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A one-minute call made from the university-issued phone of Mississippi football coach Hugh Freeze to a number associated with a female escort service was raised as a potential issue in the back-and-forth between the university's legal counsel and the attorney for former Rebels football coach Houston Nutt, according to records and correspondence obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
Freeze's resignation was announced Thursday, hours after Mississippi said it would provide a written statement to USA TODAY Sports regarding the phone call.
Athletics director Ross Bjork announced in a news conference the resignation did not involve NCAA allegations but was based on a pattern of inappropriate conduct.
"We proactively looked into the rest of his phone records and found a concerning pattern," Bjork said.
Bjork also acknowledged that if Freeze had not resigned, the school would have "exercised the termination clause in the contract for moral turpitude."
Assistant Matt Luke, a former Mississippi player, was named interim coach. Practice begins in early August.
The school is under NCAA investigation for allegations of academic, booster and recruiting misconduct.
On July 13 -- one day after Nutt filed a federal lawsuit against Mississippi alleging the school violated the terms of its severance agreement -- Nutt's attorney, Thomas Mars, sent an email to Lee Tyner, the school's general counsel, referencing a "phone call Coach Freeze made that would be highly embarrassing for all of you and extremely difficult to explain."
The call, which was made Jan. 19, 2016, to a Detroit area code (313), lasted one minute, according to emails exchanged between the two parties. But the phone number is associated with several websites advertising a female escort service based in Tampa, USA TODAY Sports independently confirmed. The phone number has been disconnected.
According to Mars, the records do not show Freeze immediately redialing a different or similar number, nor do other calls to a 313 number appear in the phone records covering the days Mars requested.
Responding July 14, Tyner rebuffed a suggestion from Mars that the phone call might be connected to Mississippi's NCAA infractions case, saying the school had inquired into the matter and that "the call to the Detroit number that lasted one minute (or less) appears to be a misdial."
Mars shared the correspondence with USA TODAY Sports.
The exchange over the phone call highlights the ugliness between Mississippi and Nutt as the school attempts to fight one of the most expansive NCAA infractions cases in recent memory.
Nutt alleges in his lawsuit that Mississippi officials, including Freeze and Bjork, conspired to smear him in January 2016 by telling several local and national reporters in "off-the-record" conversations that most of the violations alleged by the NCAA had occurred during the Nutt era.
That false narrative taking hold in some media accounts -- in reality, nine of the 13 alleged violations in the first Notice of Allegations took place under the Freeze regime -- was an intentional strategy promoted by Mississippi, Nutt's lawsuit contends, to help save the school's highly ranked recruiting class right before national signing day.
The case against Mississippi has since expanded to include 21 allegations against the football program, including lack of institutional control and failure to monitor, which could lead to significant penalties targeted at Freeze.
Nutt says the false narrative has hurt his prospects of landing another Football Bowl Subdivision head coaching job and violated a non-disparagement clause in his termination agreement. Mississippi officials have not commented on the lawsuit.
In putting together the lawsuit, Mars paired phone calls made from Freeze, Bjork and head of communications Kyle Campbell to reporters around the time Yahoo Sports reported that Mississippi had received its Notice of Allegations from the NCAA.
Freeze, 47, guided the Rebels for five seasons and led them to a Sugar Bowl victory after the 2015 season, but he coached under the cloud of a years-long NCAA investigation into the program.
Freeze, who spoke to the team before the announcement was made public, was making more than $4.7 million a year. Bjork said there was no buyout.
Freeze was 39-25 in five seasons (9-21 SEC). He and his wife have three daughters.
Contributing: Kevin Spain, Antonio Morales
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