Ole Miss announced Thursday night that coach Hugh Freeze has resigned, effective immediately, following a "pattern of personal misconduct." Matt Luke will serve as the Rebels' interim coach.
While the resignation is sudden, it is not without reason.
"This is a sad day for the University of Mississippi. ... Coach Freeze resigned this afternoon after confirming to Ross and me a pattern of personal misconduct inconsistent with the standards we expect from the leader of our football team," explained Ole Miss chancellor Jeffrey Vitter in a press conference. "... We cannot accept the conduct in his personal life that we have discovered. ... This matter is totally unrelated to the NCAA case."
The Rebels have publicly stood behind Freeze even through the NCAA investigation that has resulted in the finding of major violations and a postseason ban for the 2017 season. According to USA Today, a "one-minute call made from Freeze's University-issued phone to a number associated with a female escort service" was brought to light as a part of the university's ongoing legal battle with former coach Houston Nutt. CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd has confirmed this report.
Freeze claims the call was a "misdial," and sources confirm this is also the explanation he has given to his superiors. "I've got no idea, to be honest," Freeze told Yahoo Sports when asked about the call. "I was in an 813 area code and that was a 313 number, I think that might have been a misdial. I don't think there was even a conversation. There's nothing to it."
When athletic director Ross Bjork received that excuse from Freeze, he decided to follow up.
"We initially attributed this call to a misdialed number. As part of our core values in running the athletics program, we have an obligation to do the right thing, so we proactively looked into the rest of his phone records," he explained. "In our analysis, we discovered a pattern of conduct that is not consistent with our expectations as the leader of our football program. As of yesterday, there appeared to be a concerning pattern."
Freeze admitted to the misconduct, which Ole Miss says is totally unrelated to the NCAA case, after being confronted by Vitter and Bjork. His resignation comes with no buyout and no settlement.
"He has taken the responsibility and is accountable for his actions. We will respect his privacy, and our thoughts and prayers are with his entire family," Bjork said Thursday night in a press conference.
"I can only go on the facts. That's really how we made our decision," he added later. "We tried to take the emotional part out of this. What does the record show? What did we discover? How did he address it? He admitted the conduct to us. No one's perfect. No one in this room is perfect. Moving forward, I think we have to respect how he resigned, and we have to respect his privacy."
Freeze's cell phone records were requested by Houston Nutt's attorney. The now-former Ole Miss coach argued in a statement to Yahoo that, if he was trying to hide potentially damning information, he would have redacted the number when he had the opportunity. "That call shows up nowhere else on my records. There is no story to that one," Freeze told Yahoo.
Earlier this month, Nutt filed a lawsuit against Ole Miss and the university's athletic department alleging that Freeze and Bjork created a "false narrative" of Nutt's alleged involvement in the university's ongoing case with the NCAA. The suit was filed just as Freeze and Ole Miss were set to take the stage at the 2017 SEC Media Days.
Nutt, who coached at Ole Miss from 2008-11, is seeking punitive damages for what he calls a "smear campaign" against him. A back and forth between Nutt's attorney and the university reportedly led to the revelation of this one-minute call, according to USA Today.
Freeze was already in jeopardy of facing sanctions from the NCAA as a result of the ongoing investigation, but Thursday's resignation brings finality to his time as the Rebels' coach. The cell phone records were reviewed by Nutt's legal team in an effort to prove the allegation that Freeze and Bjork took part in "off the record" conversations with media members to influence the way the NCAA investigation was being reported, hoping to pin some of the public blame for the violations on Nutt and his staff.
Freeze's phone records show he -- and at least two athletic department officials -- contacted several journalists, according to a copy of the suit as obtained by CBS Sports. It states those journalists were given information that stated most of the allegations in the NCAA investigation were on Nutt's watch.
Freeze cryptically referred to Nutt last week at the SEC Media Days. "It's [investigation] the lot we have inherited and that we have caused, in some cases," he told reporters.
Freeze was 39-25 in five years as the Ole Miss coach with a 3-1 record in bowl games and two top-25 finishes. After a second notice of allegations was made public in May, Freeze was in line to be the first FBS coach to be suspended under the new coaches' responsibility bylaw adopted in 2013.
Luke will serve as Ole Miss' interim coach through the 2017 season. He previously served as the Rebels' co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, working under Freeze for six seasons and serving four prior at Ole Miss. Bjork said he has not considered where he would start as he looks for Freeze's eventual replacement.
"It's about the team. The team is the focus right now," he said. "... I haven't even thought about a [coaching] search. ... There will be a lot of time to search for a permanent head coach."