Last week, a CBS Sports writer named Dennis Dodd made waves by telling a radio show in Arkansas that a suspension is "definitely in play" for Hugh Freeze, whose Ole Miss program is awaiting the disciplinary results of an ongoing NCAA investigation. The quote quickly rippled across social media and made its rounds through the college football blogosphere. But Dodd wasn't exactly breaking news. You don't need inside sources to tell you that there is a very real chance that Freeze could miss games over the alleged violations—all you have to do is read the NCAA's written policy.
In 2013, the NCAA created a new penalty structure that allows it to suspend the head coach of any collegiate sports team for major NCAA violations committed within their program, regardless of whether the head coach was directly aware of the violations. Over the last three years, we've seen this new rule used to suspend basketball coaches—most notably a nine-game ban for Syracuse's Jim Boeheim in 2015—but it's never been used for a head football coach. Freeze could become the first.
The new policy eliminates plausible deniability.
The specific rule we're discussing here is Bylaw 126.96.36.199, which states that "an institution's head coach is presumed to be responsible for the actions of all assistant coaches and administrators who report, directly or indirectly, to the head coach."
In a college athletics system in which dirty work is typically done by boosters or other periphery characters in order to insulate the head coach, the NCAA has essentially eliminated the plausible deniability excuse. "I didn't know it was going on" is no longer accepted. Not knowing, the NCAA insists, is itself a failure to monitor and therefore a punishable violation.
Under Bylaw 188.8.131.52, a head coach can be suspended for up to an entire season for Level I violations and up to half a season for Level II violations. The length of the suspension depends on "the severity of the violation(s) committed by his or her staff and/or the coach himself/herself."
Of the nine alleged violations that occurred on Freeze's watch, four are Level I and two are Level II (four more Level I violations were attributed to Houston Nutt's staff, but that obviously won't factor into Freeze's situation). Two of those have been challenged by Ole Miss and could potentially be dropped, but that still leaves at least four major infractions.
The NCAA does provide a way out, though.
The rule also states that "a head coach is presumed responsible for major/Level I and Level II violations occurring within his or her program unless the coach can show that he or she promoted an atmosphere of compliance and monitored his or her staff."
Indeed, we heard Freeze begin to lay the public groundwork for that "atmosphere of compliance" defense during SEC Media Days.
"If mistakes were made, we're held accountable to a certain standard unless you can prove you set the proper atmosphere for compliance, which I believe we have," Freeze said. "Again, I don't get to judge that. We'll see at the end of the day. I don't think there's any head coach at our level that can control everything that happens in this day in time. You can set the tone, but it's almost impossible that you could control everything."
So how does one go about setting that tone? The answer to that question is, in typical NCAA fashion, ambiguous. The policy lays out a list of suggested guidelines—stuff like establishing clear lines of communication between athletics and university admins and aggressively investigating any situation that could lead to a violation—but admits that "there is no way to set forth a checklist of items that will in all circumstances prevent a finding." Essentially, it's up to the NCAA's discretion to decide what constitutes an "atmosphere of compliance."
Freeze might have a hard time using the "atmosphere of compliance" defense.
The biggest issue for Freeze is that he supposedly had direct knowledge of one of the Level I violations. The NOA claims that he knew about a Memphis booster who on multiple occasions transported and fed four recruits from a Memphis high school. Each individual violation is a minor Level III offense—a $12 ride here, $60 worth of food there—but the NCAA lumped all of them together as a single Level I.
Ole Miss' NOA response retroactively acknowledges that the guy was "undoubtedly a booster" who had an impermissible relationship with recruits, but attempts to absolve Freeze by putting the blame on assistant coach Maurice Harris for not properly identifying the relationship as impermissible: "The other coaches ... asked the right questions and relied upon Harris' understanding of [the individual's] relationship with the prospects in determining that there was no violation of NCAA legislation," the response claims.
Even if that is the case, the NCAA can claim that Harris' mistake was ultimately Freeze's responsibility.
At the end of the day, the NCAA can do whatever the hell it wants.
The reality is that the policy is intentionally written with enough ambiguity to allow the NCAA to interpret a given situation however it wants (which is, ya know, how the NCAA operates in just about all situations).
"Please note that the ultimate determination of whether a head coach has exercised proper control over his or her program rests with the Committee on Infractions," the policy reads, "and a failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance and/or failure to monitor determination will consider the unique facts and circumstances of each case."
It really boils down to this: if the NCAA wants to suspend Freeze, it can probably find a reason to justify it under Bylaw 184.108.40.206.