DESTIN, Fla. — For a guy named Hugh Freeze, the Ole Miss coach is sure not shy about playing with fire.
Three years ago, Freeze invited anyone just the teensiest bit skeptical over how the Rebels were suddenly so successful in recruiting to contact his school’s compliance office if they had information about cheating being committed in the name of Ole Miss football.
Like a latter-day Gary Hart, the philandering presidential candidate who invited reporters to delve into his “boring” personal life back in the 1980s, fate/karma/the world at large took Freeze up on his challenge.
“We got a lot of responses,” Freeze said Tuesday on “The Paul Finebaum Show.”
Laremy Tunsil became Freeze’s Donna Rice, admitting before God and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that he had accepted money from an Ole Miss coach to help his mother pay bills.
As the calendar turns over to June, it’s starting to feel like summer across the Southeastern Conference. Nowhere is it hotter than at Ole Miss.
This is Oxford when it sizzles.
On Friday, the school responded to four years’ worth of NCAA allegations, the most salacious of them involving football, the centerpiece of Ole Miss’ reconstruction as a would-be SEC athletic power.
The school admitted to former coaches falsifying ACT scores under ex-coach Houston Nutt, giving loaner cars to players, boosters giving money to players and a laundry list of lesser transgressions. For that, the school is offering to forfeit 11 scholarships and pay just over $150,000 in fines.
On Tuesday, Freeze was here at the SEC Spring Meeting, standing at a podium before room full of reporters in his first question-and-answer session since the report came out.
Repeatedly, Freeze talked to reporters and on Finebaum’s show about “the narrative,” the story being spun about him and his football program.
“The narrative is that we’re out purchasing players,” Freeze said on the show, athletic director Ross Bjork on a slightly cooler seat to his left. “To my knowledge, there are zero allegations about that and zero proof of that.”
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Freeze to his credit could have ducked or no commented questions about what is still an ongoing NCAA investigation. That said, he spent a great deal of his time parsing his words about the allegations, characterizing many of them as “mistakes” and being careful to note four of the 13 tied to football occurred under Nutt.
“I stand here today owning the mistakes, but that is what they are, not some staff out trying to buy players,” he said. “While I have struggles in life that I don’t always get right, breaking the rules in recruiting is not one of them. I won’t do it.”
What Freeze did do was sound a bit like he was the victim, the victim of a scandal-hungry media and rivals who aren’t used to Ole Miss beating them in football.
“There are some I’m not ever going to change their mind. In their mind,” he said, snapping his fingers, “we became an immediate, overnight success, which that’s not completely accurate, either. It’s been a process, and we’re continuing to build.”
As news of Freeze’s response comes from within the convention hall of the SEC Spring Meeting at the Sandestin Hilton, it’s worth mentioning that Ole Miss’ problems don’t end at the front door of its football complex. The school has admitted wrongdoing in other corners of its athletic-industrial complex as well, including violations in track and field and women’s basketball, the latter involving academic fraud.
Neither of those sports moves the needle as does football, of course, but their issues could spin back on football like a garbage-smeared boomerang should the NCAA tag Ole Miss with lack of institutional control.
If 28 violations across three such varied sports as these doesn’t smack of institutional control, then the definition of it has clearly changed. If the NCAA slaps that label on Ole Miss at large, it’s possible the sanctions against football will be stiffer than those the school is proposing.
Back to Tunsil. It’s true that the NCAA suspended him for the first seven games of the 2015 season, and that as a member of the Miami Dolphins, he’s now beyond the clutches of the NCAA’s enforcement division. One could argue that Ole Miss has paid its penance as far as Tunsil is concerned and has no more worries on the subject.
One name to keep in mind, though: Reggie Bush. Long after the former New Orleans Saints running back left Southern California, the school was hammered for lack of institutional control to the tune of 30 scholarships and a two-year postseason ban over impermissible benefits to Bush and his family.
Ole Miss has asked the NCAA for a delay in the hearing of its case to gather more information on the Tunsil situation.
“We want the finish line,” Bjork said. “We think it’s near.”
Something says the finish line on what all of this means for Freeze and Ole Miss’ reputation isn’t that close.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.