I was in Covington, Kentucky, on Sept. 12.
Specifically, I was sitting in the lobby of the Embassy Suites, where I had been hunkered down for the previous two days.
The feeling from involved parties following the first day of Ole Miss’ hearing in front of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions was that Monday had gone fairly well but Tuesday would be a day that would see Ole Miss get bloodied a bit. Further, the expectation among most sources was it might be midday Wednesday, Sept. 13, before the proceedings concluded.
Those sources were wrong — on a couple of counts.
That Tuesday couldn’t have gone better for Ole Miss. It likely couldn’t have gone quicker, either. By Tuesday afternoon, long before the hotel staff could put up the snacks that accompanied the daily happy hour, the hearing was over. Then -Ole Miss interim coach Matt Luke (now the Rebels’ coach without an interim tag) politely declined my request for comment, as did Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork.
Minutes later, the Ole Miss contingent was checking out of the hotel, hurriedly heading to a nearby airport for a flight back to Oxford. Luke and several members of his coaching staff were flying to Oakland, California, less than 48 hours later for the Rebels’ game against the Cal Golden Bears, and time was of the essence.
By that Tuesday night, a picture of the day’s proceedings had been painted under the stipulation that there would be no leaks until the COI issued sanctions. That promise has been upheld — until today.
Earlier Thursday, after the COI notified Ole Miss that sanctions would be handed down Friday morning at 8:30 CST, SBNation’s national college football reporter, Steven Godfrey, published a story about that fateful Tuesday in Covington, one that publicly confirmed rumblings that have been omnipresent on message boards and social media but never printed in story form.
Frankly, I’m stunned it has taken this long for it to become public knowledge what occurred that day in Covington. Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis, granted limited immunity by the COI in exchange for testimony that was absolutely critical in the drafting of the second notice of allegations against Ole Miss’ football program, told the COI he was paid to sign with Mississippi State and then named the person who made the payment.
Lewis told the COI that Calvin Green, a defensive backs coach Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) Community College and the father of Mississippi State tight end Farrod Green, paid him $10,000 from Mississippi State on National Signing Day 2016.
At that point in the proceedings, former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze interjected and told the panel Green had once told Freeze, following Ole Miss’ decision not to recruit him further, that he/Ole Miss would pay for not offering Green a scholarship in Oxford. Freeze said he believed then Green meant he would make Ole Miss pay on the field. Freeze said Lewis’ revelations led him to question Green’s true motives.
According to SBNation.com, "In transcripts of Lewis’ three interviews with NCAA enforcement in 2016, NCAA investigator Michael Sheridan mentions statements by Farrod Green about Lewis’ recruitment by Ole Miss. According to multiple sources and documentation obtained by SB Nation, Green’s statements to the NCAA were used to corroborate Lewis’ claims that he received free merchandise from Rebel Rags, an Ole Miss merchandise retailer; free food and cash from Lee Harris, owner of an Oxford bar; and cash payments totaling over $10,000 from an Ole Miss booster in Jackson, Miss."
Lewis also threw a snag into the NCAA investigators’ timeline. The NCAA investigators had notified Mississippi State through correspondence in late July/early August 2016 to request the immunity interview with Lewis. Lewis, however, told the COI he had met with then-Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen regarding immunity interviews in April 2016. Attorneys involved in the case had long talked about collusion between the enforcement staff and Mississippi State, a charge the NCAA had denied. Lewis’ admission was counter to the enforcement staff’s claims. It was a major aha moment, one that sucked the oxygen out of the room.
According to sources in the room that day in Covington, after lunch, the enforcement staff attempted to explain how they didn’t know about Green and the timeline. They rambled and stumbled through those explanations. The investigators, specifically NCAA vice-president of enforcement Jon Duncan, said that not all payments to student-athletes violate NCAA legislation.
Attorneys representing coaches in the case argued that the events of Tuesday were an example of how the trading of information in the process had been insufficient at a minimum and posed questions to the COI that at least hinted at the concept of collusion.
Those revelations, which frankly shouldn’t have been all that shocking to anyone involved, changed the tone and pace of that day’s proceedings. The COI reaction to Lewis’ claims ranged from bewilderment to frustration to barely-contained anger.
There was an early lunch break, and when the parties reconvened in that ballroom in the Embassy Suites, the rest of the allegations, which included a failure to maintain head coach responsibility charge against former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze and lack of institutional control against Ole Miss, were handled with speed.
Think about that for a moment. An investigation that began in earnest in February 2013 and continued at a snail’s pace was summed up and argued in front of the COI in just a few hours. It’s amazing and ridiculous, all at once.
Throughout the day, when he wasn’t being called on to answer questions, Lewis sat in his chair and put his head on the table in front of him, according to sources in the room. One source described Lewis’ behavior as “infantile,” calling him “almost a patsy.” When the proceedings ended on that Tuesday, Lewis rose to his feet. According to sources in the room, before he said anything to anyone, he walked to former Ole Miss staffer Barney Farrar and embraced the embattled former coach whose career he had likely brought to a crashing end with his immunity testimony.
“I love you, Coach,” Lewis said.
So, here we are, the regular season concluded, and it’s all out in the open now. If Lewis is a believable witness, well, Ole Miss is screwed but the NCAA is going to be compelled to do something about Mississippi State or further lose credibility. Lewis has immunity, but MSU does not. If Lewis is not a believable witness, both Ole Miss and Mississippi State are OK, but that second NOA falls awfully damn flat and the NCAA has to ask itself if Lewis belongs on the field any longer. Part of his agreement with the COI, remember, was to be truthful.
No one will be surprised if Lewis bypasses his senior season and declares himself eligible for the NFL draft, regardless of his draft grade. Mississippi State, which went 8-4 this season, still has a bowl game to play. Lewis’ status for that game will be fascinating.
If the COI punishes Lewis, well, good luck finding another school willing to participate in one of these witch hunts down the road. In short, the NCAA has a mess on its hands, and the investigators put the COI in an impossible situation.
Godfrey will be attacked today in the wake of his story. Other journalists, including a few who have carried the investigators’ water for years, will attack Godfrey, an Ole Miss alumnus, for defending his alma mater. It’s an attack I’ve absorbed for years every time I’ve written anything that defends Ole Miss in this case.
The bottom line is this: The first NOA, however picky it may have been in spots, was a strong document. There wasn’t much to argue. Ole Miss offered sanctions but, for whatever reason(s), the investigators in the case wanted blood. They wanted Freeze. They wanted Farrar. They wanted to cripple the Ole Miss program.
Laremy Tunsil’s NFL draft disaster bought them more time, yes, but it should be noted that came after Lewis met with Mullen in April 2016 and also that none of those draft-night revelations led to NCAA allegations. The goal, apparently, was to decimate Ole Miss. The investigation itself hurt one recruiting class in 2016 and crushed another a year later. Ole Miss self-imposed a bowl ban this season, meaning the Rebels, which finished 6-6 in 2017, likely cost the program a trip to one of lesser bowls with an SEC tie-in.
The final sanctions will be released Friday but the questions and whispers won’t. Starting Friday, however, those questions should be directed at the NCAA and the investigators involved in the case. Even before Friday’s penalties are announced, Ole Miss has been hit hard.
The university shouldn’t be the only entity that pays a price, and Farrar and Freeze shouldn’t be the only people who see their reputations sullied.
That was clear on that Tuesday in Covington, and now, everyone knows why.