The American South has long been a leading exporter of great big literature and outlaw football coaches, and yet the saga that unspooled Thursday night managed to surpass any prior imagination. The undoing of Hugh Freeze began with a scorned former partner. It turned on a line in his phone records he neglected to redact. It ended in public shame.
Freeze, a former high school girls’ basketball coach, soared to the highest reaches of college football amid dense suspicion of his recruiting practices and crashed to Earth after Ole Miss investigated a call he made on a state-issued phone to an escort service. Whether it’s dark comedy or hilarious drama, it’s hard to forget the tale occurred in the place where William Faulkner is buried. Even the names drip with novelistic flair: Seriously, Hugh Freeze and Houston Nutt — don’t those sound like a couple fellas from Yoknapatawpha County?
Freeze resigned Thursday evening after Ole Miss officials had confronted him about a pattern of calls like the one to the escort service. The school’s investigation resulted from a records request made in relation to a lawsuit filed by former Ole Miss coach Nutt, who claimed Freeze and the school had smeared him in an effort to ward off NCAA investigators. Freeze won a whole lot at a school that hadn’t done much winning in a conference that views its Saturdays as religion. That tends to bring complications.
This is Al Capone going to prison for tax evasion. The entire college football world had looked askance at Freeze for the duration of his tenure in Oxford, as a traditional Southeastern Conference doormat suddenly beat out the league’s powers for the country’s best recruits and toppled them on the field, including consecutive upsets of Alabama in 2014 and 2015.
Freeze took over at Ole Miss with an unusual background. He had been the head coach at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis when Michael Oher, the left tackle portrayed in “The Blind Side,” played there. On the side, he coached the girls’ basketball team to four state titles. He left for an administrative position in the Ole Miss football program, where Oher had matriculated. He left to coach at an NAIA school after Nutt, then the head coach, decided against hiring him as offensive coordinator.
In 2013, the year after Freeze returned to take Nutt’s job, the Rebels reeled in the nation’s fifth-best recruiting class, which included the No. 1 recruit in the country, defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche. Eyebrows will raise to the point of rupture when Ole Miss, which had been relevant absent a Manning roughly never, starts hauling recruits all the other schools wooed.
Everybody seemed to think something was up, and the NCAA signaled its agreement on multiple occasions. Freeze and Ole Miss were engulfed with luxury suite eye-rolling, message-board accusations and notices of allegations from the NCAA. Nobody could make anything stick. Freeze admitted to minor “mistakes” in recruiting, nothing more, as the school stood by him.
Tackle Laremy Tunsil, a part of the famed and infamous 2013 recruiting class, was hacked on the night of he was chosen in the NFL draft — a spurned family member wanted to hurt his draft stock as revenge and posted, to Tunsil’s own Twitter account, a video of Tunsil smoking marijuana through a gas mask. In the aftermath, he admitted to accepting money from an Ole Miss coach. Freeze survived all that. He chose defiance and cloaked it in faith.
“While I have struggles in life that I don’t always get it right, breaking the rules in recruiting is not one of them,” Freeze said at last year’s SEC media day. “My name and the name of Him that I represent and our university mean more to me than I can express. It is my hope that we would be known for who we truly are and these mistakes would not happen again.”
Well, about all that.
Ole Miss officials said Freeze’s ouster had nothing to do with the ongoing probe into possible NCAA violations, which may be true until you start tying together the entire narrative. Freeze and Ole Miss fended off the NCAA, in part, by casting the previous coach — Nutt — as a reckless breaker of NCAA rules whose transgressions had unfortunately bled — mistakenly! — into Freeze’s program. Nutt sued for smearing him.
The suit led to this week’s chain of events, as relayed by Athletic Director Ross Bjork. In early July, in response to a public records request from Nutt’s lawyer, Ole Miss released Freeze’s phone records from January 2016. Freeze had the chance to redact numbers, and someone pointed out to Ole Miss administrations that one of the not-redacted numbers Freeze called raised suspicion. Bjork couldn’t say so for privacy and legal reasons, but the number belonged to an escort service.
Freeze had an alibi: It was a misdial. The call lasted only one minute, and it didn’t show up in the rest of the January 2016 call logs. His Ole Miss bosses bought it, to an extent. They dug into the rest of his phone records, and they found “a pattern of conduct that is not consistent with our expectations as the leader of our football program,” Bjork said. They approached Freeze with their findings Wednesday night. He copped to everything. On Thursday afternoon, Freeze resigned.
Nutt’s takedown of Freeze seemed personal. USA Today reported that Thomas Mars, Nutt’s attorney, sent an email to Ole Miss general counsel Lee Tyner that mentioned “a “phone call Coach Freeze made that would be highly embarrassing for all of you and extremely difficult to explain.” And then somehow, that phone call meandered into the public record.
Ole Miss Chancellor Jeff Vitter cited a “pattern of personal misconduct inconsistent with the standards we expect from the leader of our football team.” He said, “We simply cannot accept the conduct in his personal life that we have discovered.” Freeze received neither a settlement nor a buyout.
Vitter and the rest of the people who run Ole Miss, where the football program is now smoldering and the school’s reputation is dented, have a question to ask themselves: Was it worth it? Maybe Ole Miss administrators never could have imagined it would end like this for Freeze, but they had to know the end would be nothing but ugly.
The athletic department set revenue records and sold out Vaught-Hemingway Stadium with greater frequency than it ever had before. The joy felt during the Rebels’ victory over Alabama in October 2014 is a permanent memory for any Mississippian present. Now, the aftermath. Immediately, interim coach Matt Luke, the former offensive line coach and coordinator, will take over a talented roster on the verge of training camp. Ole Miss has already imposed a one-year bowl ban, and the NCAA is not done knocking at their door.
The Hugh Freeze story at Ole Miss is already a sprawling epic, but the conclusion has yet to be written.