Three months ago, after an amended version of the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations dramatically increased the severity of the investigation into Ole Miss, it was assumed by many that the university would fire Hugh Freeze in an attempt to bring desperately needed finality to a probe that’s dragged on for over four years. But the formal response released by Ole Miss on Tuesday, which details how the school plans to fight charges that could cripple its football program, makes it clear that the administration has no intention of parting ways with its head coach.
Ole Miss was originally issued a Notice of Allegations in April of 2016, but was sent a second, amended version 10 months later after the NCAA’s probe was reignited by Laremy Tunsil’s draft-night admission to receiving money from Rebel coaches. The second version included no new findings related to Tunsil, but did tack on eight additional allegations (seven of which were Level I), including the dreaded lack of institutional control.
In a YouTube video released in late February, Bjork announced that the football program would add a self-imposed bowl ban on top of the 11 scholarships it had voluntarily forfeited after the first NOA. But Bjork, flanked by Freeze and the university’s chancellor, also vowed to challenge at least five of the new allegations, including the lack of institutional control and a charge that Freeze failed to police his staff and program.
Here’s what we learned from the formal response released Tuesday.
Ole Miss is sticking by Freeze.
Freeze’s appearance in the February video, as well as a quiet contract extension he received after last season, suggested that the school plans to dig in and support the coach that hoisted it out of the shambles of the Houston Nutt years. Wrote SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey: “After two New Year’s Six bowls and two wins over Alabama, Freeze, a North Mississippi native and former Memphis high school coach, has more equity among boosters than any Ole Miss coach in modern history.”
Indeed, the NOA response makes it clear that the Bjork and the administration plans to fight on Freeze’s behalf.
This case does not involve a head coach who facilitated or participated in violations or otherwise ignored red flags associated with them. Freeze developed and implemented a broad, staff-wide compliance program dedicated to satisfying the NCAA’s amended head coach responsibility legislation in early 2013, and he has continuously worked to expand and improve upon that program ever since. Those who have worked under Freeze consistently report his emphasis on compliance, including his direction to promptly involve the University’s compliance staff in their recruiting choices.
The quick take: Ole Miss really is standing with Hugh Freeze. Multiple sources/experts have told me that’s the riskiest tactic possible— Steven Godfrey (@38Godfrey) June 6, 2017
Ole Miss contends that Barney Farrar acted as a rogue agent.
The attorney for Farrar, the Ole Miss assistant coach who became a focal point of the investigation after his name was mentioned in the leaked Tunsil texts hinting at a pay-for-play scheme, went to Yahoo Sports last week to voice concerns that his client was being scapegoated by the university.
“It was apparent to me that the narrative coming out of Oxford was that Barney was being portrayed as the lone, rogue actor and everyone else was above reproach,” said Bruse Lloyd, who’s been representing Farrar since he was effectively fired in December. “It’s not right. It is a betrayal of him. Do I think Barney’s been made a scapegoat? Yes. Based on what I’ve seen and know, they set him up. ‘You are the most unsophisticated, the most expendable, and, tag, you’re it.’”
The NOA response concludes that “former off-field staff member Barney Farrar committed significant violations during his recruitment of [Student-Athlete 39], intentionally hid this misconduct from the University’s compliance staff and his head coach, and used multiple intermediaries in his scheme.”
“Farrar purposefully and actively circumvented the University’s monitoring systems and disregarded his head coach’s repeated directives.”
Ole Miss doesn’t think it suffered a lack of institutional control.
The university’s contentions that Freeze maintained an atmosphere of compliance and that Farrar acted of his own accord are critical to challenging the most serious of the allegations: lack of institutional control. In short, Ole Miss maintains that it did everything in its power to prevent major violations and can’t be held responsible for the actions of rogue actors like Farrar and boosters.
None of the Level I violations in this case could have been prevented, detected, or deterred by any reasonable compliance or monitoring system, especially those violations committed by relatively unknown boosters who acted on their own or individuals who intentionally avoided monitoring systems and hid their actions from the University’s compliance and coaching staff.
A dissociation with boosters named in the NOA—something the school claims its done by banning the most egregious violators from athletic events—is something SBN’s Steven Godfrey reports as a storyline to watch, as two of the boosters have, like Farrar, lawyered up and are prepared for litigation against the university.
The university tears apart Leo Lewis’ allegations.
One of the investigation’s most intriguing twists occurred when the NCAA offered immunity to several former Ole Miss recruits in exchange for their accounts of alleged recruiting violations. The account of Student Athlete 39, the alias of Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis, played a particularly prominent role in the second NOA—he claimed he was given over $400 of free merchandise from a local store and that boosters not only handed him between $13,000 and $15,000 in cash, but that Barney Farrar knew about money.
The response commits several pages to systematically dismantling Lewis’ claims, insisting that his accounts to investigators were inconsistent and contradictory.
For instance, the response notes that Lewis at one point claimed he personally used a gift card to make purchases at Rebel Rags, then said in another interview that someone else used the card on his behalf and that he never touched the card. He also mentioned a cashier removing security clips from the purchased clothes, but the store owner later said that “there’s no security clips on any product in that [store].”
The text below, which challenges Lewis’ claim that he was handed $10,000 by a booster, is one of the many examples of Ole Miss poking holes in Lewis’ inconsistent time frames.
These internal inconsistencies involving who initiated the contact and the form in which the money was paid cast doubt on [Student-Athlete 39’s] story. That story is undermined by changes to his basic description of events. Although [Student-Athlete 39] initially denied having communicated with [Booster 14] at any time following the payment, he later changed his story when the enforcement staff showed him a text message from [Booster 14] to Farrar (not a text to or from [Student-Athlete 39]) dated February 3, 2015, at approximately 4:00 p.m. When presented with the text by the staff, [Student-Athlete 39] claimed to have received the same text message about “an hour or two” after meeting with [Booster 14] and receiving the $10,000. Thus, [Student-Athlete 39] claimed he met with [Booster 14] after school and well before the 4:00 p.m. text message. [Student-Athlete 39] stated, however, in this third interview that the payment took place “late in the evening” around 5:00 to 6:00 p.m. After the enforcement staff informed [Student-Athlete 39] that this new account was inconsistent with his prior testimony and other evidence, [Student-Athlete 39] waffled and added an hour to the window, claiming that the meeting took place sometime between 4:00 and 6:00 p.m., when it was still light outside.
Hell, the response even busts out a Joker GIF that Lewis tweeted after the announcement of the second NOA, claiming it as evidence that he “enjoyed causing the University harm.”