The University of Mississippi has been notified that a ruling from the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions (COI) regarding the Rebel football program is due Friday, multiple sources confirm to SB Nation.
Ole Miss and multiple former coaches are facing 21 alleged violations that began under former head coach Houston Nutt and through former head coach Hugh Freeze. Ole Miss is facing a charge of lack of institutional control — a charge that has resulted in other football programs, such as USC, receiving harsh punishments including multiple-year postseason bans, eliminated scholarships and vacated wins — and Freeze is alleged to have violated NCAA legislation requiring head coaches to promote compliance within their programs and among staff. The Rebels have already self-imposed a one-year bowl ban, and if the NCAA adds on an additional year, Ole Miss’ players would be free to transfer from the school without penalty.
Thursday marks 79 days since the COI hearing concluded in Covington, Ky., on Sept. 12, when sources say Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis answered questions regarding his recruitment by rival school Ole Miss, a recruitment which occurred in 2014 and 2015 when Lewis was a high school student. Lewis, a five-star linebacker who has been an anchor for Mississippi State’s defense, has acted as a central witness in the NCAA’s investigation into Ole Miss, a role that has landed him in a civil suit.
According to multiple sources who independently verified details of the proceedings as well as documents obtained by SB Nation, Lewis provided new information at the COI hearing that he had not divulged in three previous interviews with NCAA enforcement. This included information about a cash payment Lewis said he received, not from Ole Miss, but from the father of a Mississippi State teammate before National Signing Day 2015.
According to these sources, Lewis also said that former Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen — who is now the head coach at the University of Florida — met with him to discuss his recruitment by both Ole Miss and Mississippi State months in advance of the enforcement staff’s official start of their investigation into Lewis’s recruitment.
Friday’s decision will put an end to months of waiting not only by Ole Miss, who will learn what punishment the NCAA will hand down, but other schools around the SEC, who have held up their own recruiting in the event that a strong punishment from the NCAA would free up Ole Miss players to transfer.
What happened in Covington
Aside from the 21 different alleged violations, the COI’s slow pace in arriving at a decision possibly came from new information provided by Lewis in Covington.
According to sources, 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, sources say that Lewis stated that he received money to attend MSU from Calvin Green, a defensive backs coach for Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Wesson, Miss. Green is the father of Farrod Green, Lewis’ friend and Mississippi State teammate, according to sources and documentation.
Both Copiah-Lincoln representatives and Mississippi State sports information director Bill Martin did not return requests for comment on Thursday.
In an email to SB Nation, NCAA Director of Public and Media Relations Stacey Osburn sent the following statement: “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.”
In transcripts of Lewis’ three interviews with NCAA enforcement in 2016, NCAA investigator Michael Sheridan mentions statements by Farrod Green about Lewis’ recruitment by Ole Miss. According to multiple sources and documentation obtained by SB Nation, Green’s statements to the NCAA were used to corroborate Lewis’ claims that he received free merchandise from Rebel Rags, an Ole Miss merchandise retailer; free food and cash from Lee Harris, owner of an Oxford bar; and cash payments totaling over $10,000 from an Ole Miss booster in Jackson, Miss.
All three of those events were outlined in NCAA enforcement’s amended notice, which bumped a Level II “failure to monitor” charge to the Level I “lack of institutional control” charge against the university. Level I is the highest level charge the NCAA can make against a program.
Lawyers for Ole Miss, as well as counsel for various former Ole Miss coaches, have disputed Lewis’ recollection of the timeline and specifics of the payment. Lewis previously told NCAA investigators that he received a $10,000 payment from an Ole Miss booster on Feb. 3, 2015. When asked by the COI to account for the items he spent the money on following National Signing Day, however, Lewis’ total was under $10,000. In his three previous interviews with the NCAA, Lewis claimed he took more than $21,000 in cash from the two programs.
Representatives from Ole Miss declined to comment for this story.
The alleged payment to Lewis to attend Mississippi State might not be against NCAA bylaws
Complicating all this more is the fact that Green’s alleged payment to Lewis falls into a gray area. Under NCAA Bylaw 12 concerning amateurism, prospective student athletes are allowed to receive cash from non-family members or guardians if they can prove the relationship predates the athlete’s status as a prospective student athlete and that the relationship did not form because of the athlete’s current or potential status as a prospect.
If any payment was delivered after the athlete gained notoriety — as Lewis’ comments to the COI suggest it could have been, in his case — MSU would need proof that there is a history of payments and a relationship between Calvin Green and Lewis that began before Lewis’ status as a top football recruit in order to show that there was no violation of the NCAA bylaws.
Lewis also may not be in violation of NCAA rules if it determines that Calvin Green was providing Lewis with “normal and reasonable living expenses.” Bylaw 22.214.171.124.6 allows someone in Green’s position, “family of a teammate,” to give to a player like Lewis even if the relationship developed as a result of athletics as long as that person is not an agent or representing a school recruiting Lewis.
Leo Lewis says he met with Dan Mullen months before his NCAA interview
According to multiple sources and documents obtained by SB Nation, Lewis told the COI that he was informed by former Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen in April of 2016 that he would be interviewed by NCAA enforcement.
Mullen was named the new head coach of the University of Florida on Sunday. In a statement to SB Nation, 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.”
NCAA enforcement previously stated an investigative team was assigned in “late July 2016” to review information that Lewis received a significant amount of cash from institutional representatives [Ole Miss] during his recruitment.” NCAA enforcement stated that a confidential source unaffiliated with any SEC schools submitted the tip in April, roughly the same time Lewis says he met with Mullen and three months before the NCAA investigation began.
Multiple compliance sources unaffiliated with either Mississippi program confirmed to SB Nation that standard protocol for NCAA enforcement to notify an active student athlete about an upcoming interview is typically 1-2 days, and that head coaches are routinely not involved to avoid influencing the student athlete.
Lewis was asked by the COI to confirm accounts from Ole Miss defensive back Armani Linton, a friend of Lewis’ who told NCAA enforcement about a trip to see Lewis in Starkville in April of 2016. Linton told the NCAA that he and Lewis had discussed a conversation between Mullen and Lewis. In Linton’s words:
Like, okay. Dan Mullen was basically going to try and make it seem like [they] did nothing, but they were going to try and - like whatever, they was going to try and bounce it off to other people or other things, like other schools or whatever. So like that’s kind of the sense that I got from it. You know, just like he was - he was saying like - the way that he was saying like everything, it was basically like how - whatever - he was - like Coach Mullen was going to say whatever he needed to say to get them off of Leo.
So it was just like whatever he - whatever - he basically asked Leo, like whatever I need to say to protect you, then let’s let that be known now, so when that time comes, you know.
NCAA enforcement did not include Linton’s testimony in the notice of allegations or their written reply to the COI in July.
What is at stake
The NCAA’s investigation into Ole Miss in large part hinged upon testimony from Lewis regarding impermissible payments he had received from Ole Miss boosters — testimony that has now landed Lewis in a civil suit. Ole Miss’ focus entering its COI was to fight the Level I “Lack of institutional control” charge, which NCAA Enforcement upgraded from a Level II “Failure to monitor” charge in the original notice of allegations (NOA).
With Lewis at the heart of multiple contested Level I violations, the trajectory of the Ole Miss program may well come down to how credible the COI finds the testimony of a rival player.
When the NCAA issued their amended NOA against Ole Miss in January, every new allegation involved either Leo Lewis, Kobe Jones (Lewis’ teammate at Mississippi State), or both, with the exception of one Level III allegation involving former Ole Miss player and current Auburn offensive lineman Austin Golson’s use of hunting land belonging to a Rebel booster (Ole Miss is not contesting that allegation).
After the NCAA’s amended notice of allegations was issued in January the Rebels face 21 allegations, including 15 Level I violations (Level I is the strongest classification for an allegation). Of the 21, Ole Miss agreed with NCAA enforcement on 12 (seven Level I’s and five Level III’s), and in January self-imposed a one-year bowl ban and scholarship restrictions back that university officials hope will satisfy the top of the NCAA’s penalty matrix.
Ole Miss announced the hiring of interim head coach Matt Luke on Monday. With only 12 graduating seniors and current self-imposed scholarship restrictions, how and who Ole Miss recruits in the next two cycles will be dramatically affected by the NCAA’s decision.
Sources at two SEC schools outside of Mississippi have confirmed to SB Nation they’ve been contacted by third parties representing current Ole Miss players interested in transferring. Last week USA Today reported that Ole Miss safety Deontay Anderson is seeking an immediate transfer and has retained Houston Nutt attorney Thomas Mars.