The University of Mississippi issued its public response to the NCAA’s amended Notice of Allegations against the Rebels on Tuesday.
Unless you’re an Ole Miss (or Mississippi State!) fan, you’ve probably lost your bookmark on this nearly five-year saga. Here’s a quick update:
The NCAA is going for the kill.
The NCAA issued its first Notice of Allegations to Ole Miss in January of 2016. It included 13 charges against the football program, four of them Level 1 violations, the most serious, and spanning from Houston Nutt’s tenure to current head coach Hugh Freeze. As the he university was in the process of responding, Laremy Tunsil’s NFL draft night fiasco happened.
When Tunsil famously admitted to taking money from Ole Miss at a draft night press conference, the NCAA took that free pass and expanded its investigation. In May of 2016, the Rebels self-imposed a reduction of 11 scholarships over four years.
Tunsil’s admission of taking money from Ole Miss spurred the NCAA to continue its investigation, resulting in a second, “amended” Notice of Allegations against Ole Miss that the university announced in February.
Nine new allegations were included, seven of which are Level 1. These include lack of institutional control, which replaced the previous, lesser charge of “failure to monitor” in the initial notice. The university also self-imposed a one-year bowl ban for the 2017 season.
So what happens this week?
Probably not much.
Ole Miss is past its 90-day deadline to issue a formal response to the NCAA. Athletic director Ross Bjork stated in a taped message in February that the Rebels would be contesting five of the new charges in particular, including the upgraded lack of institutional control and a charge of the “head coach responsibility legislation” against Freeze. That basically means that the NCAA is putting the blame on Freeze directly, even for charges he might not have had knowledge of.
It’s also possible that Ole Miss could revise and expand its self-imposed scholarships and bowl ban to potentially appease the committee on infractions, who will review the NCAA’s case against the Rebels likely this fall.
Mississippi State looms large.
Tunsil helped extend the NCAA’s investigation, but the offensive lineman’s various dramas don’t show up in the amended NOA. In his place is “Prospective Student Athlete B,” confirmed by multiple sources to be current Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis.
Lewis has been flashpoint in the Egg Bowl rivalry, and as “Prospective Student Athlete B” shows up in five of the nine new charges. The most damning allegation is that a former Ole Miss staffer arranged for Lewis to receive cash payments from boosters.
Rumors have persisted of an audio tape in which Lewis’ mother mentions receiving money from other schools, including Mississippi State, but the NCAA has not yet announced any formal inquiry regarding Lewis and other schools.
Hugh Freeze isn’t acting like a coach who’s about to be fired.
When Ole Miss announced the second and much more severe round of allegations in February, Freeze was sitting right next to Bjork and Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter. He’s expressed a desire for the NCAA’s process to be over, and at last week’s league meetings, he talked about his plans for keeping team morale up during a bowl-less 2017 season. Neither he nor the university has shown any sign of division in public.
Privately, Freeze is digging in. After two New Year’s Six bowls and two wins over Alabama, Freeze, a North Mississippi native and former Memphis high school coach, has more equity among boosters than any Ole Miss coach in modern history.
That’s not to say he doesn’t have detractors in and around the program, but Freeze has enjoyed a level of support that has confounded coaching colleagues across the league and country.
Disassociation of boosters is a potential stopgap — and landmine.
One storyline to watch this week is if Ole Miss officially disassociates with any boosters involved in allegations against the university. SB Nation can confirm that lawyers representing two individuals who would fall under the NCAA’s official classification of booster are prepared for litigation against the university. Former Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt has retained legal counsel in Mississippi for the same purpose.
The NCAA’s Committee on Infractions is the endgame here.
That panel eventually holds a private meeting, where it rules on arguments made by the NCAA and the university and then hands down its punishment. That’s likely sometime this fall, and both parties are eager for a conclusion. Ole Miss wants to move on in recruiting, and the NCAA has been criticized publicly for the protracted length of its investigations into Ole Miss and North Carolina.
How exactly Ole Miss plays its case is still a mystery, but there’s overwhelming indication that the school is standing by Freeze, the man directly targeted by the NCAA.
At each step of this final phase, it’s becoming more and more likely that the ending of this saga will be a head-on collision, not a brokered compromise. Either Ole Miss will pull off a masterful undoing of the NCAA’s years of investigative work, or the Rebels will be punished with severity.