Ole Miss says Barney Farrar, a former football staffer, violated NCAA rules; his friends say he’s been made into a fall guy. (Andrea Morales/For The Washington Post)

— When Barney Farrar was 23 — long before he’d become a central figure in a college football recruiting scandal that would captivate this state — he fell asleep one night while driving and crashed into a bridge.

The impact crushed much of Farrar’s face and damaged his optic nerves, blinding him. The paramedics had to lance his throat just so he could breathe, and the surgeons needed photos to guide them as they repaired his face. Farrar regained his sight, but the wreck left him with one wandering eye, and without peripheral vision.

In the decades that followed, Farrar’s tunnel vision led to occasional collisions with goal posts and players. He developed a habit of dropping back a few steps when walking in a group, so he could see where everyone was headed.

“I like to follow,” Farrar, 57, said last week as he motioned for companions to go ahead. It’s a quirk befitting a man who has spent most of his life in the background of big college football programs, following the orders of high-priced head coaches and specializing in the humbling but crucial work of recruiting.

Yet according to the University of Mississippi, Farrar, a former assistant athletic director the school fired in December, is guilty of going rogue, of cheating to entice top recruits and lying about it to his bosses and NCAA investigators. The NCAA has accused Farrar of arranging illicit cash payments and thousands of dollars in free Ole Miss merchandise for recruits. Farrar denies the allegations and awaits a hearing this fall. He faces potential penalties that could derail, if not end his career.

In his first public interview since his firing, Farrar broke down in tears several times last week as he discussed his plight.

“I love coaching. I love teaching young men. I love going to ‘Last Chance U’ and giving out second chances, because there are kids out there who deserve second chances,” he said. “And they’ve taken that away from me.”

Farrar’s friends portray him as a fall guy, offered up by Ole Miss to the NCAA in the hopes of minimizing penalties against former head football coach Hugh Freeze. If true, this strategy imploded last month when the discovery of a phone call to an escort service led to Freeze’s resignation.

“I think they thought Barney is the least sophisticated of us, and the most expendable, and we’ve got to do what we can to protect Coach Freeze,” said Bruse Loyd, Farrar’s lawyer. “I think they thought that Barney would just go quietly into the night. And he didn’t.”

Ole Miss officials declined interview requests and released a statement from Alice Clark, vice chancellor for university relations.

“Throughout this process, Ole Miss has been committed to doing what is right — when we uncover an issue, we investigate, we take responsibility, we hold people accountable, and we correct any problems we find,” Clark wrote.

As Farrar awaits his chance to plead his case, this football-obsessed state divided by an intense rivalry hangs on every twist and turn of a nearly five-year saga that has featured phone hacking and suspicions of collusion, and has dominated local airwaves and headlines, dwarfing that other story in the news about hacking and suspicions of collusion.

“It’s been the biggest story in the state,” said Neal McCready, publisher of Rebelgrove.com, a website that covers Ole Miss football. “Its tentacles reach over to Mississippi State, reach throughout the league [the Southeastern Conference] … And all the cliches you hear about football in the South, here, are true … This is all anybody’s talking about.”

‘That ain’t good for me’

As the NFL draft was about to begin in April 2016, Farrar sat in his office in the Ole Miss football complex, hoping to see recently departed offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil selected early. Just before the draft began, Tunsil’s Twitter account was taken over by a hacker who posted a video of Tunsil wearing a gas mask and smoking marijuana through a bong.

Within minutes, Farrar was on the phone with NFL scouts, trying to alleviate concerns.

“I’d bet my life on this guy; I’d jump on a sword for him,” Farrar recalled telling one scout when, on the screen, news broke that Tunsil’s Instagram account had been hacked as well, and was posting incriminating text messages involving Ole Miss staffers.

Farrar rose from a humble upbringing to the top tier of college football based on his ability to recruit, especially in Mississippi. High school and junior college coaches here attribute Farrar’s recruiting knack, in part, to his deep knowledge of his home state.

Farrar was raised in a series of tiny northern Mississippi towns by his mother, who was deaf and mute. He never knew his biological father. When he was 13, his stepfather, also deaf and mute, died of a heart attack.

Farrar went on to college at Delta State University on Mississippi’s western edge, where he played as an undersized defensive back and got his start coaching. He broke into big-time college recruiting at Clemson in the 1980s, then went to Rice before landing at Ole Miss in 2006. After a detour to Iowa State, and then Southern Mississippi — where he survived throat cancer — Farrar returned to Oxford in 2011 to help new coach Freeze build a winner.

Freeze quickly became a polarizing figure, beloved around Oxford for beating Alabama twice and winning a Sugar Bowl, but viewed skeptically around the SEC.

Freeze cultivated a public persona as a pious Christian — he regularly tweeted Bible verses, and said his players competed out of love while opponents were motivated by hate — that struck some as sanctimonious. And his instantly successful recruiting operation raised suspicions it was more than faith-based football that was helping Ole Miss lure players away from traditional powers such as Alabama, LSU and Auburn.

The series of hacked text messages on draft night seemed to lend credibility to those suspicions.

“Coach freeze and the whole ole miss program are snakes. They cheat!” the hacker — whose identity has never been publicly disclosed — wrote on Instagram, next to images of text messages from 2015, between Tunsil and John Miller, Ole Miss’s director of football operations.

In the texts, Tunsil asked for help paying his rent and his mother’s electric bill. At one point, Miller replied, “See Barney next week.”

“When I saw John Miller’s text, I thought, ‘Uh, that ain’t good for John,’ ” Farrar recalled. “Then I saw ‘See Barney,’ and I thought, ‘Uh-oh. That ain’t good for me.’ ”

In a news conference after he was selected by the Miami Dolphins, Tunsil was asked if he had accepted money from Ole Miss coaches.

“I would have to say, yeah,” Tunsil replied.

Minutes later, a reporter asked if Tunsil had spoken with NCAA investigators. Before he could answer, a woman who worked for Tunsil’s agent — Jimmy Sexton, also Freeze’s agent — interrupted and ushered Tunsil off the stage.

After being fired by Ole Miss, Farrar said, ‘I was like a man without a country.’ (Andrea Morales/For The Washington Post)
‘Think of it as a vacation’

When the Tunsil draft night hack happened, the NCAA had just completed a three-year investigation of Ole Miss football, women’s basketball, and track and field. A few days later — as speculation swirled about Tunsil’s text messages — the NCAA reopened its investigation of Ole Miss football.

Farrar insisted the situation was explainable. In 2015 — when the messages were exchanged — the NCAA allowed schools to make need-based money available for athletes through a “student-athlete opportunity fund.” According to Farrar, Tunsil was texting about drawing from this aboveboard fund, not $100 handshakes or bags full of cash. (Tunsil did not reply to requests to comment).

Initially, Ole Miss stood by Farrar. In mid-November, though, as an interview for Farrar with NCAA investigators approached, Freeze pulled Farrar aside during practice one day and said they needed to meet with Athletic Director Ross Bjork. Later that day, Bjork and Freeze explained to Farrar that he needed to go on administrative leave, as a precautionary measure, while the investigation continued.

Bjork told him to “think of it as a vacation,” Farrar said, and Freeze told him everything would return to normal when the case was over.

“I’ve had Stage 4 throat cancer, and this bothers me more than that,” he said he told the men.

Bjork declined an interview request. Freeze, who answered the door of his Oxford home last week, declined to answer questions about Farrar and threatened to have a reporter arrested.

Last Dec. 1, Farrar spoke with NCAA investigators and members of the Ole Miss legal team. A week later, Bjork summoned Farrar to another meeting. That morning, Farrar said, he received a text from Freeze: “Love you like a brother.”

Farrar said when he arrived at the meeting, Bjork handed him a letter explaining his career at Ole Miss was over.

“You have not met our expectations with respect to university policies and NCAA rules compliance. Therefore, effective immediately, we are terminating your job duties,” Bjork wrote. The letter did not specify which rules Farrar violated, and Bjork did not elaborate, Farrar said.

“I was like a man without a country,” Farrar said.

Within a few weeks, Farrar noticed he stopped receiving a regular text message Freeze sent all Ole Miss coaches: a daily Bible verse.

University of Mississippi Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter, left, and Athletic Director Ross Bjork speak at a news conference about Hugh Freeze’s resignation. (Bruce Newman/Associated Press)
‘An outlier at the university’

On Feb. 22, Ole Miss posted a video on YouTube to update “the Ole Miss family” on the NCAA investigation. The video was shot to look like a news conference, with Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter, Bjork and Freeze seated behind a table, in front of a blue backdrop dotted with the school logo.

The NCAA had finished its investigation, the men announced, and sent Ole Miss its “Notice of Allegations.” The list included 21 allegations, some dating from 2010, that ran the gamut from serious rule-breaking to less egregious offenses. A few pages before alleging a booster paid a recruit at least $13,000 and Farrar knew about it, the NCAA accused another Ole Miss coach of letting a player sleep on his couch for two nights, an impermissible benefit the NCAA valued at $33.

None of the allegations pertained to the hacked text messages from Tunsil to Miller, who remains on the Ole Miss staff. But the NCAA uncovered other evidence that Ole Miss agreed showed Farrar broke recruiting rules.

The NCAA accused Farrar of involvement with the booster’s payments to a recruit, and also said he arranged free Ole Miss merchandise, rides, meals, and hotel rooms for recruits. Farrar has accepted responsibility for some of the rides, meals and lodging violations — which he has explained as unintentional oversights — and denied the rest.

The NCAA investigative process is shrouded in secrecy, as evidence can be viewed only by those connected to the case. However, glimpses of evidence emerge in cases involving public universities, whose communications become public records.

In its response to the NCAA, Ole Miss referenced an incriminating text message found on Farrar’s university phone.

On Feb. 3, 2015, the day before National Signing Day, Farrar received a text message from a booster that was meant for a recruit the NCAA called “Student-Athlete 39.” The recruit was later identified in local media as Leo Lewis, a highly touted linebacker who had originally committed to Ole Miss, then changed his mind and decided to attend Mississippi State. Lewis has told the NCAA the Ole Miss booster paid him at least $13,000.

The text arrived on Farrar’s phone as word had started to circulate that Ole Miss had lost Lewis to its cross-state rival.

“I need you to call me immediately,” wrote the booster, who was not identified. “We met and agreed upon things … What is going on? You swore to me on your daughter. Please call me. You owe me that.”

Ole Miss acknowledged the text message showed a booster improperly involved in recruiting, but disputed whether a payment occurred. Regardless, the school blamed any misdeeds on Farrar.

“Farrar is an outlier at the university and does not represent the culture of ‘doing things the right way’ that has been curated by the university’s administrative and academics leadership as well as its football head coach,” Ole Miss wrote.

In the YouTube video, Freeze thanked Ole Miss leadership for “unwavering” support, and expressed disappointment at learning one of his staffers had broken NCAA rules.

“From the moment I arrived in December of 2011, I have emphasized to all of my staff that our program is founded on certain core values: faith, attitude, mental toughness, integrity and love,” Freeze said. “Doing things the right way.”

Farrar will find out this fall whether the NCAA believes he is responsible for rules violations at Ole Miss. (Andrea Morales/For The Washington Post)
Lawyers, rags and money

When writing stories set in Oxford, there is a temptation to invoke the style and themes explored by its most famous native son, the author William Faulkner. But with a small army of lawyers at work in connection the NCAA investigation of Ole Miss, another author with an Oxford connection is a more apt reference: John Grisham.

In July, a previously unforeseen legal threat to Ole Miss ended Freeze’s tenure with lightning speed. On July 12, former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt sued the university for defamation, alleging Ole Miss officials told reporters most of the recruiting violations occurred under Nutt’s watch. Eight days later, Freeze resigned after Nutt’s attorney uncovered a phone call from Freeze to a number connected to an escort service. The call was part of a “pattern of misconduct” Freeze admitted to, Ole Miss officials said.

Farrar declined to comment on Freeze’s troubles, other than to say he prays for Freeze and his family daily.

As the months passed and the NCAA’s allegations have drawn scrutiny, people around Oxford have fixated on how heavily the case — especially the strongest charges levied against Farrar — hinge on the testimony of two Mississippi State players: linebacker Lewis and defensive lineman Kobe Jones.

“There’s a sense here that there was collusion, whether it can be proven or not, between the NCAA investigators and Mississippi State to get those kids to turn on Ole Miss,” said McCready, the Rebelgrove.com publisher.

Mississippi State athletics officials declined to comment. In a statement, the NCAA said its enforcement staff “understands people who provide information will have their own interests … Not only is the staff trained to be discerning, the process includes multiple steps to assure that any conclusions are based on reliable information.”

Lewis alleges Farrar connected him with a booster who paid him to attend Ole Miss. But the fact that Lewis ultimately didn’t attend Ole Miss has raised questions about his motivations.

Lewis has admitted to taking money from one other school, according to responses to the NCAA filed by both Ole Miss and Farrar. In exchange for his testimony, the NCAA has offered Lewis immunity. Ole Miss has suggested that Lewis is using this process to avoid punishment for taking money from another school, while also hurting a rival.

Mississippi State declined to make Lewis and Jones available for interviews. Lewis’s lawyer said his client has told the truth.

“Leo Lewis stands by everything he is alleged to have reported, truthfully and accurately, related to any investigation he participated in,” attorney John Wheeler said.

Lewis and Jones also have alleged Farrar sent them to Rebel Rags, an Oxford store, to collect thousands of dollars in free Ole Miss gear. In disputing those accusations, Farrar has an ally: Terry Warren, the owner of Rebel Rags and an Ole Miss booster, who has sued the Mississippi State players for defamation, alleging they fabricated their testimony.

The lawyer for Rebel Rags, Charlie Merkel, has said he has compiled sales receipts and testimony from others who accompanied Lewis and Jones on their recruiting trips that shows the players lied. Merkel provided this evidence to the NCAA, he said, in the hopes they’d drop the allegations involving the store, to no avail.

On Sept. 11, at a hotel in Covington, Ky., these various parties and their lawyers will appear before the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, who will be tasked with determining whom to believe.

Ole Miss, which has self-imposed a one year postseason ban, could face more severe penalties. Freeze faces a potential show-cause order that could delay his return to coaching.

Farrar will be fighting for his chance to work in the background somewhere else. Memorabilia from his career decorates his Oxford condominium. A framed, signed picture of Tunsil walking off the field with his arm draped around Farrar — “Love you Man!” Tunsil wrote — sits on one shelf. On another, there’s a sign with a message Farrar finds calming: “BARNEY, TRUST ME. I HAVE EVERYTHING UNDER CONTROL. JESUS.”

Farrar credits his former boss at Rice, head coach Ken Hatfield, with helping him rediscover his Christian faith. Hatfield was one of the most decent, moral men he ever worked for, Farrar said.

Reached by phone last month in Arkansas, Hatfield said he had heard his former recruiter was in trouble with the NCAA. The retired coach, 74, praised Farrar effusively.

“There wasn’t anybody from a bank president down to a schoolteacher that didn’t just fall in love with Barney,” Hatfield said.

When asked if he could ever imagine Farrar involved with boosters paying players, though, Hatfield declined to answer.

“I’m not going to comment on the current situation because I don’t know it,” Hatfield said. “The dealings I’ve had with him, he’s been honest and upright … You’re going to have to make your own decisions about Barney.”