Hoover, AL—Hugh Freeze would dearly love to come to SEC Media Days and talk about the hopes and dreams of his Ole Miss football team.
But that is not Freeze’s reality in 2017. And he knows that.
The reality for the sixth-year coach is that the nightmare that has been a four-year NCAA investigation into his program just got worse. On Wednesday Houston Nutt, his predecessor in Oxford, filed a scathing lawsuit against him and the school.
Stripped down to its bare bones, Nutt’s suit claims that Freeze and the school planted false information to create a media narrative that Nutt was more deeply involved in the 21 alleged NCAA rules violations than he actually was. Nutt’s suit called the effort “a smear campaign.”
The lawsuit takes a difficult NCAA investigation and gives it an ugly and very personal twist. And it occurred on the day before Freeze was scheduled to appear here on the final day of SEC Media Days. That cannot be a coincidence. When he appeared on the SEC Network Freeze would only say that he was “disappointed” in the timing of the lawsuit.
I’m not a lawyer but I did raise one, which is why I knew we would get a big “no-comment” on the lawsuit. I’m certain it was the last thing the Ole Miss lawyers told Freeze before he got on the plane to fly here.
The first question was about the lawsuit.
“I would absolutely love to share my opinion but it is a legal case and I can’t comment on it,” said Freeze.
What Freeze did do in the main media room was read from prepared notes outlining the things he, his program, and his family have been through during this investigation. At over 16 minutes, his opening remarks went uncomfortably long leaving relatively little time for questions in his 30-minute session. He was called out on Twitter for trying to run out the clock.
Due to self-imposed sanctions, Ole Miss is not eligible to go to a bowl game this season.
“This a difficult challenge, one our staff needs to embrace,” said Freeze.
Freeze said he met with every player individually and encouraged them to see this season as a glass half full.
“What is happening has zero impact on your ability to get a degree. Embrace the blessings that you have,” said Freeze, noting that not one player has left the program since the NCAA investigation began.
Freeze has had a meteoric rise in the coaching profession, going from a small private high school (Briarcrest Christian in Memphis) in 2004 to being a head coach in the SEC in 2012. Today Freeze has a total compensation package of $4.7 million, the fourth-highest in the SEC.
When the Rebels signed the No. 3 recruiting class in the country in February of 2013, fans of competing schools started raising red flags. Freeze challenged the critics, perhaps unwisely, to contact his NCAA compliance people if they knew of rules violations. It was like waving a red flag in front of a bull.
On the field, however, Freeze took Ole Miss to some places it had not been before: Back to back trips to New Year’s Six bowls in 2014 and 2015; two straight wins over Alabama.
Last season Ole Miss again played Alabama to the wire before losing 48-43. The Rebels hammered Georgia 45-14. But then things began to unravel, losing five of their last six SEC games to finish 5-7.
Then the weight of the NCAA investigation took its toll in recruiting as Ole Miss signed what was rated as the No. 36 class in the country. Also in February Ole Miss received an amended Notice of Allegations from the NCAA, alleging an additional seven rules violations to the original 14. Ole Miss filed its 125-page response to the amended NOA in June and awaits a hearing with the NCAA committee on infractions, which should come sometime this fall. After that meeting, a final decision should come 6-8 weeks later.
So there is a timetable for it to be over. But there are a couple of questions to be resolved:
1—How does this season play out? Ole Miss can’t go to a bowl so Freeze and his staff are pitching the idea that the players must take advantage of each of their 12 regular-season games. The Rebels open at home against South Alabama and UT-Martin. On Sept. 16 there is a trip to California. After a week off Ole Miss plays nine straight weeks, including a stretch that includes back-to-back road games at Alabama and Auburn.
“They have 12 opportunities to play in the greatest conference in America and they can prove a lot in those 12 games,” he said.
But can Freeze and his staff hold this team together if it starts losing?
2—What is Freeze’s future at Ole Miss? From reading the 125-page response filed in June, it is very clear that the university is all-in on backing its head coach.
“They (the University ) has been unwavering in their support of me,” said Freeze. “They’ve obviously witnessed me for five years run a program.”
But there will come a time when Ole Miss learns exactly what the Committee on Infractions has and if there will be additional sanctions coming. That’s when the University must decide to keep him with no sanctions, suspend him for multiple games, or dismiss him. This has to get resolved or it will continue to have a negative impact on recruiting.
On Thursday, Freeze sounded like a man who was ready to accept whatever comes next. He just wants it to be over.
“We’ve got to be responsible for the areas that we were deficient in,” said Freeze. “We have to own that.”
The Ole Miss players say they have to focus on the task at hand. They don’t have another choice.
“Right now we’re worrying about what we control, which is showing up and working out,” said Shea Patterson, the sophomore quarterback. “We are just looking forward to Sept. 2 (the first game). “Anything beyond that is just irrelevant to us right now.”