Hell, Freeze is over
Amid NCAA investigation, Ole Miss football coach resigns unexpectedly to avoid "moral turpitude" termination
When something is too good to be true, more often than not, it is. That’s surely the way Ole Miss fans are feeling right now.
On Thursday, Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze, 47, the most successful Rebel coach in 50 years, unexpectedly resigned six weeks before the 2017 season is set to kick off.
Surprisingly, the parting had nothing to do with the years-long NCAA investigation and 21 rules violations for providing improper benefits, including cash payments and merchandise, to prospects, as well as lodging and meals to recruits and their families, of which it has accused Rebel football coaching staff and boosters. Ole Miss has self-imposed a double-digit reduction in scholarships, as well as one-year bowl ban, and forfeiture of its share of SEC postseason revenues, which could be as much as $7.8 million, for the 2017 season as a result of the allegations, which included lack of institutional control for Freeze’s failure to monitor his coaching staff.
Something more sinister was at hand.
“While Coach Freeze served our university well in many regards during his tenure, we simply cannot accept the conduct in his personal life that we have discovered,” Ole Miss chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said Thursday night at a hastily arranged press conference to announce Freeze’s immediate departure.
“We would have exercised the termination clause in our contract for moral turpitude. We would have exercised termination for cause,” Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork said at the presser.
“There is no buyout. No settlement.”
That was eye-opening considering Ole Miss gave Freeze a four-year contract extension, worth an expected $5 million-plus annually, at the end of the 2016 season.
Neither Vitter nor Bjork would go into detail on the resignation, saying Freeze deserved privacy. But USA Today reported Thursday that Freeze made a one-minute call from a university-issued phone to a number associated with an escort service.
That number was discovered by former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt’s legal team as part of a defamation lawsuit against Ole Miss and Freeze, which was filed in federal court last week, for placing the blame for the investigation on Nutt.
Interestingly, while he was head coach at the University of Arkansas, Nutt was undone by an alleged affair reveled by a freedom of information request into his phone records. He resigned and quickly found a job in Oxford. Nutt went 18-8 and had back-to-back Cotton Bowl wins in his first two seasons as the Rebels’ coach, but slipped to 6-18 – and 12 straight SEC losses – in his next two years. Ole Miss fired him after four seasons, and essentially looked to rebuild its program. Nutt hasn’t returned to the sidelines since leaving Oxford. Many point to his exits from both Arkansas and Ole Miss as the reasons for his lack of a head coaching job, but Nutt feels he was defamed by the school and Freeze in the ongoing NCAA investigation into Ole Miss’ recruiting practices.
Nutt’s legal team alleged that Freeze phoned sports reporters to create a false narrative to place primary blame on Nutt for the NCAA’s ongoing investigation. They requested, received, and searched six days of Freeze’s phone records from early January 2016 when it found the number, which USA Today said is associated with websites that advertise a female escort business based in Tampa, Fla. The paper said Nutt’s attorney, Thomas Mars, contacted Ole Miss general counsel Lee Tyner about a “phone call Coach Freeze made that would be highly embarrassing for all of you and extremely difficult to explain.”
Freeze initially denied purposely calling an escort service, claiming it was a wrong number, however, Bjork began an investigation of Freeze’s university-provided cellphone records dating back to his 2012 hiring.
“In our analysis, we discovered a pattern of conduct that is not consistent with our expectations as the leader of our football program,” Bjork said. “As of yesterday, there appeared to be a concerning pattern.”
Bjork and Vitter confronted Freeze in a Wednesday night meeting. He offered his resignation the next day.
It’s a stunning fall.
The Ole Miss faithful suffered for years in the basement of SEC football, and appeared ready to stand by Freeze through the NCAA investigation. Between the 1940s and early 1970s, Ole Miss was a college football powerhouse, culminating in the Rebels winning three football national championships between 1959-1962. Ole Miss football slipped into mediocrity shortly after the 1962 riots that forced President Kennedy to federalize the National Guard so that a black student could be enrolled in school. Many had grown resigned to the idea that Ole Miss would be forever marred by its past, stained by its sin of segregation, and never able to escape the shadow of the past.
But Freeze seemed to change that. The coach was “hand picked” by Rebel legend and former quarterback Archie Manning. He led the Rebels to four straight bowl games in his first four years, including consecutive New Year's Six bowl appearances in the first two years of the College Football Playoff. In six seasons at Ole Miss, Freeze had a 39-25 record, including a 19-21 mark in SEC play. Fans loved Freeze for returning the Rebels prominence, beating Alabama twice and gaining a coveted Sugar Bowl victory after a 46-year absence from the post-season spectacular. He talked of bringing the state together, about being a family, and he won.
But today, Ole Miss fans are smarting from believing in a man whose faith-based, family-centered, scripture-quoting persona has seemingly been exposed as a fraud. And questions are following about Vitter and Bjork’s futures at Ole Miss after standing with Freeze with such blind trust.
Former Ole Miss coach Tommy Tuberville told ESPN the school needs to “wipe out the entire administration.”
“Obviously people knew what was going on,” Tuberville said. “Clean the slate.”
Bjork named assistant head coach, co-offensive coordinator, and offensive line coach Matt Luke as interim head coach. However, many believe Ole Miss needs an established name to settle the program and set it on the right path.
The Rebels are expected to appear before the NCAA Committee on Infractions in Indianapolis in September. No doubt, their ruling will have profound impact on the Rebel football program – depending on the findings current players might be able to transfer without losing a year of eligibility. But it could also have the far-reaching effect of causing change to Ole Miss’ entire leadership structure, athletically and academically.
While the fallout from Freeze’s tenure affects Ole Miss’ supporters, the true victims are his wife and three daughters. Fans’ memories will fade. Unfortunately, they’ll have to live with the repercussions for the rest of their lives. Wins will never outshine this loss.