at Arkansas as a result of sloppy state-issued phone usage; he was succeeded at the school by Bobby Petrino, who put his mistress on university payroll and then was fired after that came to light following a notorious motorcycle crash; and now Nutt has brought down his successor at Ole Miss for calling an escort service. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and becoming the highest-paid employee in a Southern state apparently convinces men it’s chill to use state property for the benefit of their sex drives.
Technically, Freeze is not leaving Ole Miss due to allegations of NCAA violations. But without those, everything about his tenure in Oxford is different.