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Hugh Freeze’s downfall just continues the Ole Miss cycle

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The Rebels are now right where they were about two decades before he took over.

Memphis v Mississippi Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

In 2011, Hugh Freeze texted the wrong person. The Independence, Miss., native and first-year Arkansas State head coach still fresh from NAIA Lambuth desperately wanted the Ole Miss position, open after Houston Nutt had been fired.

Freeze thought he was texting Archie Manning, the man who would ultimately hire him. Turns out it was some random guy from New Orleans who happened to inherit Manning’s number. Freeze was still employed at A State, yet he persisted:

A lot of these people who call and text, I have no clue who they are. Here's a text that says, 'Archie, I have tremendous love for Ole Miss. I would love to serve as their next head coach. Any consideration would be greatly appreciated.' It's signed, 'Hugh Freeze.' Do you know who he is?

With the support of influential Memphis-based boosters, Manning hired Freeze

Current athletic director Ross Bjork wasn’t yet on board. The pickings were slim in 2011, as Nutt and then-AD Pete Boone had decimated the perception of the program in coaching circles. The call was up to Archie, the program legend sent to fix things at the alma mater.

Ole Miss people doing for Ole Miss. This is a practice that plagues athletic programs across the country, yet it has persisted for decades in the face of progress and basic logic.

Despite his naiveté, Freeze became everything the back rooms of Ole Miss wanted: a proud native son, an offense-first coach, and a fierce recruiter. He wanted to build a kingdom at Ole Miss and in turn was given every possible benefit of the doubt.

When he beat Mississippi State to hit .500 in his first year, they had proof of concept. When he landed Robert Nkemdiche two months later, they fell in love. And by the time he’d beaten Nick Saban’s Alabama twice, he cashed a previously unseen level of equity into a mandate.

To that end, Ole Miss was determined the NCAA wasn’t going to kill Freeze

Whether you believe it’s because he gained outsized control or that the school has built a stellar, yet-to-be-heard case against the NCAA, Ole Miss never considered firing Freeze for anything in either list of NCAA allegations against the football program.

I can confirm through six independent sources that nothing new happened on Thursday afternoon in the NCAA’s case against the football program. Nothing happened in the myriad lawsuits layered underneath it, either.

I know this because I’d spent the day working a still-in-progress piece for SB Nation about the case. Before Nutt’s public records search of Freeze’s phone records revealed calls to an escort service, Ole Miss was ready to fight the NCAA at the Committee on Infractions this fall. The school still plans to fight.

Because of the NCAA’s lack of public transparency in its procedures, Freeze’s exit will color that outcome, regardless of its conclusion

If Ole Miss escapes with no more than its self-imposed one-year bowl ban, the popular theory will be that the COI spared the rod because Freeze was already canned. If the Rebels get hammered, people will believe it’s because Ole Miss failed to pull the trigger a year ago.

Neither theory will be true. But it is possible that a year from now, we’ll realize Freeze could’ve survived a four-year NCAA investigation if he hadn’t called for a hooker in the name of something besides recruiting.

However the NCAA case shakes out, Freeze will own it. Because nothing, not even the escort service, will pock his record quite like that famously deleted tweet inviting critics and rivals to challenge his program’s cleanliness in the SEC, a kingdom built of buried bodies each February.

If you have facts about a violation, send it to compliance@olemiss.edu. If not, please do not slander these young men or insult their family

If Laremy Tunsil’s NFL draft night begged a response from the NCAA, Freeze’s public tweets and private statements taunted them. At the same time, his employers touted a strategy of “exemplary cooperation” with the NCAA, a tactic criticized in private circles in Oxford and across college sports.

Eventually fans will forget about the cell phone records.

But compliance directors will weave Freeze’s social media hubris into an epic cautionary tale for years

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. In that framework, Freeze is an inexplicable failure. Hubris? Sloppiness? Self-sabotage? It doesn’t really matter.

The listed cause of firing is the escort service: “a failure of character standards for a head coach.” It’s not the NCAA. Of course, Ole Miss is invested in emphasizing the former, as the latter still looms.

Maybe Freeze could’ve maneuvered past the escort service call(s). Hell, probably! This is college football! If it occurred in a vacuum, I think he survives. (“Common” doesn’t begin to quantify the infidelity rumors I hear among coaches.)

But not alongside an NCAA investigation.

And not transposed against his public persona of the archetypical Evangelical Christian, which drove his critics in the industry and the media absolutely mad. His ceaseless proselytizing in defense of his character was at times such a gratuitous, repetitive tic that it invited other Christians, myself included, to sin by doubting its validity. Such is the failing of faith as a commodity.

Consider what brought us here

  • Nutt’s legal team would’ve never requested an FOIA of Freeze’s phone records if Freeze hadn’t, according to Nutt’s attorneys, tried to dump rumors of NCAA allegations onto Nutt’s Ole Miss staff, allegedly to save face in recruiting in January 2016.
  • And Freeze probably wouldn’t have (allegedly) buried Nutt to the press, had the NCAA not shown up in Oxford to work an investigation that started with Nutt’s former director of football operations falsifying ACT scores.
  • And Nutt would’ve never been the head coach at Ole Miss if not for his own public records missteps at Arkansas, revealed 10 years ago this summer. Those gaffes made him a dent-and-scratch sale item for AD Boone, who grabbed Nutt in 2008 despite loud warnings from Fayetteville. (If you take nothing else from Thursday’s events, know Hogville. Was. Right.)
  • Over the next four years, Boone would privately convey genuine shock at Nutt’s deceptive practices and gross inefficiency, as if he’d forgotten how the coach landed in Oxford in the first place. Nutt was the best available candidate after the school had mismanaged the wildly inexperienced Ed Orgeron for three losing seasons.
  • Don’t forget Orgeron was hired in 2004 because Ole Miss fired the consistent-but-never-elite David Cutcliffe after the Eli Manning era expired. Cutcliffe was a package deal in Manning’s recruitment to replace Tommy Tuberville in 1999. A few years ago, Tuberville told me he left Ole Miss because Auburn promised him better resources, even after coming back to the Rebels to see if they’d promise the same support.
  • Lastly: Ole Miss hired Tuberville in 1995 because it needed a rebuild after massive NCAA sanctions for recruiting violations.

Now 22 years later, Ole Miss is in almost the exact same place, albeit with far more money

Freeze was successful enough to spurn Florida in 2014 and trick out his contract to a top-10 gig. And before 2016’s NCAA scandal reveal, Bjork was one of the hottest ADs in the nation. He is still an ace fundraiser.

The money in modern college football insulates against disaster. If Baylor is probably going to be solid at football again soon, nothing short of an NCAA nuke will create a different scenario in Oxford.

Causality is a dangerous concept; it implies there’s a finite beginning to a sequence of events. Something always predates the point at which you think a story starts. Nutt alone didn’t get Freeze fired. And neither did the NCAA.

Ole Miss football has proved to be nothing if not a loop of terrible decisions that yield brief, spectacular successes doomed to father more of the same.