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With Ole Miss NCAA Football Investigation Over, Is Worst Still To Come?


Photo by Bill Barksdale

It’s difficult to think that just over one year ago, Hugh Freeze hoisted the Sugar Bowl trophy, and the Rebels were among the most prominent teams in the country. Questions and concerns followed the team throughout a disappointing 5-7 season in 2016 as the NCAA’s investigation continued. When the season came to an end, and the waiting began. Rebel nation collectively held their breath as no news became bad news when a panel consisting of Chancellor Jeff Vitter, Athletic Director Ross Bjork and head coach Hugh Freeze announced a postseason ban for the football program for the 2017 season during on Wednesday.
The NCAA’s investigation came to an end with Ole Miss receiving their second notice of allegations with nine new allegations against the Ole Miss football program. These nine allegations are in addition to the 12 previously existing allegations which were previously announced back in 2016. While some may feel that the worst of the investigation is in the past, dark days may lie ahead for the Ole Miss football program.
Bjork outlined the newest allegations against Ole Miss, which consisted of 7 Level I violations. The new allegations include payments made to potential student-athletes and their families, impermissible benefits given by boosters, contact with coaches outside of the allotted period, as well as former staff members knowingly committing recruiting violations.
The University will fight three of the charges, including the charge of “Lacking institutional control.” Throughout the four-year process, Freeze has maintained his position that he felt he has created a culture of compliance, a stance which he reiterated during yesterday’s announcement.
The Timeline – How we ended up here
In 2013, Freeze brought in a recruiting class that stunned the nation and brought a lot of eyes to Oxford. Foul play was suspected by many but denied by all those involved. The NCAA was already in town investigating the firing of Ole Miss women’s basketball coach Adrian Wiggins in 2012. Wiggins had been hired just seven months prior to being let go due to potential violations he committed while coaching at Fresno State. The resignation of track & field coach Brian O’Neal raised eyebrows as well. The NCAA’s presence eventually expanded from the women’s basketball team to the entire athletic program.
The investigation continued, and so did the Rebels. On-field success continued to keep the questions away, and the program looked to be in good shape. Freeze took over an inept 2-10 team and led them to two consecutive bowl wins. Heading into the 2015 season, questions surrounding Laramey Tunsil’s eligibility began to creep up after a situation with his step-father was made public. Tunsil was held out of the Rebels’ first seven games by Freeze. At this point, many believed Tunsil’s situation was an isolated incident, and the investigation would go no further.
Laremy Tunsil during his time as on Ole Miss Rebel. Photo Courtesy of Joshua McCoy

Weeks after the Sugar Bowl victory, it was announced that the athletic program was facing 30 potential allegations across three sports; women’s basketball, track & field, and football. The allegations were quickly dismissed by fans as violations by the Houston Nutt staff, not Freeze’s, but this was not the case as we now know. However, there are two allegations from 2010, including the fixing of recruit’s ACT scores and three coaches were allegedly involved in improper practices during recruiting.
The 2016 season approached, and the Ole Miss campus was thriving. With an increased donor base the University made renovations to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, built the new home of Ole Miss basketball and made other improvements to numerous facilities. A visibly frustrated Hugh Freeze met the gathered media during SEC media days and answered questions about the on-going investigation. Speculation continued to follow the team throughout the season, and there was no light at the end of the tunnel for the Rebels.
What Happens next? – It’s not over yet 
We now know the extent of the allegations, but the process in not yet finished. Ole Miss will fight some of the charges, but not all. The bowl ban was most likely announced right away as a way to hopefully appease the NCAA, and avoid any further punishment. The Rebels had previously announced a reduction in 11 scholarships over the next three seasons. A formal response to the allegations will be drafted over the next 90 days, and a hearing before the committee of infractions will take place.
The biggest storyline will continue to be High Freeze and Ross Bjork’s involvement in the allegations, and the institutional control will be a topic of conversation over the next few months. The institutional control allegation leaves a dark cloud over the two. In years past this charge has led to the dismissal of some of the elite coaches in the NCAA.
In 2011, Jim Tressel, one of the best coaches in Ohio Sate history, was let go for his role in the Buckeye’s 2011 scandal. The Buckeyes were handed a postseason ban for the 2012 season, perhaps setting a precedent for the Rebels’ current predicament. Tressel was also placed on a 5-year penalty during which time he allowed to take a job, but would face suspension from conference title games or bowl games. 
Former Ohio State Head Coach Jim Tressel – photo via Twitter

Much has been written about Freeze’s potentially rocky future in Oxford, and many see this ending with his exit. As the days pass, it will become Freeze’s words against the court of public opinion, a battle he is currently losing. What’s said on Twitter will have no bearing on the NCAA’s decision, so once again all fans can do for the time being is wait.
The Rebels made their bed, and they must lie in it, but that doesn’t detract from hypocrisy that the NCAA has displayed throughout this process. While it may be a different sport, several examples in college basketball hold much more serious charges with a lack of follow through by the governing body of collegiate athletics.
Similar Cases – How have others been handled 
The University of North Carolina has had ongoing academic fraud issues dating back to 2002, and yet they have operated as one of the most successful programs in the country. Louisville’s Rick Pitino oversaw a staff that brought escorts to potential players to entice them to join the program. At Syracuse, the NCAA found that head coach Jim Boeheim had failed to promote compliance with the NCAA for nearly a decade in 2015. The NCAA accepted a postseason ban during the season along with a scholarship reduction. Boeheim was suspended for nine meaningless games the following season, but the team ended up back in the NCAA tournament, no questions asked.
Jim Boeheim – photo courtesy of Syracuse.com

Moving back to football, the issues at Baylor are well-documented, covering up upwards of 40 sexual assaults by football players. While the program has lost recruits and staff members, there is no current evidence to suggest the NCAA will take further action.
The investigation at Ole Miss was dragged out over an extended period of time without any clarity. New layers were added as the NCAA granted immunity to recruits who chose other schools. Ole Miss let certain staff members go, was forced to go through the recruiting process with uncertainty following them, and the NCAA has no remorse. In no way do the Rebels deserve to get away with what they have done. All Ole Miss can ask for is fair treatment across the board.

Steven Gagliano is a writer for HottyToddy.com. He can be reached at steven.gagliano@hottytoddy.com
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