The NCAA extended Ole Miss football’s postseason ban to two seasons and handed down show-cause orders to four former coaches and athletics employees Friday, concluding a lengthy investigation of recruiting violations that dated from 2010.
Hugh Freeze, the coach who resigned abruptly this summer after revelations he’d called escort services from his university-issued phone, received a two-game suspension he’ll have to serve only if he’s hired as a head coach for next season. Ole Miss — which previously had agreed to self-impose a one-year postseason ban, for this season — now likely will miss the 2018 postseason as well.
Ole Miss “lacked institutional control and fostered an unconstrained culture of booster involvement in football recruiting,” according to the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions ruling. A dozen boosters and six former staffers were implicated by the NCAA in arranging impermissible benefits, including cash payments, free car rides to campus, free hotel rooms, food, and Rebels apparel from an Oxford-area sports merchandise store. Two former staffers were also implicated for arranging fraudulent standardized test scores for three recruits.
In addition to Freeze, former Ole Miss assistant Chris Kiffin, now defensive coordinator at Florida Atlanta, received a two-year show-cause order. Former assistant athletic director Barney Farrar received a five year show-cause.
The NCAA panel noted that this was the third case in 30 years involving Ole Miss boosters breaking rules, and said that even Freeze told them, “upon coming to Mississippi, he was surprised by the ‘craziness’ of boosters trying to insert themselves into his program.”
The investigation spanned violations committed under both Freeze and former Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt, and spawned a dispute between Nutt and Ole Miss that inadvertently resulted in Freeze’s downfall. As the NCAA investigation progressed, Nutt sued Ole Miss, alleging Freeze and others in athletics were spreading rumors that most of the violations had occurred under Nutt’s watch. Phone records that showed Freeze calling numbers linked to escort services with his university phone came out during that lawsuit.
The lengthy investigation heightened tensions in the rivalry between Ole Miss and Mississippi State, as two Bulldogs players — linebacker Leo Lewis and defensive lineman Kobe Jones — told the NCAA they were offered rule-breaking benefits by Ole Miss boosters and staffers when they were recruits. Lewis alleged an Ole Miss booster offered him $10,000 to sign with the Rebels, raising questions from Ole Miss fans about what their rivals offered Lewis to ultimately lure the recruit to Mississippi State.
In a conference call discussing the punishments, Greg Christopher, athletics director at Xavier and chief hearing officer for the NCAA committee, denounced leaks that allowed Lewis’s and Jones’s involvement in the case to circulate in news reports.
“The leaks may entertain the public, but they really only raise the room temperature at the proceedings themselves,” said Christopher.
In addition to the postseason ban, Ole Miss will be on probation through 2020. The NCAA accepted modest scholarship reductions that Ole Miss self-imposed earlier this year as sufficient, as well as other recruiting restrictions, and a vacation of an undetermined number of wins.
In a news conference Friday afternoon, Ole Miss officials contested the NCAA’s decision to add a year to the Rebels’ postseason ban, and disagreed with the assertion the school had lost “institutional control” over athletics. Ole Miss will appeal the 2018 postseason ban, according to Ole Miss chancellor Jeffrey Vitter.
“It is simply not warranted and is based on fundamental flaws in the NCAA case,” Vitter said. “We are outraged at the unfair characterization of our football program and the university culture.”