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It was about halfway through Mississippi's response to the accusations of persistent and significant cheating in its football program under Hugh Freeze — page 58, to be exact — when the stakes of its battle with the NCAA were laid bare.
In rebutting an allegation that a booster made illicit payments to Leo Lewis — a former Mississippi recruit who wound up signing with Mississippi State instead — the school all but accuses Lewis of lying to NCAA investigators, possibly motivated by his desire to hurt a rival while deflecting from other improprieties surrounding his recruitment at Mississippi State.
In terms of the sheer headline value, has anything ever been more SEC than that?
But when you consider the context of that attempt to create reasonable doubt within the entirety of the 125-page document Mississippi made public Tuesday, one question rises above all others: Why is Mississippi going to these incredible lengths to protect Freeze?
What the Rebels are bringing to the NCAA Committee on Infractions later this year is the kind of defense a school might mount for Nick Saban or Urban Meyer or John Calipari. It is a full-fledged document of support for Mississippi's football coach, unequivocal in its admission that major violations occurred but unwavering in its denial of Freeze's responsibility for any of them.
Mississippi's institutional decision to pursue this strategy is puzzling. While Freeze has had some shining moments in Oxford, he is 19-21 in the Southeastern Conference and is nobody's definition of irreplaceable. Yet the school is taking the path of most resistance in defending him and, by doing so, potentially risking the total destruction of its football program for the foreseeable future.
Indeed, while Mississippi's self-imposed bowl ban for 2017 and the typical potpourri of scholarship losses and recruiting restrictions are not insignificant, the NCAA has brought a comprehensive case that paints the picture of a serious, repeated and coordinated attempt to skirt rules. Even with the caveat that it's always hard to predict how any particular NCAA case will turn out, it's safe to say the pain Mississippi already has experienced will be child's play should the Committee on Infractions reject the school's defense.
Though the case is complicated and Mississippi has spared no expense to hire the most high-profile law firms that specialize in NCAA cases, it's important to remember that the Committee on Infractions isn't a court of law.
If the committee thinks Mississippi's football staff was systematically trying to gain advantage with recruits outside the rulebook and Freeze looked away while his assistants cheated, the judgment will be harsh and the fallout will be massive.
Based on Mississippi's response, the case will be fought on two planes. The first is typical in cases such as this: Assistants who are no longer with the program are painted as rogue agents who were responsible for all the wrongdoing and that the school had no way of knowing what they were up to.
Former assistant athletics director for high school and junior college relations Barney Farrar — a longtime friend of Freeze's who is highly connected in the state of Mississippi — was particularly thrown under the bus. In one especially remarkable, only-in-the-SEC passage, Mississippi asserts that "no monitoring system could have detected that Farrar was using an attorney-client relationship with his personal attorney (Booster 14) to encourage impermissible contact with (Student-Athlete 39). For good measure, the school outlines how Freeze once asked Farrar if he was using a second phone to illegally contact recruits, the implication being that he a) worked proactively to keep his assistants in line and b) had no way of knowing that Farrar was lying to his face.
The second level of defense is discrediting the testimony of former Mississippi recruits who say they were given illegal benefits while being given immunity by the NCAA enforcement staff. Lewis' allegations in particular, which include a $10,000 payment from a booster, are heavily scrutinized by Mississippi's attorneys for inconsistency, evidence and plausibility.
Of course, it would seem if the NCAA didn't have reason to believe those athletes — the entire picture of evidence and interview transcripts wasn't made public — the allegations wouldn't have been included in the case.
While Mississippi has every reason to challenge the lack of institutional control charge — from an institutional standpoint, that's the most serious one — the history of NCAA cases in this stratosphere suggests that the school would be dealt with far less harshly if it simply removed Freeze.
Instead, Mississippi is rallying around him, which would be baffling if not for two factors: His relationship with the school's biggest boosters is still rock solid, and the Ole Miss Athletics Foundation announced a record $45.6 million in donations last July, up from $26million three years earlier.
Apparently two wins against Alabama buys a football coach at a historically downtrodden program a whole bunch of goodwill.
But the underlying message of Mississippi's defense, in terms of the head coach responsibility charge against Freeze and the lack of institutional control charge, is that there were no red flags to suggest rules were being broken.
It is not an understatement to say every other coaching staff in the Southeast would laugh hysterically at that assertion. The red flag was right in front of everyone's face.
In February 2013, Mississippi signed three recruits — all from out of state — ranked No.1 in the country at their positions, including one from Chicago (Laquon Treadwell). There was absolutely nothing in the history of Ole Miss or Freeze, a second-year Division I head coach coming off a 7-6 season, to suggest that kind of recruiting prowess was possible.
And while the most serious violations Mississippi is being accused of weren't directly tied to the recruitment of those three players, that class brought scrutiny to Oxford, and deservedly so. But even the most generous view of the initial allegations as "mistakes" — that's the line Freeze and athletics director Ross Bjork were using a year ago to spin the media — raises the question of how a staff that knew it was so under the microscope could even come within the same ZIP code as a rules violation.
That still hasn't been answered in any satisfactory way.
These days, Mississippi isn't talking about mistakes; rather, it is admitting that a lot of bad stuff happened over the last few years. Now the spin is about making sure Freeze is protected, at seemingly any cost. But given what could happen if that argument doesn't fly with the Committee on Infractions, going to bat for Freeze to this degree is risky at best and disastrous at worst.
Maybe at Mississippi, a coach with a losing SEC record is just that valuable.
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