Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze used to vociferously defend his program as above-board. In quotes given to ESPN on Monday, he struck a slightly different tune, taking responsibility for any NCAA violations the Rebels have committed, ones that compelled the school to self-impose scholarship reductions and a fine of nearly $160,000 last week.
But Freeze is still adamant about his staff's character. (Boldface added.)
"The first thing I would say is that I own it. That's part of it when you're the head coach. You take the good with the bad," said Freeze, who's in Sandestin for the SEC spring meetings. "But there's a big difference between making mistakes in recruiting and going out there with the intent to cheat. I don't have any information that anybody on my staff has been involved in any illegal payments to players or offering any inducements to players, and if I did have that information, I would fire them."
He cedes a bit of ground in other quotes to ESPN's Chris Low.
"But when you step back and look at what's in the report, three of the four Level I violations since I've been here didn't involve anybody on our staff, and the five secondary violations are things we've already served penalties for. That's not an excuse and doesn't make it right, and we have to be better. But I take it personally when our reputation is damaged and our school's reputation is damaged, and it's important to look at some of these things in a little different light than what's being portrayed out there."
Of the eight Level I violations (the most serious level) Ole Miss is charged with, four happened under Houston Nutt. Three more are related to the previously suspended Laremy Tunsil (and another player) getting benefits from a booster and are apparently unconnected to any coaches.
The minor allegations include assistants giving a player "$33" worth of lodging and mistakenly feeding a player's non-biological father figure, rather than an actual family member.
Still, Freeze is spinning hard about his current staff being free of allegations.
Current assistant Derrick Nix is implicated in one of the Nutt-era violations regarding impermissible benefits; Ole Miss disputes that he was involved.
And on the eighth alleged Level I violation, the NCAA and Ole Miss agree a Rebels assistant was aware of and perhaps tolerant of illegal benefits.
That one involves tight ends coach and offensive recruiting coordinator Maurice Harris having months of contact with a technically defined booster who provided more than $2,000 in "recruiting inducements" to four recruits in 2013, and Harris himself arranging nearly $500 of those "inducements" in the form of lodging, transportation, and food, to two of the four recruits.
It's difficult to reconcile Harris that with Freeze's full-throated defense. But it's possible Freeze was speaking about not having the same information about Harris that the NCAA does, or about the disagreement that the school and the NCAA have about what Harris did.
The Ole Miss response to the NCAA's Notice of Allegations tries to bury Allegation 8, and thus what Harris allegedly did, among other violations in which "A booster did it!" is a more plausible defense.
In this case, all but one of
the alleged Level I violations result from: either (1) intentional violations or efforts to conceal misconduct by former employees or student‐athletes who face unethical conduct charges and personal sanctions (i.e., Allegations Nos 10-18, 26, and 28); or (2) actions of individual boosters who conducted themselves contrary to rules education provided by the University (i. e., Allegations Nos. 1, 3‐4, and 8).
That's simply not what Allegation No. 8 alleges -- and the NCAA's Notice of Allegations has an impressive 16 bullet points of evidence against the booster and Harris.
While the booster in question, Memphis-based Fellowship of Christian Athletes volunteer Walter Hughes, did all of the providing of benefits, he also told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal that he was told by Ole Miss to stop providing benefits. Both he and the school suggest Harris "at least acquiesced to their provision."
Ole Miss in its response says Harris in the early part of his recruiting of the Memphis Four incorrectly believed the relationship between FCA huddle leader and prospects was allowed by the NCAA. He believed that transportation, meals and academic assistance provided by Hughes was acceptable.
He soon came to a clearer understanding. The school disciplined Harris but defends him in its response to the NCAA. "Thus, while the university does not dispute the underlying fact that these benefits were provided and that Harris at least acquiesced to their provision, it disagrees with the enforcement staff's overall characterization of Harris' involvement," writes the school in response.
Hughes says Harris told him, "I know exactly what you do. You're a mentor, a life coach."
Hughes' biggest mistake was his initial defiance when told by Ole Miss compliance that he was violating NCAA rules. He was appalled that the NCAA would stop him from helping kids in need.
"They said, ‘You can't do this.' It made me mad. I said, ‘That's not right. It's discriminating. You are accusing me of doing this for different reasons,'" Hughes said.
While Ole Miss telling Hughes to stop helping out recruits -- an act that he likened to buying formula and diapers for a young unwed mother -- constitutes "rules education provided by the University," it also faults the coach for "failure to ask the right people the right questions" about Hughes and for continuing to communicate with Hughes after it should have been clear Hughes is considered an Ole Miss booster.
But it fights back on the point that the coach "arranged" a hotel stay for a recruit on another recruit's official visit in January 2013, with Ole Miss arguing Harris was unaware the first recruit had used a room intended for the official visitor's mother until after the fact and that he instructed Hughes to bring the second recruit back to campus to pay for meals and lodging.
Quibbling over the meanings of "acquiesce" and "arrange" seems minor, yes, but this is what culpability in NCAA violations can hinge on.
And even the NCAA isn't arguing Harris initially intended to cheat. Framing an inability to stop a known booster from providing benefits as being ignorant of the booster's actions could fail smell tests, though, especially since Harris is a former Memphis high school coach and has worked as an FBS assistant for more than a decade.
What Freeze is trying to do is combat a perception of his staff as a brotherhood of thieves.
Image has always seemed to matter deeply to Freeze, and he's been vocal in defending his program, even prior to coming to Oxford.
It's quite amazing to me how some media can write a headline that doesn't accurately reflect the facts of a story. #clicks— Hugh Freeze (@CoachHughFreeze) March 30, 2016
@DFWLANDSHARK @TheSquareOxford Talked too as in 4-5 times in 3 years. Media can twist most anything if they want too.— Hugh Freeze (@CoachHughFreeze) July 21, 2015
The words of the tongue( and fingers on social media) should have three gatekeepers: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it Necessary? #WordsMatter— Hugh Freeze (@CoachHughFreeze) July 28, 2014
#RedWolfNation the report in bleacherreport.com is NOT True! I am still the Red Wolves coach.— Hugh Freeze (@CoachHughFreeze) November 27, 2011
Freeze is entitled to his defense, and it sounds more or less right.
Harris almost certainly deserves to keep his job, if there's nothing connecting him to something more dastardly than arranging a hotel room for a recruit. Ole Miss seems convinced even that overstates what he did.
Hughes seems plausibly like a booster whose interest in players had less to do with providing impermissible benefits than his compassion did.
The greater problem is that Ole Miss has been dogged by implications since the day in 2013 when Tunsil joined a shockingly great recruiting class, and that those inquiries now have the ring of truth.
Freeze on reputation of cheating: "I don’t know that I’ll ever change that narrative and I’ve got to come to grips with that."— Jon Solomon (@JonSolomonCBS) May 31, 2016
Freeze and the Rebels won a lot of games with the players from that class, and have continued to recruit well since. But Tunsil being the biggest prize in the class and then getting impermissible benefits while at Ole Miss means Freeze's program will be forever tainted by the popular idea that he and his coaches made their names with ill-gotten gains.
That matters to athletic directors, boosters, pundits, and fans. Freeze is too vocal to shrug, make a summary statement, and move back to the business of winning. How Freeze wins is apparently as important to him as how much he wins, and how anyone wins makes for great discussion fodder.
And so we're going to get carefully worded statements from him defending his program, and consequent parsing of them, for a long time to come.