University of Mississippi officials announced Wednesday that, after receiving a revised notice of allegations about its football program from the NCAA, it was imposing a one-year postseason ban on itself. In a lengthy statement posted as a video, Coach Hugh Freeze, Athletic Director Ross Bjork and the school’s chancellor, Jeff Vitter, outlined the new allegations while acknowledging the validity of some and pledging to “vigorously” contest others.
The school is hoping that, by taking the initiative to punish itself, it can avoid a possibly harsher penalty the NCAA could impose after it holds a hearing on the allegations. Ole Miss has 90 days to give the NCAA an official response to Wednesday’s notice, after which the governing body’s enforcement staff has 60 days to write a case summary before the hearing.
The NCAA had originally given the football program a notice in January 2015, which contained 13 allegations, but it reopened its investigation following former Rebel Laremy Tunsil’s confirmation during last year’s NFL draft that he had received impermissible benefits from an Ole Miss staffer. The revised notice, the school said, contained eight new allegations, plus an expansion of a previous one.
That expanded allegation could be the most damaging to Ole Miss, as it replaces a “failure to monitor” charge with one claiming that the program lacked “institutional control.” In addition, Freeze has now been accused of violating the NCAA’s “head coach responsibility” clause.
“Contrary to the allegations, I have demonstrated throughout this entire process that I have a strong record of promoting compliance and monitoring my staff,” Freeze said Wednesday. He added, “While it is extremely difficult to ask current players to suffer penalties based on the actions of others, I agree with the decision to self-impose a one-year bowl ban by our university.”
None of the new allegations are directly related to Tunsil’s admissions at the draft. According to Bjork, they all concern recruiting violations that allegedly took place between 2013 and 2015. The AD said that there was “sufficient credible and persuasive evidence to support” three of the NCAA’s allegations:That a prospective recruit “went hunting near campus on private land owned by a booster,” then did so “on two or three occasions after he enrolled,” as “arranged by the football program.” That a former staffer arranged for “lodging and transportation” for one recruit, who ended up going elsewhere, and “impermissible transportation” for another, at a total cost of $2,272. That the same staffer “knowingly provided false or misleading information to the institution and enforcement staff in 2016.”
Bjork said that “evidence exists to support some — but not all” of another allegation, that the staffer enabled two boosters to lure a prospective recruit with cash payments that totaled between $13,000 and $15,600. The player did not enroll at Mississippi.
Other allegations will be contested “in full,” according to Bjork, including:That former staffers allowed two prospective recruits and the friend of another to “receive impermissible merchandise from a store owned by a booster.” That “a current football coach had impermissible, in-person, off-campus contact” with a prospective recruit. That “a booster provided money, food and drinks” to a prospective recruit and his friends on multiple occasions.
“The additional allegations announced today are serious,” Bjork said. “But, we will vigorously defend the university against those allegations we believe are not appropriately supported, including that we lacked institutional control and that our head football coach did not promote an atmosphere of compliance or monitor staff in our football program.”
The AD claimed that the school’s postseason ban would cost it approximately $7.8 million. He noted that it was “a joint decision” by himself and Vitter, one “supported” by Freeze and made in consultation “with our legal team, which includes two outside law firms with extensive experience in NCAA cases.”
“I want to reiterate that I have full confidence in the men sitting up here with me,” Vitter said. Four of the original allegations were connected to the tenure of former head coach Houston Nutt, who was fired in 2011 after going 24-26 in four seasons, while the rest are said to have occurred under the watch of Freeze, who has gone 39-25, with three bowl wins, in five seasons.