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NCAA About to Put the Heat on Ole Miss Coach Freeze

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No matter how bad this gets, when Hugh Freeze looks back on the end of his coaching career -- which might be upon us sooner rather than later -- the truth is that every bit of the indignity he suffered Wednesday was worth it.

The NCAA is coming hard for Freeze, charging his Mississippi football program with serious cheating allegations, the school with lack of institutional control and the head coach for unsatisfactory oversight of his assistants, who are charged with carrying out blatantly illicit violations, not "mistakes" as Freeze once attempted to characterize them.

Watching Freeze in a 20-minute, 52-second video posted by the school -- eyes puffy, voice wavering, defiance gone -- he looked very much like a man who knows what happens next.

With Mississippi's fate soon to be at the mercy of the NCAA Committee on Infractions, it's reasonable to wonder whether Freeze's rocket-ship ride from Memphis high school coach to the NAIA to beating Nick Saban twice in a row and a $5 million annual contract is soon coming to an inglorious and shameful end.

Sure, Mississippi is going to play defense. It will pay lawyers to help argue the case that Freeze had no idea what kind of shenanigans his assistants were engaging in to help a head coach with no track record and a school with no recruiting cachet secure a top-10 class out of nowhere in 2013. It will push back as hard as it can for as long as it can, no matter the seemingly overwhelming evidence that exists to paint Mississippi as a rogue program that was systematically cutting corners with illegal benefits funneled through boosters.

It's fairly clichéd, standard stuff, especially in light of what has happened recently at Baylor and Louisville and North Carolina. But if the Mississippi allegations are found to be credible by the Committee on Infractions, history suggests this story will reach a familiar conclusion.

No matter how inconsistent NCAA justice can be, this theory stands the test of time: Even if a school is resolutely against firing its coach, the Committee on Infractions has the power to make it so painful there's no other choice. If Mississippi ultimately has to choose between Freeze and the kind of debilitating penalties that might send the program into a decade-long abyss, it's really no choice at all.

If that's how it ends for Freeze, it will be hard to feel too bad for him. A decade ago, he was a relative nobody in his late 30s, grinding out a living without an obvious path to big-time coaching. Now he's banked millions of dollars, fulfilled dreams and given himself a platform to expand his charity work, which is both real and highly commendable.

While the precise scope and some of the specific allegations in the case are unclear -- Mississippi hasn't yet released this version of the notice of allegations but rather outlined the charges in video form -- the first draft last spring included a damning eight Level 1 (the most serious) charges. More were included this time, including a charge that a Mississippi assistant facilitated boosters paying $13,000 to $15,000 in extra benefits to a recruit who didn't even sign there.

The NCAA presumably procured that information by offering immunity to a current player at another Southeastern Conference school, a tactic it used heavily in this second round of the investigations after the Laremy Tunsil revelations last year on NFL draft night.

While Mississippi will contest the accuracy and seriousness of some of the charges, you can bet the NCAA's case is structurally sound and airtight from an evidence standpoint. Unlike previous regimes, in which the NCAA tried to throw every possible allegation at schools to see what might stick, vice president of enforcement Jon Duncan has implemented a more conservative philosophy over the last few years. It's only going to charge schools with the stuff it can prove, and everything released points toward a football program that is about to get absolutely hammered based on process as much as principle.

Some Mississippi fans and supporters undoubtedly will howl about the unfairness of it all, that others cheat just as much but that they were targeted because their success in recruiting took too much bread off the table of the traditional programs. And they might have a point.

But from the very beginning, what Mississippi was doing so quickly under Freeze just didn't look right, and the only question was whether the NCAA eventually would be able to piece together a serious case or merely a wrist-slapper.

We now have the answer, and as bad as it looks for the school, it looks absolutely worse for Freeze. In the video released Wednesday, he sat side by side with athletics director Ross Bjork and school chancellor Jeffrey Vitter. If this is as serious and comprehensive as it appears to be, it's only a matter of time before Freeze gets pushed out of the frame.

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February 23, 2017
 
 
 

 

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