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Seeking Apology, Nutt Files New Suit Against Ole Miss

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USA TODAY

 

On Jan. 29, 2016, as Mississippi coaches were preparing for a crucial recruiting weekend just ahead of national signing day, Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports broke the story that the NCAA had delivered a notice of allegations to the school, alleging violations in three sports.

Within minutes, Ole Miss officials including athletics director Ross Bjork, then-football coach Hugh Freeze and other staffers tasked with public relations management went to work, spending significant time that afternoon talking on the phone with reporters, who all reported a similar message: The NCAA's case was largely about women's basketball and violations that happened under Houston Nutt.

Whether that legally amounts to defamation and a breach of the non-disparagement language in Nutt's 2011 separation agreement with Ole Miss will be for the courts to decide. Nutt has filed a second lawsuit — this time in Mississippi state court, after the first try in federal court this year was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds — against Ole Miss on Wednesday, seeking compensatory and punitive damages, attorney's fees and other relief. And who knows how a judge and perhaps eventually a jury will interpret the information as it applies to the law.

But after reading the 46-page complaint, which contains even more specific information than the first, is there any doubt that Nutt's initial request — a public apology — was not only reasonable but well deserved?

Again, from legal perspective, there are contentious facets of this case. Ole Miss will argue that the non-disparagement language applied only to a certain "control group" of people. Moreover, proving that the public narrative in early 2016 had an impact on Nutt's reputation to the point where he couldn't land another head coaching job in college football will not be easy.

But this much is true: Anyone who foisted the idea on members of the media that Nutt or violations from the Nutt era were the central theme of the first notice of allegations did so without regard for the truth.

And Thomas Mars of the Arkansas-based Friday, Eldredge & Clark law firm made a compelling argument that the misleading public relations campaign was done with a sophisticated level of purpose and coordination.

Bjork, in fact, had retained the services of an outside public relations consultant — Brian Curtis, who runs the Atlanta-based Paradigm Four firm, has sort of a niche business in college sports — and the lawsuit details numerous communications with him documented in public records around those key times.

Mars' lawsuit says "two-thirds of AD Bjork's cell phone calls on January 29-30, 2016 were with sports journalists, Coach Freeze, and the three members of the AD's PR team. Ten of those conversations were between AD Bjork and (Kyle) Campbell, the head of PR who reported directly to AD Bjork. ... University phone logs show that on a typical day, AD Bjork would have had no more than a few calls with (that group of people)."

The lawsuit then details a play-by-play of phone calls between Freeze, Bjork and other officials in the inner circle correlated with information reported by journalists that day.

There was a 13-minute call between Campbell and ESPN's Chris Low, who later in the day tweeted "I'm told the Ole Miss Notice of Allegations doesn't contain any surprises. Most of it predates Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss knew it was coming." There was a call between Freeze and then-Fox Sports (now Sports Illustrated) reporter Bruce Feldman, who cited anonymous sources in saying "the majority of the allegations stem from women's basketball and track as well as from incidents occurring with the previous Rebels football staff from the Houston Nutt era." ESPN's Ed Aschoff, who had spoken with Bjork that afternoon, wrote in a news story, quoting an anonymous source, "This is a fraction involving our current football staff."

And those are just some of the examples cited by Mars, all either extremely misleading or flat-out untrue.

Neal McCready of Rebel Grove, who had spoken with Freeze a week earlier, tweeted on the day of Forde's report: "The other football-related stuff dates back to the Houston Nutt era. Hearing that stuff is six years old."

On his podcast Thursday, McCready admitted that information came directly from Freeze: "Did we discuss the NCAA case? Yes. Did I ask, 'Hey, what's in it?' Yes. Was I told it was mostly Nutt and women's basketball? Yes. Did I feel misled? Yes. Did it piss me off later? Yes. Was I taking talking points and running? No."

Full disclosure: I exchanged text messages that day with Campbell and reiterated my position that the school should release the NOA publicly and until it did I would remain skeptical that the characterization of the allegations being provided by school officials was complete and accurate.

It simply didn't make sense. If the charges weren't that bad, why not just get them out there publicly?

Well, it turned out we got the answer on the Friday before Memorial Day in 2016, when Ole Miss finally released the NOA. At that point, it became obvious the public relations campaign was a sham, designed to convey the message that the NCAA investigation wasn't going to be a big problem for the school, helping Freeze and staff retain a recruiting class that eventually was ranked No. 7 by Rivals.com.

And now that it's being rehashed, it's a horrible look for Ole Miss.

Moreover, the lawsuit claims that Bjork and Freeze "were the only members of the Athletics Department who were allowed to read the specific allegations in the NOA."

If that's true, and others in the athletics department were deputized to speak to reporters off the record and disseminate false information at the athletics director's behest, that could be a major problem for Bjork.

Ole Miss officials didn't immediately have a comment. Curtis didn't return a phone call from USA TODAY Sports.

Eventually, they'll have their chance to respond to the allegations that they damaged Nutt's reputation. But it doesn't appear for now that Nutt is going to let it go.

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October 13, 2017
 
 
 

 

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