Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze says he wants “finality.” He’s probably not going to get it under the circumstances he’d like.
The Rebels released their official response to the NCAA’s second Notice of Allegations on Tuesday, and the takeaway is clear: Ole Miss has no intention of backing down when it comes to the serious accusations levied against Freeze.
The two most notable of these are the Level I “lack of institutional control” and “head coach responsibility” claims, but a total of 15 Level I allegations can be found in the NOA. Most occurred under Freeze’s watch, with a fraction attributed to Houston Nutt’s tenure.
The university, which begins the response by citing its internal investigation, proactive compliance measures and self-imposed punishments (including the bowl ban) at length, eventually addresses the Level I charges:
“In taking responsibility for what has occurred, the University has self-imposed significant and appropriate penalties …
“All but three of the Level I allegations (i.e., Allegations Nos. 5, 20, and 21) were the result of intentional misconduct specifically intended to evade monitoring systems implemented by the University, the athletics department, and the head football coach …”
“The University contests the allegations concerning institutional control and head coach responsibility (Allegations Nos. 20-21).”
Those are the legalese equivalent of fightin’ words, and it’s either a bold display of support or brazen stupidity.
By continuing to resist — that’s how the NCAA will see this — Ole Miss not only looks reckless, but risks getting hammered harder by college football’s governing body, as well. The NCAA is out for blood and wants Freeze to be the sacrificial lamb. This is where the Rebels have made their stand.
Objectively, you have to wonder: Is Freeze worth it?
He’s a fine football coach who led the Rebels to their first Sugar Bowl win in decades. His offense beat Alabama twice. But he’s not the second coming of Johnny Vaught. Does fighting for him outweight the potential long-term damage done by a two-year bowl ban, more scholarship reductions or worse? A year-long suspension for Freeze is on the table. The anxiety surrounding this investigation has already poisoned recruiting efforts (see: 2017 signing class, “penalty”).
Let’s assume for the purpose of argument that Freeze, who is still beloved by many in Oxford and around the state, had no knowledge of his staff’s wrongdoings, as the university argued in its response.
Freeze may be a fantastic human being — I can’t personally vouch for his character, but I know some who can — and it’s hard to believe athletics director Ross Bjork would fight this hard if that wasn’t the case. Yet, that probably matters little when the NCAA sees these matters in black and white.
The officials investigating this mess see a repeating trend of broken rules. Ole Miss has admitted as much. Not much can be done to completely protect Freeze at this point, so why try?
Bjork and his team can try to deflect blame from Freeze by bringing up the likes of “Student-Athlete 39,” widely recognized as Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis, or ex-assistant Barney Farrar. Lewis certainly would have a conflict of interest in telling the NCAA about improper benefits he may or may not have received.
With the evidence available to the public, however, it’s unlikely Farrar acted as a rogue agent, just as it is unlikely an alleged cash-dealing booster only paid this particular ex-Ole Miss recruit. The existence of your typical “college football bag man” is common knowledge at this point. And here’s Ole Miss, harping on the account of one football player and requesting to be present for his interview.
Ole Miss will achieve the finality Freeze seeks only by bowing out of this fight, and that means firing Freeze. In continuing to battle the NCAA, the Rebels may ultimately have to fire Freeze anyway. Coaches rarely, if ever, survive this sort of onslaught given the internal and external pressure to clean house.
It’s a lose-lose proposition for the school. Bjork may feel good defending a coach he personally respects, but when the men in suits with hundred-page reports show up on your doorstep, you’ve already lost.
The Rebels will meet with the NCAA Committee on Infractions later this year. Despite a tornado’s worth of potential fallout churning in the distance, Ole Miss is standing pat, going about its business and apparently willing to die on this hill with Freeze if necessary.
In other words, this picture is the perfect metaphor for Ole Miss v. NCAA:
— BuzzFeed (@BuzzFeed) June 5, 2017
The post Ole Miss willing to go down with Hugh Freeze, and NCAA will oblige appeared first on SEC Country.