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McCready: NCAA delivers major blow in this multi-faceted fight

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Jeff Vitter (left) and Ross Bjork
University of Mississippi

MORE: Ole Miss video transcript

OXFORD | Ole Miss self-imposed a bowl ban for the 2017 season on Wednesday afternoon, a $7.8 million penalty in and of itself.

Unless the school wins when it finally gets its chance to defend itself in front of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, the one-year bowl ban and the near $8 million hit could be the equivalent of a flesh wound.

The NCAA investigators that have spent some 54 months digging into Ole Miss’ football program don’t want to just draw some blood. They want to chop off heads.

In case you doubted that, Wednesday should have provided some clarity.

Ole Miss was charged with lack of institutional control on Wednesday. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze was charged with violating head coach responsibility due to activity on his coaching staff over the past several years.

Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork said Wednesday the university will contest both of those charges.

If Ole Miss can convince the Committee on Infractions that those charges are superfluous, there’s a path to survival. If it can’t and if those charges stick, along with most or all of the total of 21 allegations made against the Rebels’ football program, the NCAA investigators will get their wish.

Those charges, if they’re upheld, aren’t survivable. I’ll give Ole Miss credit. It received the amended notice of allegations Wednesday morning and got as ahead of the message as it could, releasing a video with responses from chancellor Jeff Vitter, Bjork and Freeze.

The university put up a united front on Wednesday. Now it must put up the defense of a lifetime. Sources told RebelGrove.com in early January NCAA investigators wanted to see Ole Miss hit with a two-year bowl ban and they wanted to deliver show causes to several coaches, including Freeze. The allegations levied Wednesday support those claims.

The NCAA levied seven new Level I violations, including the lack of institutional control and the head coach responsibility failure against Freeze. One of those charges, one that Ole Miss said it still needs to investigate, accused a booster of arranging a payment of $13,000-15,000 to then-prospect/current Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis. We’ll get to the obvious implications of that in a bit, but that charge alone is damning stuff.

Ole Miss is disputing allegations that former prospects (we’re pretty sure including Lewis and Mississippi State teammate Kobe Jones) received $2,800 in benefits from an Oxford establishment (Rebel Rags) and an allegation that a prospect received meals from an Oxford restaurant valued at between $200 and $600.

Interestingly, there were no new charges that came from the draft night fiasco involving former Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil. All of that gnashing of teeth was pointless.

It’s my opinion the NCAA investigation didn’t stop after the first NOA, which was received in January 2016. The NCAA investigators kept digging, kept hunting. They wanted blood. The hacking of Tunsil’s Twitter and Instagram accounts just gave them cover and bought them more time.

Investigators talk, and word began to circulate last summer that they wanted to present allegations that would lead to a bowl ban and, at the very least, a suspension for Freeze. At some point in early fall, rumors circulated in back channels that the NCAA investigators had found their smoking gun.

Shortly after the New Year, we at RebelGrove.com heard Lewis, armed with immunity from the NCAA, had sung about his recruiting. Jones talked, too, as did former Ole Miss offensive lineman Austin Golson, who recently completed his career at Auburn.

Ole Miss has 90 days to respond to the new notice of allegations, meaning the much-anticipated hearing in front of the infractions committee could come late summer or early fall. The NCAA has 60 days to write a case summary and schedule a hearing. There may also be extensions granted to named parties.

Freeze said Wednesday he has a “strong record of promoting compliance and monitoring my staff, adding that the program “will press on and we will not blink.”

It’s a nice message, sure, but Freeze will have to convince the COI of his record. Otherwise, the investigators that have hovered over his program since February 2013 are going to have their way.

Freeze talked Wednesday about the importance of love. He was talking about love within his program and for his players, of course, but in case he didn’t know before Wednesday, he knows now.

When he stands in front of the infractions committee, the time for love will have passed. There damn sure isn’t any love coming his way from the other side.

No, it’ll be time to fight — for his reputation, for his job and for his career.

The fighting won’t stop there. Ole Miss is clearly girding its proverbial loins for a brawl as well. Ole Miss has kept its collective mouth shut during this process but it’s no secret that internally, blood is boiling. The immunity interviews were final straws.

Golson’s interview resulted in nothing but a Level 3 charge. Jones and Lewis, however, presented damning allegations that could have far-reaching ramifications. Ole Miss, per multiple sources, possesses a recording, and has given the SEC a copy, of Lewis’ mother asking Ole Miss for money and detailing incentives she received from other programs, including Mississippi State.

Lewis won’t be the best character witness in the history of jurisprudence. And what of that recording? Does the NCAA simply ignore it? Or will it mark the beginning of another investigation? Where is SEC commissioner Greg Sankey in all of this? Is this the beginning of the end of the SEC?

Those are all legitimate questions that can now be raised. First, though, Ole Miss is now very clearly in the NCAA’s crosshairs. It’s been that way for a while, and no spirit of exemplary cooperation was changing that.

At some point, the investigation into Ole Miss’ football program got personal, and in personal fights, people want to inflict pain. Make no mistake, the NCAA wants Freeze. If you were looking for one message on Wednesday, that was it.

Wednesday’s notice of allegations was a proverbial knife, and the sharpened blade was aimed right at Freeze’s jugular.