After a summer riddled with controversies and accusations surrounding Ole Miss football’s recruiting practices and a pair of now-former coaches, many fans in Oxford are not sure what to expect this fall.
Interim head coach Matt Luke, formerly an offensive coordinator under Hugh Freeze, enters the 2017 season with an impressively talented group of players. But questions remain as to Ole Miss’ on- and off-field future. If the NCAA takes an especially aggressive stance in sanctioning the Rebels’ program, the team could suffer for years to come.
Where did things go wrong?
The NCAA began its investigation into Ole Miss’ recruiting practices after Adrian Wiggins, hired to coach the Lady Rebels’ basketball team in March 2012, was fired in October of the same year. The university cited recruiting violations. Wiggins’ firing marked the official start of the NCAA investigation.
Fast forward to 2015, and the investigation shifts a gear higher when Laremy Tunsil’s stepfather, Lindsey Miller, accuses Tunsil of illegally meeting with NFL agents. Tunsil, at the time one of the nation’s top offensive tackles, sits out for most of his junior season.
2016 could have been the year Ole Miss recovered. In January, the NCAA closed its investigation and handed the university a Notice of Allegations (NOA) consisting of more than 30 recruiting violations that included the women’s basketball, track and field and football teams. The list was extensive but far from a certain death sentence.
Enter Tunsil’s draft night catastrophe.
In late April, less than an hour before the 2016 NFL draft began, an anonymous hacker gained access to Tunsil’s social media accounts and released a video of the two-time All-SEC junior smoking marijuana, as well as a screenshot of Tunsil allegedly asking an Ole Miss coach for money. The NCAA reopened its investigation.
Soon after, in August 2016, it began interviewing players from a number of schools, including Mississippi State, who may have been offered illegal rewards from Ole Miss boosters. The players were granted immunity for their testimony.
In February 2017, the NCAA added eight accusations to its first NOA.
The university’s official response arrived June 6, 2017, and included a self-imposed one-year bowl ban, among other recruiting restrictions. Just a week later, on July 12, Houston Nutt, head coach from 2008 to 2011, sued Ole Miss, the university’s board of trustees and the Ole Miss Athletics Foundation for defamation. He claims the accused made false statements regarding his tenure in Oxford. This lawsuit led to the Freedom of Information Act request that would eventually reveal Freeze’s interactions with escorts and ultimately led to his downfall.
What’s next for Ole Miss football?
Prior to the events involving Freeze’s phone records, the university stood firmly behind Freeze, defending his actions and reaffirming his innocence to the NCAA. Athletics Director Ross Bjork and Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter both appeared in press conferences, uniting the university behind a man who built a remarkably wholesome public persona. They asserted that boosters acted in rogue without Freeze’s approval. But once Freeze left, the university was strong-armed into pivoting its defense.
Early signals seem to indicate Ole Miss will spin Freeze’s departure as an internal solution. With Freeze gone, the NCAA can no longer go after the problem’s alleged source. In other words, Ole Miss could attempt to convince the NCAA that it took care of the situation in-house.
This effort will attempt to minimize further sanctions. But is it an admission of guilt from the university? Is the Ole Miss athletics department admitting Freeze played a part in the recruiting scandal after repeatedly denying his involvement? Not necessarily, but it certainly does not look good.
The NCAA has not handed down its final sanctions yet. Representatives from Ole Miss are set to meet with the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions on Sept. 11, just five days before the Rebels’ game at the University of California, Berkley. If it finds the Rebels guilty of “failure to maintain institutional control,” among potential other violations, the penalty could include a mandatory two-year bowl ban. If that’s the case, 2014 and 2015 recruiting class players can transfer without red-shirting. Players including Ken Webster, DeMarquis Gates, Marquis Haynes and DaMarkus Lodge could walk.
Other penalties could include mandatory scholarship limits (already in place) and further fines and penalties. While it’s an unlikely sentence for the Rebels to receive, the so-called “Death Penalty” (banning a school from competing in a sport for a set number of years) was handed to Southern Methodist University’s football program in 1987 after repeated recruiting violations.
With an already weakened 2017 recruiting class, the NCAA retains the power to seriously cripple Ole Miss football for years. The Committee on Infractions has remained tight lipped lately, and there is little indication as to how Freeze’s dismissal will affect the sanctions.
Nutt’s lawsuit has since been dismissed; a U.S. district judge cited a lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The former coach, who finished his final season in Oxford with a 2-11 record, is expected to refile in state court later this year.