Hugh Freeze's NCAA 'colonoscopy' turns up major violations, plenty of questions
Serious NCAA violations unveiled Friday may be just the beginning for Ole Miss and coach Hugh Freeze
The early results of Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze's "colonoscopy" -- as he described the four-year NCAA investigation to Dennis Dodd in March -- have finally been revealed.
Remember the spin from Ole Miss sources in January that football wasn't involved in the majority of the allegations and those that were football-related mostly stemmed from the Houston Nutt era? Yeah, not so much.
"The NCAA has alleged, and we agree, that serious violations have occurred," Ole Miss wrote in an open letter signed by athletics director Ross Bjork and chancellor Jeffrey Vitter.
You can nitpick over the severity of some of the NCAA allegations detailed in the Notice of Allegations released Friday by Ole Miss, which naturally waited until Memorial Day weekend for the release. (Of course, there's no nitpicking over two ex-Ole Miss assistant coaches allegedly setting up fake ACT exams for recruits, which we'll get to later.) You can argue, as I do, that college athletes should be allowed to get paid and a lot of the violations truly aren't a big deal if you view college sports as a multi-billion dollar enterprise.
But you can't dispute the number of accusations out there, including nine under Freeze (four of which are Level I violations). How much Freeze knew and what, if anything, he can be held personally responsible for under the NCAA's penalty structure become important questions as the case drags on.
There are 28 allegations against Ole Miss athletics -- so far. The NCAA is still investigating the Laremy Tunsil text message bombshells dropped on his hacked Instagram account on NFL Draft night. Ole Miss' self-imposed football penalties (11 scholarship reductions over four years, a $159,000 fine, taking coaches off the road for recruiting, and rules educations for some current assistants) may or may not appease the NCAA.
Ole Miss has asked the Committee on Infractions to remove its hearing date from this summer's docket until the NCAA review can be completed. So Freeze's colonoscopy continues, and this time it occurs with the public knowing what some of the allegations are under his watch.
When Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports reported in January right before National Signing Day that the NCAA had charged Ole Miss with dozens of violations in three sports, the spin out of Oxford came hard and fast. SB Nation cited an anonymous Ole Miss source who said only five of the 32 violations involved football and that "coaches are 'confident' allegations related to the current staff are secondary violations."
There was also spin that the "vast majority" of the football allegations are more than two years old. It's not quite clear why a two-year-old span would be spun that way considering Freeze was hired in 2011, but so be it.
Instead, Friday's release showed what the Associated Press accurately reported in February: 13 of the 28 violations involve Ole Miss football. Nine of the football violations occurred under Freeze's watch. During Freeze's tenure, there were at least four Level I violations, two Level II violations and three Level III violations.
Current Ole Miss assistants Chris Kiffin, Maurice Harris and Derrick Nix are all named. Kiffin and Harris were taken off the road for their violations, and Ole Miss disputes Nix's involvement.
The extra benefits allegedly under Freeze's watch are often of the nickel-and-dime variety. It's just there are a lot of them. The Level I violations are for a player (presumably Tunsil) getting $7,495 worth of complimentary vehicle use; a booster giving $800 cash to a player; a booster giving benefits to multiple players totaling $2,253; and a booster, through facilitation by current assistant coaches, providing a value of $2,250 in benefits to four recruits. In one instance, there's a violation for catered breakfast at Freeze's house for a recruit and his mom and sister that was valued at $102
The totals are small. In that sense, they jive with the amounts shown in leaked text messages on NFL Draft night in which Tunsil asked an Ole Miss staffer for money to pay his own rent and his mom's electric and water bill. So far, Ole Miss says it has spent $1.5 million on outside counsel for the investigation since 2012 -- an obscene amount of money until you remember how much money is at stake for programs in major NCAA cases.
If you think like me, the worst football violations did in fact happen under Nutt's watch. The NCAA alleges that former assistants Chris Vaughn and David Saunders arranged for three football recruits to take fraudulent ACT exams to boost their scores.
Saunders allegedly arranged for the recruits to take the test at Wayne County High School in Waynesboro, Mississippi, and for a testing supervisor to alter the scores. Vaughn, who lost his job at Texas in February over the NCAA case, allegedly told recruits where to take the ACT and not to answer any questions they didn't know.
The NCAA said both Saunders and Vaughn provided false information during the investigation. Vaughn made multiple phone calls and texts with NCAA witnesses "after being admonished on multiple occasions" not to do so, according to the NCAA. Saunders was penalized by the NCAA in January with an eight-year show cause for the violations at Ole Miss and giving $6,500 to a player while at Louisiana-Lafayette.
If you think these fake ACT exams don't happen much, think again. Many people know athletes get these tests taken for them far more than what's revealed publicly. Good for the NCAA to be able to make more charges on phony ACTs.
As for Freeze, the jury is out what happens next. He's trying to avoid having to testify in a lawsuit filed by Tunsil's stepfather, Lindsey Miller, against the former star offensive lineman. If Freeze has to testify and he admits to knowledge of Tunsil getting paid by Ole Miss staffers -- something Tunsil admitted to on draft night -- the NCAA could use Freeze's deposition if his answers are allowed to be filed publicly.
Miller claims Tunsil owes him money for assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and defamation of character. Freeze fits into the picture because he publicly discussed an incident between Tunsil and Miller in a story that described the stepfather as abusive, thus opening the door for Freeze to be deposed.
"If you have facts about a violation, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org," Freeze posted in a now-deleted tweet from Feb. 1, 2013, as rumors swirled about how the Rebels were signing elite players. "If not, please do not slander these young men or insult their family."
The NCAA's colonoscopy has turned up several facts with which Ole Miss agrees. What it turns up next with the Tunsil text messages may be the most significant exam yet for Freeze.
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