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Dayton Daily News (Ohio)
Hugh Freeze resigned as Mississippi's coach July 20 amid controversy and an NCAA probe.
Former University of Mississippi football coach Hugh Freeze and disassociated booster Lee Harris, who allegedly gave a recruit cash and free food at his Oxford, Miss., restaurant, called each other at least 200 times between January 2015 and the end of Freeze's tenure last month, according to records reviewed by USA TODAY Sports.
The phone calls included the period in which Harris became a part of the NCAA's investigation into Mississippi and continued before and after his interview with the NCAA on Nov. 16, 2016, in which he provided information that was determined to be false.
Freeze was not named or deemed culpable in the specific NCAA allegation related to Harris, and it is not publicly known what the two men discussed in the calls. According to Freeze's attorney, W.G. Watkins, Freeze and Harris met by "happenstance" sitting next to each other at church at some point after Harris' alleged violations occurred, formed a relationship and played golf together. Watkins said Freeze never discussed the NCAA case with Harris, which would potentially be a violation of bylaw 10.1 relating to unethical conduct.
"I believe that unequivocally," Watkins said. "One thing Hugh Freeze has done throughout this is not discuss the case with anyone. Part of the problem with NCAA rules is the school can't talk about the case with Hugh Freeze and he can't talk about the case with his coaches or players. He's isolated in all this."
Harris didn't respond to multiple messages left by USA TODAY Sports.
In response to a request for comments about the frequency of the communication, Mississippi athletics director Ross Bjork told USA TODAY Sports: "Our position on the matter and our actions with regards to Lee Harris are clear in our official response."
Frequent communication between the coach and a booster who allegedly violated NCAA rules, however, raises additional questions about whether Mississippi administrators sufficiently monitored Freeze's phone calls.
Freeze resigned July 20 after the school found a pattern of improper phone calls, an investigation prompted by questions about a one-minute phone call to an escort service that was uncovered during an unrelated lawsuit.
The school subsequently released records from Freeze's university-issued phone, in a heavily redacted format after granting Freeze the option to remove personal calls.
The documented calls between Freeze and Harris are noteworthy because of the booster's role in Mississippi's NCAA case.
The NCAA alleges that Harris, who owns Funkys Pizza and Daiquiri Bar in Oxford and was a season ticketholder for Mississippi football and basketball, provided recruiting inducements to linebacker Leo Lewis, who wound up signing with Mississippi State. The allegation was deemed a Level 1 violation, the most severe.
Claims made by Lewis, who was granted limited immunity by the NCAA in exchange for his cooperation in the investigation, form the basis for some of the most serious allegations against Mississippi. The university has contested Lewis' accounts, calling them inconsistent.
Lewis is expected to be present for Mississippi's Committee on Infractions hearing Sept. 11 outside of Cincinnati.
NCAA investigators, however, say that Lewis is a credible witness, citing, among other things, his ability to physically describe Harris. Lewis, who said he met Harris at the Mississippi football complex, told NCAA investigators that Harris gave him "two or three cash payments of between $100 and $200 during visits to Funkys" in addition to free food and drinks for him and his family.
Phone records Harris turned over to Mississippi revealed that he had texted Lewis shortly before national signing day in 2015 and had made phone calls to him. Mississippi also acknowledged the records showed communication with members of the coaching staff around the same time.
Though Mississippi disputes the claim that a cash exchange took place, the inconsistency of Harris' account led the school to disassociate him from the program during the period of its NCAA probation.
Mississippi self-imposed a bowl ban Feb. 23, shortly after receiving a Notice of Allegations that included a charge of lack of institutional control.
Harris' cellphone number first shows up in Freeze's phone records in January 2015, but the logs show no more calls between them until July and only sporadic communication through the rest of 2015.
In 2016, however, they called each other 158 times, including stretches from March through July in which they communicated almost every day and often several times per day.
The frequency of the calls, however, slowed precipitously late last year when the NCAA began to zero in on Harris.
The call logs show a three-minute conversation the night of Nov. 8, roughly eight days before Harris' NCAA interview, and not again until Dec. 7 when he called Freeze at 12:53 p.m. and they spoke for three minutes. They spoke again two days later for five minutes.
On Dec. 28 - one week after Mississippi officials met with the NCAA in Indianapolis for a conference before receiving the Notice of Allegations - Freeze and Harris spoke for eight minutes. The next afternoon, they spoke for 11 minutes in a Freeze-initiated call.
Harris placed four calls to Freeze last Feb. 18, four days before Mississippi received the Notice of Allegations, and then again for six minutes Feb. 27. There were only 15 communications between them in the log for 2017.
Given the stakes of the NCAA investigation, their close personal relationship and frequent communication could have raised a red flag with Mississippi and the NCAA.
According to NCAA bylaws, "knowingly furnishing or knowingly influencing others to furnish the NCAA or the individual's institution false or misleading information concerning an individual's involvement in or knowledge of matters relevant to a possible violation of an NCAA regulation" constitutes unethical conduct.
Freeze has been charged with failure to monitor, an alleged violation he and the school are contesting.
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