Crooked Letters Crooked Letters

Inside the NCAA's years-long, twisting investigation into Mississippi football

No matter what else happens, remember the T-shirts.

It’s easy for them to get lost in this whole saga. There are overwhelming distractions to come. But don’t forget about the T-shirts, because nothing else will matter when we’re done.

Not the social media hack that put images of a college football star wearing a gas mask bong on the internet just moments before the 2016 NFL Draft.

Not the football coach, the pious one who quoted scripture and made football miracles happen, who found himself undone by a sex scandal.

And not the money. That might be the hardest part. There’s money everywhere in this story, including the stacks of cash Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis said he took from multiple parties trying to sway him to play football for their teams. There are also the untold dollars paid to college football players every year against NCAA rules, and the millions in legal fees spent to parse the former.

At times this story bends to the wildly unbelievable and entertaining, yet nothing about the Great Ole Miss Football Scandal has changed college football. Verdicts have been rendered and penalties enforced, none of which will amount to any measurable change to the system. Programs are still cheating, coaches are still claiming they don’t know it, and the gross economic inequity between those who manage college football’s business model and those who fuel it is still intact.

But, the T-shirts. They might make this time different.

In a hotel conference room on an August morning in 2016, in front of the lawyer his university hired to represent him, Leo Lewis talked to an NCAA investigator. He told them that on one occasion he was gifted with what he estimated to be $400 worth of merchandise — an impermissible benefit under NCAA rules — at an Oxford, Mississippi, store called Rebel Rags. He made these claims as part of a deal that promised him immunity from penalties.

Lewis said there were some T-shirts, baseball jerseys, and some other “stuff.” He told NCAA investigator Mike Sheridan he didn’t even keep the free Ole Miss clothes. Why would he? He plays linebacker for Mississippi State, their archrival. Some of the items he couldn’t even remember well enough to describe.

Those T-shirts, though, not only changed Lewis’ life, but potentially have opened the NCAA’s warped justice system to real legal standards, with real legal ramifications for the institution itself.

So no matter what else happens, don’t forget the T-shirts. A lot of people cheat in this story, and more lie. Don’t get distracted.




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Illustration by Josh Schielie

No one actually considered former Ole Miss football coach Houston Nutt a mastermind of anything, good or bad.

In 2011, a once average Ole Miss Rebels football program hit rock bottom under then head coach Nutt, going 6-18 over two seasons and winless in SEC conference play that year.

Nutt’s four-year tenure in Oxford, the small town where the University of Mississippi is located, was, and still is, characterized by former Ole Miss staffers and rival coaches as not organized enough to be devious.

When NCAA enforcement, the “cops” who investigate alleged rule-breaking in college sports, first came to Ole Miss, they showed up to investigate the women’s basketball and track and field program. No one outside the NCAA knows exactly when the enforcement office turned the focus of its investigation onto the football team, but sometime before Nutt’s departure that same year, it did. The NCAA would later allege four Level 1 violations committed by members of Nutt’s staff, including lying to investigators and fraudulent scores for ACT testing.

In an email to SB Nation, Nutt’s attorney, Thomas Mars, wrote:

“Of the 13 allegations in the January 22, 2016 NOA [Notice of Allegations] involving the football program, only two of them allegedly occurred when Houston Nutt was the head football coach. Two more violations alleged in the NOA related to alleged improper communications with witnesses and false and misleading statements by two former members of Coach Nutt’s staff. However, these alleged violations occurred in 2013 and 2014, long after Coach Nutt had left Ole Miss.”

That was all to come. In the meantime, the Rebels fired Nutt and hired a Mississippi native named Hugh Freeze . Freeze’s resume was thin for any top coaching job; he had served just one year as a head coach at Arkansas State, and spent only two years at a major program, when he was a tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator at Ole Miss. If his resume was thin for a top coaching job, it seemed wildly unqualified for a head job in the SEC West, college football’s most lucrative — and cutthroat — division.

But thanks in part to the bar set by Nutt and an apathetic former administration, the job was considered a loser by top-tier candidates. Freeze was the best and most willing available coach at the time. And despite everything I’m about to tell you, I believe if Ole Miss had to go back in time they’d probably hire him again.

Why? Because Ole Miss started winning football games. A lot of them. Despite his inexperience, Freeze quickly built up Ole Miss from the laughingstock of the SEC West to one of the most fearsome programs in college football.

The NCAA came to Oxford, Mississippi, to look into other sports. The actions of Nutt’s staff opened the door enough for the enforcement division to start poking around the football program.

Then, the NCAA cops didn’t leave. For six years.

About those cops: You should get to know NCAA enforcement, the policing arm of the NCAA’s mission to “Protect The Game.”

The lead investigator into Ole Miss football since at least 2013 has been a man named Mike Sheridan . There’s not much available to describe Sheridan, which is how the NCAA would prefer it. He’s a white male, and, according to a source who spoke with him, he’s originally from Iowa. If you Google “Mike Sheridan NCAA” one photo of him pops up, in which he is speaking to a group of University of Richmond athletes. In the photo, he has close-cropped brown hair, and wears a button down with the sleeves rolled up.

The NCAA declined to make Sheridan available for comment for this story, though when reached for comment, NCAA director of public and media relations Stacey Osburn referenced a previous statement given to SB Nation on Nov. 30: “The NCAA is always interested in pursuing behaviors that harm college sports, including recruiting violations. When the enforcement staff receives information regarding potential violations, we thoroughly review that information to determine what happened.”

If you believe the NCAA, the enforcement staff exists in order to protect the student-athlete. But while the modern NCAA has shown itself to be toothless in policing actual criminal scandals, from Baylor to Michigan State, among its “membership” of coaches, administrators and student athletes, they’ve maintained a vigilant effort to stop the black market for player compensation.

Why? Because if players’ work has demonstrated market value beyond the tuition and stipends and meal plans their schools provide, then that lays waste to the NCAA’s position that they are amateurs.

Good college football players get paid cash money by boosters to play for their teams. Even with a thriving black market, there’s little chance these athletes are compensated for their fair market value in a sport that yields billions. Leo Lewis is alleged to have received around $21,000 before deciding where to play college football.

The NCAA’s mission to stamp out financial compensation for athletes, both in its bylaws and policing, is often compared to the “War on Drugs” or Prohibition — culturally tone-deaf moral legislation that’s comically and fruitlessly enforced.

This metaphor is bullshit. It insults those oppressed by NCAA bylaws — the labor. This is not a morality play; a fair wage is not a vice in America, nor is it a threat to public welfare. There is absolutely no argument against compensation of college athletes except for one: The business model that yields billions of dollars for the stewards of the NCAA, its corporate partners and its member institutions, is most profitable if no one has to pay the players.

After five years of reporting on this story, it is my belief that NCAA enforcement is not there to protect the student-athlete — they are there to protect the NCAA’s business model.

Winning will get you noticed in college football, but recruiting will make you famous. From the moment he was hired, Hugh Freeze began recruiting players once considered impossible to land at a fair-to-middling SEC program like Ole Miss. He made this happen almost immediately. Everyone in the sport noticed.

His up-tempo, aggressive offense sparked the program to a 7-6 finish in 2012, but the campaign was overshadowed by Freeze’s courtship of Robert Nkemdiche, the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit and brother of then-Rebels linebacker/safety Denzel Nkemdiche.

Nkemdiche considering Ole Miss was understandable — his brother played there, after all. However, Freeze was chasing a slew of top-20 overall talent, including the nation’s best high school wide receiver, Laquon Treadwell, and the nation’s top high school offensive lineman, Laremy Tunsil .

Neither Treadwell nor Robert Nkemdiche were ever named in any of the NCAA’s notices of allegations against Ole Miss. Tunsil, on the other hand, was.

On 2013 National Signing Day, the day when college football recruits announce what school they will attend, Freeze landed all three, thrusting the program into the national spotlight both for the astounding haul and the methods involved. The college football world asked, how in the world was a rookie SEC coach at a .500 program doing this?

They had to have been cheating. Right?

At least that was the speculation. As the commitments arrived, so too did the narrative that Ole Miss was throwing cash at recruits and their families to become a big-time program.

Accusations of cheating are as much a function of Southern culture as the college football itself. It’s born out of the twin pillars of passion for the game and gross economic inequity. Poor black men play football. Rich white men want them to play for their teams.

Ask any fan base and they’ll tell you with great passion — and in great detail — how their arch rivals are doing dirty business to get ahead. Ask them if their team is doing the same and they’ll clutch pearls. Everyone cheats but us.

The NCAA’s misguided mandate of amateurism results in rampant cheating in order to succeed in college football. So the point of all of this isn’t to determine if Ole Miss was cheating. That’s a given. The point of the NCAA’s investigation could only prove whether or not Ole Miss was any good at cheating. (Spoiler: Not at all.)

“The problem at Ole Miss was that the head coach was searching his own name on Twitter every damn day,” a former staffer in the Ole Miss program said. “He became fixated on the criticism. He never got it, never understood it’s just part of the job. And most [head] coaches don’t give a shit about what’s said about them on social media because they aren’t reading it anyway.”

Rather than ignore that somewhat customary noise, Freeze made the biggest public relations gaffe of his career. In a since deleted tweet, Freeze wrote, “If you have facts about a violation, send it to If not, please do not slander these young men or insult their family.” [sic]

“Nothing will haunt us more than that stupid tweet,” a source at Ole Miss said.

Watch the four-part docuseries Foul Play: Paid in Mississippi

NCAA enforcement was already on campus. They were already poking around when the football program, out of nowhere, landed the most talented recruiting class in the school’s history. And now the head coach was challenging them, and notoriously gossipy rivals, on social media.

Freeze’s timing could not have been worse. When he sent that infamous tweet the NCAA’s enforcement division was still reeling in the aftermath of the 2011 scandal at the University of Miami, where it was discovered that NCAA enforcement officials, lacking subpoena power, had relied on (and paid) an attorney in a separate bankruptcy case to depose witnesses on their behalf. The fallout led to the attorney being suspended by the Florida Bar, as well as a complete overhaul of the NCAA’s enforcement staff in 2013.

NCAA enforcement needed a win and Freeze’s tweet was a giant neon sign.

“Why would you ever challenge the NCAA? No coach on Earth would do that. Nothing good can happen. Nothing,” an SEC head coach said. “Even if you really, truly believe you’re running a clean — technically clean — program top to bottom, you can’t be naive enough to believe that somewhere in the hundreds of people that touch your football team that there isn’t something going on the NCAA could build a violation out of.”

Freeze refused to comment on the record for this story.

Nothing changed at first. Ole Miss built on their 2013 signing coup and began to eke into the national conversation with a six-point upset over Alabama in 2014. That year, the Rebels fell short of winning the SEC West title but ended up with a New Year’s bowl game appearance.

Freeze’s staff continued to recruit like a national power and the program began to market itself accordingly. But internally the Rebels were committing a litany of minor and major mistakes that would lead to violations. Some were shockingly dumb, but most were the same kind of cuts and cheats that, according to insiders, real college football powerhouses make consistently. The important difference is, other schools know how to cover them up.

Freeze’s recruiting drew notice but he really wanted to be known as an offensive guru. Among peers, however, he was already infamous as “Preacher Hugh,” a nickname borne from Freeze’s brassy Christian proselytizing. There were the frequent quotes from scripture on his Twitter feed, the prayers before team meetings captured in ESPN all-access videos. Regardless of your opinion about faith, there’s no arguing that Hugh Freeze sold the absolute shit out of holy rolling — as a recruiting tool, as an ethos, and as a marketing tool for his great Rebels campaign.

This enraged other head coaches, even beyond Ole Miss’ sudden relevance on the field. To rival programs, especially archrival Mississippi State, Freeze was a loathsome archetype: Christian celebrity in public, arrogant cheater in private.




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Illustration by Josh Schielie

The NCAA’s investigation in Oxford survived because the Lindsey Miller problem never got fixed. Miller was Laremy Tunsil ’s stepfather and watched as Tunsil went from sought-after recruit to Ole Miss’ best shot at a No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick since Eli Manning over the course of his career there. According to multiple sources connected to the program, Miller had long been known as a potentially problematic hanger-on in Tunsil’s camp, greedy and overzealous, dating back to before Tunsil signed with the Rebels.

Of Hugh Freeze ’s “Big 3” signings in the 2013 class, critics considered Tunsil the most suspicious win. Nkemdiche’s brother was a defensive starter for the Rebels, and even Treadwell, an Illinois native, had a high school teammate on the roster. Tunsil, a Floridian, had no direct connection to the Rebels and passed over offers from far more successful programs. Miller came along for the ride, moving to Oxford along with Tunsil and his mother, Desiree Polingo.

Two years after Tunsil and Miller arrived in Mississippi, both filed charges for domestic violence against one another after the pair had a physical altercation at Miller and Polingo’s shared residence on June 25, 2015. Miller told the media the fight centered around Tunsil’s interactions with prospective NFL agents.

During a court hearing in Lafayette County Justice Court on July 10, 2015, Tunsil testified that Miller had physically attacked his mother. Polingo told the court Miller became angry when he thought he was being cut out of Tunsil’s potential future earnings.

Polingo also testified about an earlier physical altercation between Tunsil and Miller that happened back in 2013, when Tunsil was playing in the Army All-American game in San Antonio. Miller had travelled to the event with Tunsil and Polingo and the family had a meal at a local Mexican restaurant with coaches from the University of Georgia.

Per NCAA bylaws, Georgia coaches were not permitted to pay for the family’s dinner. Miller, enraged at having to pay, confronted Polingo and Tunsil about it in their hotel room, according to Polingo.

According to conventional recruiting wisdom, that should’ve been a flag for schools interested in Tunsil’s services. “You recruit your problems,” said a former SEC assistant coach who evaluated Tunsil. “It was evident at that time that recruiting Laremy Tunsil meant recruiting the stepfather. That’s not fair to the kid, but fair doesn’t matter if that family member is going to threaten your entire program. Ole Miss brought [Miller] into their program, into their community. They knew. There is absolutely no way the coaches who recruited him didn’t understand that relationship and the problem he posed.”

A source involved in player compensation — known as a “bagman” in college football circles — at a rival SEC program outside of Mississippi concurred.

“So now if there’s no arguing that Ole Miss is having its boosters pay players, how in the world do you not take care of the situation with Miller? How does that go unnoticed? There’s absolutely no way that caught their boosters by surprise.”

After Miller disastrously represented himself in court, he and Tunsil dropped domestic violence charges against one another, but not long afterward, Miller filed a lawsuit against Tunsil for “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

This time in court, however, Miller, a Floridian with no obvious connection to the state of Mississippi before moving to Oxford, wasn’t alone. He’d found representation from a lawyer named Matthew Wilson, a Starkville, Miss., based attorney, Mississippi State alumnus and, according to sources I spoke with, a Bulldogs fan.

In a phone call, Wilson read the following statement to SB Nation: “Due to the constraints of litigation, neither Mr. Miller nor I are presently able to address questions you have raised relating to Mr. Miller’s comments to the NCAA or pertaining to his relationship with Laremy Tunsil.

“With that said, you have also have inquired about my personal relationship with Mississippi State University. I graduated from Mississippi State 20 years ago with a degree in industrial engineering.

“I have been a fan of Mississippi State for most of my life. However, my support of the Hail State family has been limited to the money I’ve fed parking meters while checking my mail on campus, for food that I have eaten in the union, and for nosebleed seats at football and basketball games.”

Miller now had representation in court. By this time, he had also already started talking to the NCAA.

Shortly after the June 2015 fight with his stepson, Miller spoke to NCAA enforcement about Tunsil’s recruitment by Ole Miss, a process Miller told Sports Illustrated lasted over 100 hours.

The NCAA used the information Miller gave to build its initial notice of allegations (the official method by which the NCAA lets an institution know what rules it is alleged to have violated) against Ole Miss, charges that included $800 in cash allegedly paid to Miller by a booster, as well as free lodging at local motels and apartments. And, according to multiple sources, buried in those 100 or so hours of contact with NCAA enforcement, Miller mentioned he and Tunsil received free merchandise from an apparel shop in Oxford named Rebel Rags.

Miller’s accounts of Tunsil’s recruitment were enough to create multiple Level 1 allegations — the most serious in the NCAA rule book — against Ole Miss. As the NCAA built a case around Miller’s vendetta against Tunsil and Polingo, who had by then filed for divorce from Miller, Ole Miss withdrew Tunsil from active play for fear of having to forfeit games for using an ineligible player. The Rebels would do the unthinkable and beat Alabama for a second straight year, more impressive that they had done so without their junior left tackle, who was all but certain to leave following the 2015 season for the NFL.

Without Miller, NCAA enforcement wouldn’t have been able to build a substantial case past the Houston Nutt -era violations. Without Miller, the NCAA wouldn’t have learned about Rebel Rags.

A lot of people cheat in this story, and more lie. Don’t get distracted.

That’s not to say the NCAA viewed Miller any more credibly than the college football recruiters who’d been wary of Tunsil because of him. Multiple sources confirmed to SB Nation that even lead investigator Mike Sheridan acknowledged Miller’s dubious motives and character during a 2017 hearing against Ole Miss in front of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, or COI, the group that levies punishment at the conclusion of NCAA investigations. But Sheridan ultimately concluded that despite concerns, Miller’s statements were still credible.

It’s worth taking a moment here to remember that the NCAA has said, many times, that it exists to protect the wellbeing of the student-athlete.

Yet in its investigation into Ole Miss, the NCAA had no qualms building a case around the word of a man who, according to the testimony of his former wife, told the family: “Y’all are going to pay for this. … you ain’t shit, you ain’t never been shit, and you ain’t about shit and you’re going to reap what you sow.”

Miller’s integrity and motive had already been challenged in a real court of law, but the NCAA’s justice system — the investigation, the closed-door COI interviews — operates in a vacuum. I believe there is no due process. In college football, from all that I have seen, credibility is a malleable concept.

By the end of the 2015 season the Rebels were closing in on their first Sugar Bowl in decades just as the NCAA finished framing its notice of allegations around Miller’s statements. Entering the 2016 signing cycle, Freeze was now recruiting players to an established national power.

That’s why Ole Miss kept right on lying.

On Jan. 22, 2016, the school received its first notice of allegations (NOA) from the NCAA. The NOA detailed a total of 13 violations against the Ole Miss football program, nine of which the NCAA alleged to have occurred during Hugh Freeze’s tenure.

A week later, multiple media outlets, including SB Nation, reported that Ole Miss sources believed most of the major violations were not related to Freeze’s tenure. In fact, these sources said, most of what the NCAA was alleging had happened under Houston Nutt.

Here’s what we reported at the time:

One Ole Miss source tells Steven Godfrey they believe only five of the 32 are alleged football violations, and that coaches are “confident” allegations related to the current staff are secondary violations. In addition, an NCAA source tells [SB Nation reporter] Bud Elliott that the “vast majority” of the football allegations are more than two years old.


An Ole Miss official told Godfrey that almost all of the allegations are women’s basketball, track, Tunsil, and football from six years ago, during previous coach Houston Nutt’s tenure.

I now know that most of what I was told that day was untrue.

I don’t know who among Ole Miss representatives thought it would be wise to lie to multiple members of the national media about an NCAA investigation, the details of which would eventually become public. But I know why they did.

When the NOA was received, 2016 National Signing Day, the day when college football recruits announce what school they will be attending, was two weeks away. It seems likely that Ole Miss sources lied because the program was trying to hold onto its recruiting class.

It doesn’t matter who authored this strategy inside Ole Miss — the athletic department, the coaching staff or some mix thereof. It would end up being a massive gaffe for everyone at the university. Not only did it hurt the program’s credibility among the media when they’d later make valid claims against the NCAA, Mississippi State and other parties, but it created a new enemy in Houston Nutt.

Making an enemy of Houston Nutt would end up costing Hugh Freeze his job in the most embarrassing way possible.

Since his 2011 firing, Nutt had failed to secure another head coaching job despite multiple attempts. His coaching career was, for all intents and purposes, over. But Ole Miss’ sourced claims in media reports, including SB Nation, gave Nutt new life to assert his career ended not because his own lack of success on the field but a conspiracy against his good name.

Making an enemy of Nutt would end up costing Hugh Freeze his job in the most embarrassing way possible. We’ll get there. Hang on.

Let’s say you’re Laremy Tunsil. You’re in college and hellbound to make good on your NFL potential. That’s your sole focus in life — get to the league, get paid, make a life for yourself and change your family’s future.

And let’s say along the way to that goal, while navigating the part of college football no one ever told you about, you receive a few hundred bucks or a free night in a motel, or even just a sofa to sleep on at a coach’s house.

You’ve also got a family member trying to manage your career for his own ends, plus a growing entourage of people handing you gifts, all trying to get close before that payday comes.

If you want any of this to stop — unless you are 100 percent pure of heart by NCAA eligibility standards — you are fucked.

No one will help you. Your school, who controls your public image and your football career, doesn’t want to be punished by the NCAA. The NCAA’s enforcement staff would love to talk to you, but if you cop to so much as one night of sleeping on a coach’s sofa, you run the risk they’ll rule you ineligible, potentially crippling your career before it begins.

You are on your own. And that’s how Laremy Tunsil’s Draft Night disaster was born.

If you’re a sports fan, hell even if you’re not, you probably remember Tunsil’s NFL Draft Night. That was the night that video and text messages from Tunsil, projected by some to go No. 1 overall, were leaked out on social media 13 minutes before the draft was set to begin.

There was the video of Tunsil smoking out of a gas mask bong in front of a Confederate flag. There were texts from Tunsil asking John Miller, an Ole Miss employee (no relation to Lindsey Miller), for help paying his mother’s bills.

In the leaked texts John Miller tells Tunsil to “see Barney next week,” meaning Barney Farrar , the Ole Miss staffer who was Freeze’s right hand man in recruiting. Remember Farrar. He’ll be back.

In the moments after the video, as sports fans watched Tunsil’s draft stock evaporate in real time, people close to the story assumed it was Lindsey Miller’s doing. Miller had motive, and was already working with the NCAA in its investigation. As a former family member, he seemed most likely to have access to Tunsil’s cell phone.

But according to multiple sources close to the family, they believe a would-be “business manager ” to Tunsil commandeered his social media to leak the embarrassing video and text messages that night.

According to these sources, some time before signing with Freeze’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, during Christmas of 2015, Tunsil had dumped this “business manager.”

How Tunsil ran into trouble: According to multiple sources, this “manager” had previously gifted Tunsil with a new smart device and offered to transfer Tunsil’s account information. That’s how he allegedly got Tunsil’s passwords, which sources say gave him access to Tunsil’s most sensitive material. The jilted person waited until the moment the NFL Draft started and unloaded, costing Tunsil millions as he dropped from a surefire top-three pick to 13th, where he landed with the Miami Dolphins. (NFL rookie salary structure is tied to draft placement, so dropping 10 spots in the draft was estimated to have cost Tunsil $8 million dollars in guaranteed money.)

Don’t get distracted by the weed and the gas mask, though, as titillating as they were to see on social media. NFL teams might have cared, but no one in this story did. Everyone — Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss, Miller, the NCAA, everyone — only cared about what was posted on Tunsil’s Instagram after that video … the text messages. Those showed the conversation between a star college athlete asking someone at his school for money. And moments later on the national broadcast, a visibly nervous Tunsil confirmed to reporters that, yes, he had received that cash.

It’s a common misperception that the NCAA “re-opened the case” against Ole Miss after Draft Night. This isn’t true — based on available evidence the NCAA was already re-investigating Ole Miss months prior when they spoke to Mississippi State’s signees.

Draft Night didn’t restart the investigation, but it did certify the enforcement staff’s efforts.

If Freeze’s tweet drew a neon target around Ole Miss, the nationally televised Tunsil hack gave the NCAA a mandate. They had to make this count.




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Illustration by Josh Schielie

The first time I remember hearing Leo Lewis ’ name in conjunction with the NCAA investigation was in the fall of 2016. A source connected to Ole Miss called, unprompted, to tell me the persistent rumors about the NCAA releasing a second, more substantial notice of allegations (NOA) against the school were true. By this point, post-Draft Night, it was public record that the NCAA was still investigating Ole Miss.

I asked if the pending NOA would be built around Laremy Tunsil and Lindsey Miller . Certainly that made sense.

“No. This is something else. The Lewis kid at Mississippi State. He told them about his recruiting.”

I dismissed it at the time as bullshit, more message board rumor-mongering. Already burned by a report that cited multiple Ole Miss sources that year, I laughed it off. I was sure the NCAA had to be building its case around Miller and Tunsil.

Then, in July 2016, I met with Jon Duncan, vice president of enforcement at the NCAA, at his Indianapolis office.

In the aftermath of Draft Night, I was curious about how the NCAA was handling such an unprecedented event. Never before had an active NCAA investigation been subject to this kind of public attention. Even Miami.

Duncan declined to discuss specifics of the investigation, even casually, but I’d left the two-hour meeting with a firm belief that, following the Miami fallout and the embarrassment of Tunsil’s Draft Night, the NCAA enforcement office was so paranoid about public perception they would not try anything that could possibly bring more public scrutiny.

I grew up around police, and Duncan reminded me of good police — calm, focused, and careful. Being around him, I was reminded of an old phrase I’d heard many times before: We don’t make the laws or sentence anyone, we just enforce what’s on the books. These were men and women who were just doing their jobs.

It was because of that meeting I had a hard time believing the source. It just didn’t make any sense that the NCAA would build a case around Leo Lewis.

From what I believed at the time, Lewis had (smartly, I should add) taken money from half the SEC West.

I’ve never met Lewis. I didn’t cover his recruiting personally, and Mississippi State and Lewis’ lawyers have denied any request for contact or comment.

We know Lewis’ story follows a common path — he was a talented, sought-after linebacker from a poor family in Brookhaven, Mississippi. His father is in prison and he fathered a child in high school. And we know the usually invisible life of a poor black family in the rural South was upended by demand for Lewis’ football services in the Southeastern Conference.

From what’s available in interviews, Lewis is by most accounts a normal teenager — he’s mild-mannered in front of media he was never trained to handle, happy when talking about football. On Twitter, Lewis is fond of posting inspirational quotes, and in May posted a reference to the First Epistle of Peter 3:9. “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.”

Lewis was recruited by many schools in the SEC, and according to rumors going around at the time, took money from a lot of them. Which is why I assumed there was absolutely no way the NCAA was going to build a case against just one school on Leo Lewis. From what I believed at the time, Lewis had (smartly, I should add) taken money from half the SEC West.

After Miami, after Laremy Tunsil’s Draft Night, it just didn’t seem possible the NCAA would build a case against one school based off the testimony of someone with Lewis’ recruitment history. (Not to mention the fact he currently played for Ole Miss’ rival.) On conflict of interest alone, it would look bad. If he took money from the schools I’d heard he had taken money from, they’d have to investigate the entire conference.

I didn’t buy it, and I told my source as much.

“I’m serious,” he said.

“No, you’re delusional,” I said. I hung up angry, convinced I was being fed more bullshit because I was an Ole Miss alumnus in the media.

I was wrong.

Starkville, Mississippi, home of Mississippi State University, is 104 miles southeast of Oxford. If you’ve never been to the state, it’s fair to say that the rivalry can be summed up by the usual tropes of the ag school (Mississippi State in Starkville) vs. the gilded liberal arts hub (Ole Miss in Oxford). Except these differences are played out in Mississippi’s extremes: At Ole Miss, you have the vanity and Antebellum fringe of magnolias and white columns. Starkville is more working class, hard, the Mississippi State campus surrounded by fiercely agrarian landscapes that create the kind of high lonesome feeling usually found in the American West.

In less literary terms: If you’re an Ole Miss fan, you’re probably an asshole lawyer in seersucker. If you’re a Mississippi State fan, you’re probably an asshole redneck in camouflage. Mississippi is a small place — the campuses are a two-hour drive apart — which means a lot of these folks know each other, too.

Months before I told off my source on that phone call, the NCAA had quietly made contact with players who had committed to Mississippi State. How the NCAA found them is an interesting question.

In February 2016, two football players who had committed to Mississippi State, Kobe Jones and Jeffery Simmons, spoke to the NCAA about their recruitment by Ole Miss. Both were interviewed only a week after committing to play in Starkville.

During those interviews, both Jones and Simmons were asked specifically about any experience they might have had at Rebel Rags during their recruitment by Ole Miss.

Simmons, a five-star recruit, denied receiving anything from Rebel Rags. Jones, however, volunteered specific, detailed accounts of free merchandise he received on multiple visits.

Jones’ statements to the NCAA had problems, however. For one, Jones’ high school coach, who drove him to visit Oxford, would later claim in an affidavit that the only thing Jones took home from Rebel Rags was a baseball cap and shirt the coach personally purchased for him.

If you’re an Ole Miss fan, you’re probably an asshole lawyer in seersucker. If you’re a Mississippi State fan, you’re probably an asshole redneck in camouflage.

Multiple sources confirmed that, in 2017, Hugh Freeze told the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions that Ole Miss had stopped recruiting Jones, a two-star prospect, before he signed with their rival. According to those sources, Freeze also told the COI that, after he told Jones he was no longer being recruited by Ole Miss, Jones said to him, “You’ll pay for that.”

Now you may be asking yourself why Mississippi State signees would volunteer to speak with NCAA enforcement — remember, there’s no subpoena power — about Ole Miss just weeks after they had committed to play for the Bulldogs. Without any confirmation of their motives we can only know the outcome of that discussion: A few months after the NCAA spoke to Jones and Simmons, enforcement began speaking with Leo Lewis, too.

The NCAA was taking a new tact in its investigation. Lindsey Miller had mentioned Rebel Rags giving away free apparel to Ole Miss recruits, and now the NCAA was in Starkville talking to players who had been recruited by both schools about the same T-shirt shop.

In hindsight, Mississippi State signees’ cooperation with the NCAA makes sense. Nowhere was Ole Miss’ rapid ascension more loathed than in Starkville, and no one stood to lose more from Hugh Freeze’s rise to dominance than Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen .

Alabama has won (or shared) the SEC West crown in eight of the last 10 seasons, during which time both Mississippi programs attempted to modernize and resurrect historically moribund programs. Mullen arrived to coach the Bulldogs in 2009, three seasons before Freeze landed in Oxford.

He’d risen to national attention by overseeing the the Florida offense that won Tim Tebow a Heisman, but prior to that the New Hampshire native had spent time around the country gaining experience as an assistant.

Though an unconnected outsider, Mullen quickly won over Mississippi State fans by targeting their in-state rival. From the first day he arrived on campus he refused to even speak the words “Ole Miss.” He built all of his public persona around the absolute importance of winning the Egg Bowl, the annual rivalry game played between the two schools, tapping into the DNA of a fan base that didn’t mind life as an also-ran in the SEC nearly as much as they loathed losing to the preppy snots up the road in Oxford.

Once Freeze got hired and started winning big in recruiting, Mullen’s Mississippi State team was quickly overshadowed, even as quarterback Dak Prescott, now a star for the Dallas Cowboys, gave the Bulldogs a mini-renaissance. In 2014, Mississippi State lost the Egg Bowl again, the second time in three years, to Freeze.

“Dan [Mullen] took off while Houston [Nutt] was in Oxford and thought he could keep that level of dominance going [when Freeze was hired]. Things were easy. I don’t think he ever understood the amount of things working against MSU when Ole Miss has it going,” a former MSU assistant told me.

Proximity to Freeze also had another detrimental effect on Mullen. Before 2015, it was well known in coaching circles that Mullen had pursued bigger jobs, feeling that his work building State into a scrappy threat would earn him a top-level gig. It never worked out. Mullen became the annual name kicked around in rumors during the coaching hiring cycle, but each year he remained in Starkville.

Freeze, meanwhile, would parlay the Rebels’ 2014 season into interest from Florida, Mullen’s old employer. Freeze and his agent Jimmy Sexton flirted with the Gators long enough to push Ole Miss to a $4.3 million annual contract, previously unheard of in Mississippi.

“Mullen was obsessed with Ole Miss,” a coach who interviewed for a staff position with the Bulldogs told SB Nation. “It was the first thing he wanted to talk about when you mentioned recruiting or Mississippi. ‘What the hell are they doing over there? Do you know anything?’”

In a statement provided to SB Nation in November, Mullen wrote:

“The NCAA found no major violations for Mississippi State related to the Ole Miss case. I am also not familiar with what is in the NCAA testimony in this case because I didn’t speak to Leo about his testimony, either beforehand or afterwards.”

Mullen denied that he instructed his players to go to the NCAA with information about violations committed by his team’s biggest rival. But in 2016, with no obvious incentive, three of his players did just that.

On Feb. 22, 2017, Ole Miss announced it had received a second, amended notice of allegations from the NCAA, bumping the total allegations against the football program to 21 total. Of the nine new and expanded allegations, five came as a direct result of a student athlete’s testimony to the NCAA.

The student athlete in question, referred to in the document as “Student Athlete 39,” was Leo Lewis.

My source had been right.

The school released a bizarre pre-recorded video (known as “the bunker tape” among local media) announcing a self-imposed one-year bowl ban and scholarship restrictions. College programs will often announce self-imposed penalties ahead of NCAA hearings in the hope that the NCAA will be more lenient. The odd taped press briefing featured a haggard looking Freeze alongside athletic director Ross Bjork and university chancellor Jeffrey Vitter. In it, the trio admitted to some wrongdoings — hence the self-imposed violations — but fiercely denied the allegations pertaining to “Student Athlete 39” in the notice, which was Lewis.

That night Lewis tweeted a GIF of Heath Ledger’s Joker from “The Dark Knight” clapping with mock amusement. The tweet seemed to acknowledge what had already been reported, that he was in fact “Student Athlete 39.” Ole Miss fans were furious. Mississippi State fans celebrated.

Compared to Miller, Lewis’ statements gave the NCAA real ammunition: A firsthand account of large cash payments, free hotels, and another account of merchandise gifts from Rebel Rags.

He didn’t know it at the time, but what Lewis told the NCAA could also potentially destroy his future.

So what exactly did Lewis say? Enough to outline the micro-economy of college football recruiting.

On Aug. 10, 2016, Lewis and his lawyer met with Mike Sheridan of the NCAA enforcement staff at a Hilton Garden Inn in Starkville. This was the first of three interviews, the transcripts of which were all obtained and verified by SB Nation.

According to the transcripts, Lewis told Sheridan he never paid for a meal or a motel when he made an unofficial visit. While a university is allowed to pay for transportation and lodging during a recruit’s official visit, the recruit has to pay his own way on an unofficial one. Lewis also told Sheridan he received free food, free drinks, and payments of $100 to $200 “two or three times” from Lee Harris, owner of an Oxford bar named Funkys, after meeting him in the Rebels’ practice facility on campus.

Harris declined to comment for this story.

Lewis also said in the NCAA interviews that on one occasion he received $400 worth of merchandise, including, yes, T-shirts, at Rebel Rags. He said he went there after he told Ole Miss staffer Barney Farrar that he wanted some Ole Miss apparel. Farrar is the same “Barney” that Laremy Tunsil was instructed to go see about money in the text messages that were leaked during the NFL Draft.

Farrar, who was fired from his position as the Rebels’ assistant A.D. for high school and junior college relations in December 2016, was discussed at length in Lewis’ interview. Lewis said Farrar arranged everything Lewis wanted or asked for — lodging, food, and, via third parties, cash. Lewis told the NCAA he and Farrar were “very tight” and spoke at least five times a week on the phone during his junior and senior years of high school.

Farrar declined to speak on the record for this story, citing a pending appeal to the NCAA.

Lewis also told Sheridan he received cash payments of $500 to $800 on multiple occasions from a woman named Phyllis, who Lewis said worked for an Ole Miss booster in Jackson, Mississippi. Lewis said the payments began in 2014, after his father was sent to prison and Lewis became a parent to a baby girl.

And then there was the headline grabber: According to the transcripts, Lewis claimed to have received a $10,000 cash payment from an Ole Miss booster named “Allen” (Lewis wasn’t sure if it was his first or last name) in the parking lot of a Hampton Inn in Brookhaven on Feb. 3, 2015, one day before National Signing Day.

At that point, transcripts show, Sheridan started talking about Barney Farrar’s phone.

Farrar turned over his university-issued phone as part of the NCAA’s investigation and, according to transcripts, enforcement officials suggested Farrar had made frequent, steady contact with Lewis.

Sheridan then pulled up a text message from “Allen” to Leo Lewis, that “Allen” had then forwarded on to Farrar. In that text, “Allen” is panicked, having read on an LSU message board that Lewis was headed to Baton Rouge.

“You swore to me on your daughter Please call me” [sic] he wrote to Lewis. “You owe me that.”

When Sheridan showed Lewis the text message, Lewis responded that he hadn’t answered the text or returned subsequent calls from “Allen.”

“I just didn’t want to,” Lewis said.

He told the group he had never intended on signing with Ole Miss and that, despite taking the payment from “Allen,” at the time of the alleged meeting he was still deciding between LSU and Mississippi State.

He also had trouble nailing down the exact time of the meeting with “Allen,” first saying it was “in the noon,” then saying it was between 5 and 6 p.m., before insisting it was daylight out. When the NCAA finally asked Lewis in his third interview if he received money from other schools in his recruitment, and he confirmed he had, the NCAA redacted the name of one of the schools from the official transcript.

In an Aug. 16, 2017, letter to the NCAA, Ole Miss counsel wrote: “Although the name of this other institution was redacted in the material provided to the University and other involved parties in this case, it has since come to light that the institution Mr. Lewis identified was Mississippi State University (“Mississippi State”).”

The letter, which was obtained by SB Nation, also alleges that NCAA enforcement confirmed to Ole Miss that they had “quickly opened and subsequently closed” an investigation into Mississippi State because Lewis’s statements about receiving money from Mississippi State were deemed to be “ultimately ... not sufficiently credible to support an allegation.”

In the second meeting with NCAA investigators, in which Ole Miss had representation present, Lewis was pressed by Mike Glazier, an attorney brought in by Ole Miss, as to why he took the money.

“I just wanted the money. ‘Cause I needed it,” he said, according to the transcript. “... We was moving to a house, and I actually had my daughter. My dad had just went to prison. Uh yeah, so needed it, so I took it. [I] asked for it, and I took it.”




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Illustration by Josh Schielie

About those T-shirts ...

It’s easy even now to overlook them in the statements made above by Leo Lewis . But it’s the T-shirts, not the cash, that turned this case from a college sports matter to one with serious, real-life consequences.

The second notice of allegations against Ole Miss was issued in February 2017 with new violations added based on Lewis’ testimony in those three interviews. The details of the violations weren’t publicly known but the NOA led to months of speculation around Mississippi that Rebel Rags was involved.

Then, in a June 7, 2017, report from Yahoo Sports, Terry Warren and his business, Rebel Rags, were named publicly as one of the Ole Miss boosters mentioned in the notice of allegations.

And that’s when Lewis’ life got very, very complicated.

Two days after the Yahoo report, Warren’s lawyer Charles Merkel Jr. filed a lawsuit against Lewis in Lafayette County Circuit Court for defamation, slander, conspiracy, and commercial disparagement. The suit alleged that false statements made to the NCAA had damaged Warren’s business.

The suit also named Lewis’ teammate Kobe Jones , as well as Lindsey Miller , the former stepfather of Laremy Tunsil , since they had all mentioned receiving free stuff from Rebel Rags.

Lewis likely only spoke to the NCAA because he received conditional immunity — a promise from the NCAA that if he told them the truth, he wouldn’t lose his eligibility for anything he’d done or received to that point of his collegiate career.

But while the NCAA could protect Lewis’ team, and his eligibility, they could not protect him from the American legal system. In real court, their bylaws and investigatory practices were meaningless.

On top of that, Merkel and Warren seemed to have a decent case.

In his interview with the NCAA, Lewis said that when he received the $400 in T-shirts and other merchandise, the cashier had swiped “like, this gift card” and then bagged up the free stuff for him.

Lawyers for Rebel Rags argued there were no gift cards used in any transaction on the days in question, nor were there any gift cards with a balance greater than $300 in existence at that time.

In that same interview with the NCAA, Lewis also said that Rebel Rags employees had removed security tags to provide him with the free apparel.

In the lawsuit and in an interview with SB Nation, Merkel said that Warren’s store didn’t use security tags. Warren and his attorney also claim they’ve provided multiple statements to the NCAA, as well as inventory reports and cash register transaction records, that the NCAA has refused to review.

Via his attorneys, Warren declined to comment on this story, citing pending litigation.

Leo Lewis is nothing if not a PSA to any current or future student athlete: Never, ever talk to the NCAA.

At the time the suit seemed to potentially damage Lewis the most. In the three years since his signing, Lewis became the player recruiting analysts projected — he was the Bulldogs’ second leading tackler and an SEC Defensive Freshman of the Year. Now the MSU linebacker was eligible to enter the NFL Draft and become a millionaire. The Rebel Rags suit sought his current and future earnings, meaning Lewis could now be financially liable for statements he was asked to make to the NCAA about a school he never went to.

No one at the NCAA or Mississippi State has clearly stated the series of events and parameters that led Leo Lewis to speak to the NCAA. The only information we do have is an NCAA enforcement claim that they began to speak with the Mississippi State player as a result of a tip they received in April 2016 from a confidential source that wasn’t affiliated with any SEC school.

That doesn’t explain why Lewis felt compelled to cooperate. Was he forced to by threat of his own eligibility? Did he up and volunteer to snitch? Was he volunteered by MSU?

It’s important to one day understand how exactly Lewis came to speak to the NCAA, because their hackneyed rules and systems ultimately failed to protect him from a much more dangerous attack — a real, actual lawsuit in real, actual court.

Leo Lewis is nothing if not a PSA to any current or future student athlete: Never, ever talk to the NCAA. If Lewis loses his case, and one day makes it to the NFL, whatever money he’s yet to even make could end up in the bank account of a T-shirt store in a town filled with people who hate him.

Rebel Rags wasn’t alone trying to litigate the NCAA’s sprawling investigation in civil court. Remember Houston Nutt ? The former Rebels coach was still out of college football in 2016, and understandably upset that Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss sources had told multiple members of the media, including me, that the NCAA’s investigation was centered around violations that occurred when he was head coach. Nutt hired a lawyer in Arkansas named Thomas Mars, who went to work finding a way to sue Ole Miss. To maximize media interest, Mars filed the lawsuit right as Freeze was headed to SEC Media Days in July 2017.

While preparing to file the lawsuit, Mars filed a public records request for the phone records of Hugh Freeze in an effort to prove Freeze had corresponded directly with particular media members to smear his client in January 2016.

Here’s where the story took a turn for the bizarre or, depending on whose side you are on in this whole thing, the righteous. In the course of filing a records request, Mars’ office got a batch of phone records from the wrong dates in question. That would not have been a big deal, except that Mars passed the records along to a reporter named Steve Robertson, a man who has long been the bane of Ole Miss fans everywhere.

Robertson is a reporter and Mississippi State acolyte — he has the school’s logo tattooed on his hand. He also routinely tweeted out vague comments and predictions throughout the course of the Ole Miss investigation, many of which turned out to be accurate, implying he had inside information. This infuriated Ole Miss fans and officials, who speculated that MSU sources on Robertson’s beat were involved in the NCAA’s case.

Tattoo or no, fan or not, Robertson went about doing the work of a reporter: He started verifying every number called by Freeze’s university-issued phone. That’s how he found the number to an escort service.

For years, whispers of hypocrisy had followed Freeze for publicly intertwining his faith with the moral ambiguity required to run a successful college football program. His undoing was too cliche even for awful fiction.

Why a man calls an escort service is one thing. Why he does so on a university-issued phone subject to public records requests is another. Hubris? Sloppiness? Self-sabotage after years of ceaseless scrutiny by the NCAA? Why didn’t the man buy another cell phone to make those kind of calls?

“Because he is the cheapest motherfucker I’ve ever met,” an Ole Miss booster told me the night of Freeze’s resignation.

Freeze resigned on July 20, 2017. His downfall had nothing to do with the NCAA, with Lewis or Tunsil or football at all. It was the other pay-for-play, the escort service. “A failure of character standards for a head coach,” the university statement said.

It was Robertson’s reporting, not the NCAA’s investigation, that pushed Freeze to resign. Had the false claims that the notice of allegations were primarily centered around Nutt never been made, Thomas Mars never pulls those phone records and Robertson never starts dialing.

It was fall 2017. Freeze was gone. The NCAA’s investigation into Ole Miss, which started as a look into the women’s basketball and track teams, was now in its sixth year. The investigation had grown and spread and taken more turns than I could remember, but it finally looked to be heading toward conclusion.

On September 11, in a hotel conference room in Covington, Kentucky, the Committee on Infractions (COI) — the panel of administrators that acts as judge and jury in NCAA investigations — would make a decision on the fate of Ole Miss.

Leo Lewis, in the middle of his sophomore season with the Bulldogs, would be forced to attend.

This investigation, which the NCAA had been building off and on for six years, would finally punish Ole Miss for its many alleged misdeeds. But heading into that hearing in Covington, my reporting showed just how thin NCAA enforcement’s case actually was.

Looking at the second notice of allegations that had been issued, the NCAA seemed to be building its case against Ole Miss almost entirely off the testimony of “Student Athlete 39” — Leo Lewis. But Ole Miss lawyers claim the NCAA had already admitted to them that investigators had opened and then closed a case into Lewis’ claims that he was also paid to attend Mississippi State because they determined his statements were not credible. So to the NCAA, Lewis was considered a credible witness about Ole Miss, yet not a credible one when it came to his own school.

Lewis himself couldn’t account for a lot of the money he supposedly had received, and on top of that, according to a filing obtained by SB Nation, lawyers arguing on behalf of a former Ole Miss coach wanted to introduce a sworn affidavit from Armani Linton , an Ole Miss player and friend of Lewis’, who said Lewis told him that Dan Mullen himself had met with Lewis to discuss what he would talk to the NCAA about.

Basically: The case stunk. That’s not because Ole Miss was squeaky clean, by any means. The case stunk because it stunk.

None of this really mattered, other than to show exactly how the new NCAA was still very willing to bend information to fit a predetermined outcome, even at the expense of its own student athletes — not to mention its new reputation among coaches (especially in the SEC) as having weaponized rivalries.

With the college football world watching, the parties involved converged on Covington. What happened is probably what you expected: A 20-year-old kid got put in a room with a lot of lawyers, and was forced to answer a ton of questions, and he didn’t do too well.

Details from Lewis’ testimony in his first three meetings with the NCAA were fudged. Timelines weren’t quite right. According to sources in the room, Lewis couldn’t account for what happened to all of the money.

There is only one lesson here: Don’t get caught. Ever.

Then, the big one: According to sources in the room, Lewis told the Committee on Infractions he received a cash payment of $10,000 “from Mississippi State” on the eve of National Signing Day 2015 to sign with the Bulldogs.

When pressed by members of the COI to elaborate, Lewis stated he received money to attend Mississippi State from Calvin Green, a defensive backs coach for Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Wesson, Mississippi. Green is the father of Farrod Green, Lewis’ friend and Mississippi State teammate. Farrod Green’s name is important because, according to the transcripts of the meetings between the NCAA and Leo Lewis, the NCAA frequently used his statements to validate Lewis’ claims about receiving free benefits — from Ole Miss.

Neither Farrod Green nor Copiah-Lincoln Community College responded to a request for comment for this story.

According to multiple sources in the room, NCAA head of enforcement Jon Duncan, who I had that meeting with at NCAA headquarters, then turned to the committee members and pointed out that not all payments made to players are against NCAA bylaws.

“OK, if that’s what you’re going with,” a committee member responded.

(Duncan wasn’t wrong. Because Green could reasonably argue that he knew Lewis outside of football, and because he wasn’t employed by Mississippi State, his alleged $10,000 gift to Lewis might well have been within the NCAA rulebook. Welcome to college football.)

Still, the NCAA insisted on Lewis’ credibility, and pushed to keep him a part of its case against Ole Miss. At no point in time at the COI hearing or in 2017 did any party — NCAA enforcement or Lewis’ lawyers — move to rescind Lewis’ statements in part or in whole, despite plenty of reasons to do just that. Lewis’ statements were at times contradictory and his multiple payments from multiple schools compromised enforcement’s credibility.

Most importantly, Lewis was being sued by Rebel Rags for things he said to the NCAA under an assumption he would be protected.

There was still plenty on the table to hammer Ole Miss with — over a half decade of sloppiness and pride. But here they were, forcing Lewis to testify, in the middle of his season, with every word he uttered possibly going to be used against him in an actual civil trial.

Who was the NCAA actually trying to protect here?

After the September COI hearing, the NCAA blew past its normal window for delivery of a decision. Ole Miss played out its entire postseason-sanctioned 2017 season, including an Egg Bowl upset win over Mississippi State in Starkville. Multiple parties involved speculated that the NCAA purposefully withheld its decision until after the Egg Bowl to avoid it becoming a nationally televised storyline.

The following week, on December 1, the decision came down: Ole Miss was hit with an additional one-year bowl ban, four years of probation, financial penalties, and an additional 13 scholarships removed. While not a death sentence (the name in college football circles when a program is suspended entirely), it was a harsh punishment that would hinder Ole Miss’ ability to compete in the SEC.

Former assistants, including Barney Farrar , were hit with varying penalties but, in a strange twist, Freeze received what was perceived by many to be a slap on the wrist. The former Ole Miss head coach, ostensibly the biggest target of the entire investigation, was handed a two-game suspension to be served only if he became a head coach in the 2018 season. As of now, it doesn’t appear that that will happen.

Jeffrey Vitter and Ross Bjork held a press conference, vowing to fight back against the NCAA for touting their “exemplary cooperation” with the NCAA throughout the years-long investigation.

Bjork hammered the enforcement staff:

“I think something happened, quite frankly, about a year and a half ago just before the draft night of 2016. The course of this investigation changed. The entire conduct went from one of cooperation to one where we were shut out. Where information that should have been obvious to pursue, that we would have certainly noticed and followed up on, was not. By the time the facts became known to us, that information was no longer available because of the time sensitive nature. That is an example where we could have been led to an entirely different conclusion on some very key matters. I really am very upset about the way this process was conducted. It was unfair. It was not appropriate for our university or our student-athletes.”

Basically, Ole Miss felt like they were lied to.

In a conference call with media, Committee on Infractions chair Greg Christopher did not acknowledge the conflicts of interest by Lewis and MSU, nor the inconsistent view of the NCAA regarding the credibility of Lewis. He did, however, chastise reporters who covered the case.

“The leaks are, they’re tough on the process. This is meant to be a confidential process to protect the institution and people involved.”

Nothing about what happened here has changed anything about the mechanics of college football. There is only one lesson here: Don’t get caught. Ever.

And if you had a rooting interest for or against any person or program or institution in this story you can’t be satisfied.

If you believe the absolute worst about the NCAA — that they’re profiteers of a free labor system who seek to punish anyone who undermines that process all while having the gall to pass off their scam as an educational enterprise — you can’t be satisfied. The NCAA fake cops did whatever they could to shoehorn, manipulate, and omit information to fit a case that was rubber stamped by the NCAA’s fake court.

If you believe the absolute worst about Hugh Freeze — that he systematically orchestrated prohibited recruiting practices to further his career while posing a humble man of God — you can’t be satisfied.

Sure, Freeze was fired by the Rebels, but not for his role in the NCAA investigation. His two-game suspension by the NCAA only applies if he’s the head coach of a program in 2018. And if you’re naive enough to think the combination of the NCAA and phone sex scandals are enough to blacklist him from ever returning the same level in this industry, consider an April 16 report by that claims SEC commissioner Greg Sankey had to intervene to keep multiple conference schools from hiring Freeze for various potential assistant jobs — including national champion Alabama.

(I can confirm as a result of phone calls with multiple sources that Freeze was in contact with five different SEC programs for potential jobs, with at least three of those schools talking with him about potential on-field assistant coaching positions, not administrative or analyst jobs.)

Freeze will undoubtedly coach again. He will likely do so in the Southeastern Conference, and will likely become a head coach at a top program again in his career.

If you believe the absolute worst about Dan Mullen — that he encouraged one of his players to act against their own self-interests and rat out a rival school that had usurped his career momentum at Mississippi State — you can’t be satisfied. Mullen saw no reprimand.

Far from it: Less than a week after losing the Egg Bowl, Mullen signed a six year, $36 million deal with the Florida Gators, that dream job he reportedly always wanted. He now helms one of the strongest, most successful programs in modern college football. After years of missing out on big jobs, he hired Jimmy Sexton — who also represents Tunsil and Freeze — as his agent.

If you believe the absolute worst about Mississippi State — that the program and its boosters, poxed with little brother syndrome, schemed to help Lindsey Miller with legal counsel, funnel money to Leo Lewis, and encourage him and other MSU players to talk to the NCAA about Ole Miss and Rebel Rags — you can’t be satisfied.

Mississippi State’s boosters finish this story with an MVP stat line. They’re the real winners. You can’t help but applaud them. If you believe this version, Bulldogs boosters should conduct paid clinics for other SEC bagmen. Topic 1: How to launder recruiting inducements barred by the NCAA through family connections. Topic 2: How to ratfuck your sloppy rivals for fun and profit.

And if you believe the absolute worst about Ole Miss — that a program and booster culture so desperate to win encouraged and orchestrated wanton prohibited recruiting schemes and then lied to cover them up — you can’t be satisfied by the result. Despite the shadow of the investigation and losing Freeze days before starting practice, the Rebels finished 2017 with a respectable 6-6 record.

As of this writing, the Rebels’ 2018 bowl ban still stands. Also as of this writing, new head coach Matt Luke, a former Ole Miss player, is overseeing a 2019 recruiting class that currently ranks 13th in the nation, according to 247 Sports.

The 2019 college football recruiting class from the state of Mississippi is considered one of the deepest and most talented classes in history. So what do you think is about to happen? What would stop all of this from happening again?

Mississippi is still football rich and money poor. Boosters still want to win and high school recruits still need their cash.

This will keep happening. All of it. Even the NCAA said the culture stretches over decades.

Nothing here has changed. Except, possibly, the life of Leo Lewis. Before the 2017 season, many in Mississippi thought Lewis would declare for the NFL Draft at the conclusion of the year. That didn’t happen. Playing with an NCAA investigation and civil trial hanging over his head, Lewis had his worst year as a Bulldog. Following a redshirt freshman season that saw him record 79 tackles in 2016, he had just 46 this past season. He will return to Mississippi State in the fall, still the subject of a civil suit that could one day take away the honest money he does make from football.


About the T-shirts.

The Rebel Rags suit against Leo Lewis , Kobe Jones , and Lindsey Miller is pending, and it’s now added multiple new co-defendants, including Dan Mullen , Mike Sheridan , and the NCAA.

At the heart of this case is the matter of Rebel Rags and its official association with Ole Miss, which is in a holding pattern at the moment: The University of Mississippi is preparing an appeal to the NCAA in hopes of overturning its bowl ban and restriction on visits that recruits can make. Meantime, the store is permitted to still maintain a business relationship with the school.

If the Ole Miss appeal is denied by the NCAA, as most predict it will be, Ole Miss will have to disassociate from Rebel Rags indefinitely, per NCAA sanctions. That means no presence at Ole Miss events, no relationship with the athletic department, and no imprint on the campus, including at sporting events.

If that happens, Terry Warren and Rebel Rags’ case gets stronger: According to Rags’ attorneys, disassociation handicaps their ability to do business. Rags can’t advertise at Ole Miss sporting events. If the football team wins the Independence Bowl in 2022, for example, the attorneys argue that Rags won’t be able to carry the game’s official merchandise.

Basically, Rebel Rags’ attorneys are arguing that the NCAA’s self-fabricated rules and judgments are having real world effects on a business that doesn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the NCAA. Terry Warren’s business could be harmed because he never had the chance to refute anything said about him in the course of the NCAA’s investigation. And now his only recourse is to go to court to try to prove that those things said about him were lies.

The case will likely hinge on the testimony of Leo Lewis and whether or not a judge believes he actually did take free T-shirts, that he made the whole thing up, or that he was forced to tell a concocted story by those who held power over him. Not the thousands of dollars, not the Joker GIF, not the infamy. Just the T-shirts.

The only way this story could create real change in the NCAA is if Lewis is held to a higher standard than every other coach, administrator, school, or NCAA official that worked against his welfare.

Unlike everyone else in this story, Leo Lewis is still expected to tell the truth.

Leo Lewis

Leo Lewis is a junior linebacker who plays football for Mississippi State. He found himself at the center of the NCAA investigation into his rival school, Ole Miss, when he spoke to NCAA enforcement officers about cash and gifts he received under the promise of limited immunity. He is now being sued for comments he made to the NCAA regarding free merchandise from Rebel Rags, a T-shirt shop near the Ole Miss campus.

Laremy Tunsil

Laremy Tunsil plays offensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins and played college football for Ole Miss. At the 2015 NFL Draft, in which Tunsil was expected to be a top-3 pick, private text messages regarding payments made while at Ole Miss (plus a video of Tunsil smoking out of a gas mask bong) were leaked on social media.

Mike Sheridan

Mike Sheridan is an investigator who works for the NCAA’s enforcement division. He has worked on the investigation into Ole Miss since at least 2013. His interviews with Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis were used in the NCAA’s case against Ole Miss.

Lindsey Miller

Lindsey Miller is the former stepfather of Ole Miss standout and current Dolphins tackle Laremy Tunsil. He and Tunsil pressed charges against one another in 2015 over a domestic incident. Miller, who would go on to be represented in court by an attorney who had attended Mississippi State, also cooperated with NCAA investigators.

Terry Warren

Terry Warren is the owner of Rebel Rags, a T-shirt and merchandise store near the Ole Miss campus in Oxford, Mississippi. He is currently suing Leo Lewis, Kobe Jones, Lindsey Miller, Mike Sheridan, the NCAA and others over comments that alleged Rebel Rags gave free merchandise to recruits, which became public in the investigation into Ole Miss.

Charles Merkel Jr.

Charles Merkel, Jr., is the attorney representing Terry Warren, the owner of Rebel Rags, an apparel shop near the Ole Miss campus. Merkel, on behalf of his client, is currently suing multiple parties and the NCAA over alleged comments about Rebel Rags that came out during the NCAA’s investigation into Ole Miss.

Kobe Jones

Kobe Jones is a defensive end who plays for Mississippi State. He spoke with the NCAA about alleged gifts he received from Rebel Rags during his recruitment by Ole Miss. Jones is being sued by Rebel Rags.

Armani Linton

Armani Linton is a football player for Ole Miss and has said he is a friend of Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis. Linton claimed in a signed affidavit that Lewis told him he had met with Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen before meeting with the NCAA.

Barney Farrar

Barney Farrar is the former assistant athletic director for high school and junior college relations for Ole Miss. According to NCAA investigators, Farrar was Leo Lewis’ main point of contact during his recruitment by Ole Miss, and connected him with “Allen,” who allegedly gave Lewis $10,000. Farrar was fired in 2016.

"The Business Manager"

“The Business Manager” is a person who became close to Laremy Tunsil during his time at Ole Miss. According to sources, Tunsil would go on to cut this man out of his life sometime before turning pro. According to sources, it was this “Manager” who had access to Tunsil’s private videos and text messages, and leaked them via his social media the night of the 2016 NFL Draft.

Hugh Freeze

Hugh Freeze is the former head football coach of Ole Miss. Despite having little collegiate head coaching experience, Freeze was hired by Ole Miss in 2011 and quickly turned the program into a national power by landing the top recruiting class in his second year. In 2017, he resigned after a public records request revealed that he had called an escort service from a university-issued phone.

Dan Mullen

Dan Mullen is the former head football coach of Mississippi State. According to a sworn affidavit from Ole Miss player Armani Linton, his friend -- Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis -- told Linton that Mullen met with Lewis in 2015 before Lewis met with NCAA investigators. In 2017, Mullen agreed to become the next head coach of the University of Florida.

Ross Bjork

Ross Bjork is the vice chancellor for Intercollegiate Athletics at Ole Miss. In his previous role as athletic director, which he was hired for in 2012, he oversaw the football program. In February 2018, Ole Miss gave Bjork a contract extension through 2020.

Houston Nutt

Houston Nutt is a former head football coach for Ole Miss who was fired in 2011. In 2017, Nutt sued Ole Miss and his successor Hugh Freeze, claiming they had smeared his character in the media and blamed him for the NCAA investigation into Ole Miss’ football program. Freeze’s phone records, which were made public due to research that was made into the lawsuit from Nutt, eventually led to Freeze’s resignation after a phone call to an escort service was made public.