As it turns out, getting caught with the phone numbers of escort services on his University of Mississippi-issued cell might have been the best thing that ever happened to Hugh Freeze’s coaching career — or at least the rebirth of it.
Sounds strange, but this is college football after all, where anything can be explained away in pursuit of victory.
The phone numbers are certainly explainable, or forgivable, or ignorable, at least to a lot of people who aren’t going to get too hung up on someone’s personal life.
They were discovered on Freeze’s phone in 2017, when he still coached Ole Miss. He originally told his athletic director it was a misdial, but it turned out there were “at least” a dozen such misdials. So Freeze resigned.
The “Coach Calling Escort Services” scandal was so salacious it burned into everyone’s memory. It was likely embarrassing to Freeze, but he patched things up with his family, got hired by Liberty University and posted a 34-15 record across four seasons.
Now Freeze is back in the SEC, hired Monday by Auburn.
The best part for Freeze is that almost all anyone remembers about his past are his marital foibles and not what led to the discovery of those phone calls, which seems far more telling — and damning — about how the man conducts himself.
Back up to January 2016, and Ole Miss was about to get slammed by the NCAA with 15 Level I violations in the program. Freeze knew it would be bad because he was in the middle of it, eventually hit with a “lack of institutional control” charge and given a one-year “show-cause” penalty.
At the time, however, the details were still secret. Freeze was concerned that if the depth of the violations and likely sanctions became public, some of his players might transfer. After all, Ole Miss was about to take on a two-year postseason ban, not to mention a loss of scholarships.
Further, members of the Rebels recruiting class might get nervous and switch their verbal commitments before signing binding letters of intent.
Freeze knew the program couldn’t risk his players, recruits or their families from knowing the truth of what was coming.
The athletic department orchestrated a massive misinformation campaign by repeatedly supplying the media with off-the-record lies about what was at the heart of the NCAA case.
The school kept telling anyone with a keyboard or a microphone that most of the major violations occurred under former coach Houston Nutt, not Freeze. As such, the story went, the Rebels would be able to avoid significant sanctions.
This was not true, though. The vast majority of the violations came under Freeze, not Nutt. Freeze knew the truth. So did Ole Miss.
Still, the plan went forward. Part of it was in the media, and part of it was Freeze reportedly lying directly to players and recruits and families who asked him about it. He stared right into their eyes and told them the lie.
The goal was obvious: trick everyone who believed in Hugh Freeze, who trusted Hugh Freeze, who gave their blood, sweat and tears to Hugh Freeze until, when the truth came out later via the NCAA infractions report, it was either too late or too difficult for them to transfer.
Remember, this was before the NCAA had its more forgiving transfer portal program.
This was about trapping them.
It’s a brutal and cutthroat thing to do to your own players and their parents, but hey, that’s the choice Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss made.
It certainly worked. By the time the NCAA report became public, signing day had come and gone. A lot of guys were stuck. Players who sought transfers were then hit with significant restrictions preventing where they could go. (Ole Miss eventually relented under immense media pressure). The hurt feelings lingered.
“We expected them to be about truth and honesty, and we got the exact opposite,” Shawn Jefferson, whose son, Van, was a leading receiver for the team in 2017, told Yahoo Sports at the time. Van Jefferson now plays for the Los Angeles Rams.
Nutt, meanwhile, was obviously angry about being wrongly blamed for the violations. He asked for an apology. Freeze wouldn’t give him one. Instead, Freeze claimed persecution and declared himself the victim.
That caused Nutt’s lawyer, a bulldog named Tom Mars, to conduct a comprehensive public records search, including Freeze’s phone, as part of a lawsuit against the school. The escort numbers emerged.
If Freeze had had enough grace or decency originally to just apologize to Nutt, he might still be in Oxford and no one would know about his personal life choices.
He didn’t, though.
Eventually the lawsuit was settled, and the school acknowledged its actions.
“Certain statements made by University employees in January 2016 appear to have contributed to misleading media reports about Coach Nutt,” Ole Miss said in a 2017 statement. “To the extent any such statements harmed Coach Nutt’s reputation, the University apologizes, as this was not the intent.”
That’s true. The intent wasn’t to damage Houston Nutt. It was to lie to Freeze’s own players and their parents and their high school coaches and everyone else in an effort to help Hugh Freeze. Nutt, like everyone else, was just collateral damage.
Some would think such actions would be disqualifying conduct for a head football coach, the kind of thing that might carry over on the SEC recruiting trail and give parents pause. Who knows, though?
Auburn certainly didn’t care. Maybe no one else will.
Either way, Hugh Freeze is back, and it’s got to be a lot easier to explain away some personal issues that everyone remembers than the far more distrustful conduct that almost everyone has forgotten.