Is this how you thought the Hugh Freeze era in Oxford would end? Rebel fans will always remember the day the goalposts came down at the Vaught, the day Ole Miss walked into Tuscaloosa and took down the Tide, and of course, the day the Rebels hoisted the Sugar Bowl trophy in January 2016. Ironically, it was Hugh Freeze’s phone records from that same month that brought the whole thing crashing down.
The work day ended, and everyone in Oxford quietly went about their business. In the early evening, reports surfaced about “explosive new information” surrounding Freeze’s future at Ole Miss. Shortly thereafter, Ole Miss confirmed that Freeze had resigned from the program effective immediately.
Depending on who you ask, this was always a potential outcome for Freeze, but not for a scandal of this nature. Fallout from the NCAA investigation was the only way most people would have envisioned Freeze leaving the University, but after phone records and an internal investigation uncovered calls to an escort service, the University couldn’t stand behind its coach any longer.
One un-redacted phone call from the six days of phone records in question led to a deeper investigation. During a joint press conference after the news broke, Ole Miss Chancellor Jeff Vitter and Athletic Director Ross Bjork both acknowledged their disappointment in Freeze and that they had to hold him accountable for his actions after what they found to be a “concerning pattern” of behavior in his personal life.
Freeze built a persona in the public eye as a family man, a man of faith and a man that his players rallied around. Bjork noted that Freeze admitted to the “behavior” and must be accountable for his actions. Some will call Freeze a fraud; others will say he made a mistake. Either way you try and spin it, his reputation has taken a hit that it may not recover from.
Questions have surrounded the Ole Miss football program for some time now, and even Bjork mentioned that they were prepared for this type of situation based upon the type of announcement they had to make for the postseason ban. While it goes noted that Bjork said this has nothing to do with the NCAA’s case against Ole Miss, we can’t help but question how this will affect the case moving forward. One of the most damning allegations was the charge against Freeze for “lack of institutional control,” a charge that the University was challenging in full. So how does the NCAA proceed now that one of the most prominent figures in its case no longer works for the program? Ole Miss will still have its day in front of the Committee on Infractions, but it now faces a new challenge as the ground under its feet continues to shift.
While there are many unanswered questions, the fact remains that Ole Miss is 44 days away from taking the field against South Alabama at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. OL coach Matt Luke will take over as the interim head coach, DC Wesley McGriff has been promoted to associate head coach, and Bjork said that a new assistant would be hired before the season. Bjork also stated that the search for a permanent head coach will take a backseat for the time being.
“It’s about the team. The team is the focus right now,” Bjork said. “I told the football staff that the number one thing, from beginning to end, is the team, and that’s all that matters. I haven’t even thought about a search. We had to get a plan in place right now. We start practice in less than two weeks. There will be a lot of time to conduct a search for a permanent head coach.”
Bjork’s comments haven’t stopped the speculation as to who the next coach should or will be. Names like Les Miles, Chip Kelly and others have been mentioned by members of the national media and fans alike. The question becomes, “how attractive is this job?” Job openings in the SEC West don’t come along every day, and for that reason, a lot of coaches will listen to what the Rebels have to say.
Another important factor is the lack of a buyout for Freeze, who was scheduled to make just shy of $5 million a year for the remainder of his contract. Ole Miss will have money to spend when the time comes. With the aforementioned NCAA investigation’s conclusion still on the horizon, don’t expect any big names to jump at the chance until the storm clouds clear the air over Oxford.
Ole Miss shocked the college football world when it brought in the 2013 recruiting class with cornerstone players that would work to put the Rebels back on the map. Questions arose about how Freeze did it, and Rebel nation collectively stood behind him. Throughout the convoluted mess that has become the NCAA’s investigation, Freeze’s image saved him as he continued to have the support of the University brass.
Five years ago, a man named Hugh from Mississippi promised to bring Ole Miss back. Today, he has set the program back, and the future is as unclear as ever.
So how will you remember the Hugh Freeze era — for the record highs or the new lows? For the wins over Alabama or the 5-7 finish in a “what could’ve been” year in 2016? For the man that he was as the face of the Ole Miss Rebels or the man whom many feel may have duped an entire fan base into believing him? Regardless of where you stand, as Chancellor Vitter said to begin last night’s press conference “today is a sad day for the University of Mississippi.”
Steven Gagliano is the managing editor of HottyToddy.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.