OXFORD | Ole Miss heard rumblings about Hugh Freeze’s personal life as early as last fall.
Rumors surged through Oxford in January, and Ole Miss officials confronted Freeze with questions. He denied everything, per sources.
Last week, however, hours before news broke regarding Houston Nutt’s lawsuit, Ole Miss officials were scrambling, panicked. Rumors surfaced about a call on Freeze’s university-issued phone last week.
Ole Miss officials knew there was a potential problem. Rumors that Freeze might not go to Hoover, Alabama, for Southeastern Conference Media Days were just that — rumors. However, the next few days were chaotic.
They culminated Thursday with Freeze’s resignation after five years as the Rebels’ head coach. He resigned without a buyout, and Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork said Thursday night in a hastily-called press conference Freeze would have been fired had he declined to resign.
What happened? One of the calls on Freeze’s phone went to an escort service. The call was made during a recruiting visit to Tampa, Florida. An attorney and a fan site journalist, apparently working in conjunction, knew the call was potentially damning. They shopped it to multiple national reporters. No one took the bait, but there was blood in the proverbial water, and rumors of Freeze’s behavior took on a life of their own.
[Related: Yahoo report breaks news of escort call]
I’ll tread lightly here, but Ole Miss officials were asking questions about Freeze’s personal life as early as last fall. Bjork confirmed Thursday that Freeze was confronted with rumors earlier this year. It should be noted, for fairness if nothing else, that Freeze denied those rumors and there was no corroborated proof.
However, Oxford is a small town. People talk. Those rumors never would go away. Let’s keep this real. Ole Miss had reason to worry. So it dug into his phone records over the years and found a pattern of behavior significant enough to lead to Thursday’s resignation.
ALWAYS A TARGET
Freeze marketed himself as a holy man. He said he recruited a different kind of kid. He said he and his program did things the right way. The NCAA, obviously, disagreed, as is evidenced by two notices of allegations filed against the program. The second NOA charged Freeze with failure to monitor and Ole Miss with lack of institutional control.
As RebelGrove.com reported in early January, the NCAA always targeted Freeze. It’s my opinion the investigators in the case always wanted Freeze’s scalp. Ole Miss officials were skeptical of that and _ at least publicly _ vociferously defended Freeze throughout the process.
Perhaps they had no choice. Freeze led Ole Miss to back-to-back New Year’s Six bowl games, losing to TCU in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve 2014 and then defeating Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day 2016. Freeze enjoyed significant booster support, and make no mistake, that support was in part based on the image he portrayed. A segment of the Ole Miss fan base believed the NCAA was attacking Freeze based on his constant public declarations of faith, and so the school appeared to dig in, ready to go to the mat with the NCAA sometime in August or September.
Maybe Ole Miss officials were waiting for the NCAA to do their dirty work for them. We’ll never know, for Freeze walked away Thursday with no buyout and no settlement.
In December, Ole Miss’ basketball team was playing at Virginia Tech on a Sunday afternoon, and my phone was blowing up with reporters in South Carolina asking me about Matt Luke. Luke had been offered a multi-year deal to be the Gamecocks’ offensive line coach, where he would be reunited with Kurt Roper.
It’s our understanding Luke was leaning heavily towards accepting the job before he suddenly changed his mind. Again, there’s no confirming this, but the sourcing is pretty solid: Luke was told he’d be the interim coach at Ole Miss in 2017 if Freeze was fired or let go. Keep in mind this came at a time when rumors about Freeze’s life away from football were at a fever pitch.
Luke, who has come up short in bids to become a head coach, now gets a chance to guide Ole Miss through a tumultuous campaign. He will handle his duties well. Luke is a solid guy, a fine football coach and he’s well-liked all over Oxford and Mississippi. He has nothing to lose and everything to gain. This will be a shining star on his resume.
Ole Miss now gets the benefit of a four-month coaching search. The job pays $4.8 million per year. Facilities are outstanding. Freeze proved the Rebels can win big, and there will be interested coaches as long as NCAA sanctions aren't overly crippling.
On that note, the NCAA always wanted Freeze. Well, he’s gone now, his career severely damaged. Human nature says there will be less incentive to blow up the Ole Miss program now. There’s no real reason to add a second year of bowl ineligibility, no sense in doubling down on scholarships lost.
Make no mistake, Freeze was going to get hammered in Indianapolis, fairly or not. He was going to be suspended. A show cause wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. It might still be. It’s no longer Ole Miss’ problem. The NCAA got its vindication Thursday. It might not have a taste for more blood moving forward.
Instead, Ole Miss can finally start to move on. The fan base will be angry. Feelings will be hurt. The football season, one that already was devoid of real meaning, is really irrelevant now.
This is an opportunity for Bjork. He couldn’t have handled Thursday’s press conference better. He’ll do a great job of supporting Ole Miss’ players; he’s known for that.
Now, he’ll presumably get a chance to put his stamp on Ole Miss football at a time when the program couldn’t be more fragile.