According to the multi-talented Ben Jones of our Tuscaloosa News sports staff, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze delivered an opening statement at Thursday morning’s session of SEC Media Days that totaled 2,773 words. For Oxford-themed comparative purposes, William Faulkner’s longest written sentence (in “Absalom, Absalom!”) went on for 1,288 words. This column will end up at around 600 words, so imagine Freeze reading it aloud four times, then adding some Katy Perry lyrics at the end and you’ll have some idea of the length of his particular filibuster.
Sound? Definitely. Fury? Not so much.
At this point, there is little left for Freeze to say about the NCAA investigation into Ole Miss football, the topic everyone wants him to talk about. The anticipation was heightened by a cleverly-timed lawsuit from former Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt. That suit accuses Freeze of being part of a “defamation conspiracy” by Ole Miss to blame much of the recruiting scandal on Nutt, thereby deflecting attention away from Freeze and the current staff.
That’s not going to amount to much, either, although Nutt might get one more payday from Ole Miss. The fact is, what Freeze and other Ole Miss officials were doing in late January of 2016, when Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports broke the story that the NCAA had come calling in The Grove, was “spinning.” Freeze, or AD Ross Bjork, called seven reporters with “their side” of the story in what was clearly a panicked, desperate attempt to salvage their 2016 recruiting class. The smart reporters in that group recognized that this was happening, or at least understood that they were getting only half the story. When that happens in an NCAA investigation, you can rest assured that the NCAA also had their side of the story and it is rarely pretty. I don’t believe any reporters were “complicit” with Ole Miss, although I think that some, having a head coach or athletic director as their “source,” gave the Rebels’ version more weight than it was due.
Regardless, what was told to reporters was irrelevant (except perhaps to Houston Nutt). The question is what was being told to recruits. Did they get the same version of “all is well”? Was that done in good faith?
When Freeze did talk about what he refers to as “the drama” of the NCAA case on Thursday, he sounded far more penitent than the brash coach who dared his Twitter followers (and, by extension, the planet) to report violations to Ole Miss compliance two years ago.
“We obviously have created it in and around our program, you know, the length of it, we can sit here and debate all of that. But … we’ve got to be responsible for the areas in which we were deficient in, that we didn’t either react or act properly, or whether it was staff or whether it was boosters,” he said.
Beyond the actual final report, when the NCAA gets to give its version of events and some decidedly unlovely parting gifts, the facts are these: There is not going to be some miraculous ending to this saga for Ole Miss where the NCAA says, “This was all Mississippi State’s fault!” Things are already at the point where the process itself is part of the penalty – the self-imposed sanctions, plus the effect that the “drama” has on recruiting. Ole Miss is banking heavily on the hope that it can retain Freeze, have him stay through the inevitable tough years, and go forward. That probably seems a safer risk than trying to hire a replacement. For Ole Miss, Freeze’s wins over Alabama and the 2015 Sugar Bowl trip are milestone achievements – and who could they hire to replicate them over the next 20 years?
Will that work out for Ole Miss? No one, except perhaps the NCAA, knows. Will it wrap up by this time next year? I hope so, as does everyone who doesn’t want to come back and hear Freeze read the entire Oxford phone book from cover to cover.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.