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The lies that eventually forced Hugh Freeze to resign Thursday as Ole Miss head football coach began small.
They were lies of deflection and opportunism. They were lies told to save face and recruiting classes, lies with concern for self but not others, lies that Freeze and everyone else in power at Ole Miss football had to know would eventually collapse.
They told them anyway, because the NCAA was pouncing on them and National Signing Day was but a few weeks away. So come January 2016, they began whispering off the record to college football reporters that the NCAA investigation into Ole Miss recruiting hadn’t actually found much about Freeze’s suspiciously white-hot program, that the majority of alleged violations came from the prior coach.
Houston Nutt was the prior Ole Miss head coach, now retired into broadcasting.
As anonymously sourced news reports and tweets and broadcast comments emerged, whatever positive reaction they generated for Freeze (not a cheater) had an equal-and-opposite reaction for Nutt (cheater).
Only the majority of the violations didn’t come from when Nutt was the coach; they came from when Freeze was the coach. The NCAA even charged Freeze with “lack of institutional control,” which is about the greatest sin it can dole out to a coach.
Once the violations became public in the spring of 2017, once the lies had been exposed, Houston Nutt went looking to get his reputation back.
“It hurts you,” Nutt told Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports in May. “It devastates you.”
He did it to seek something easy and painless – an apology from Ole Miss, as part of a set-the-record-straight admission of the truth.
Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss didn’t apologize, though. Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss didn’t set the record straight.
So Nutt sicced his hard-driving attorney, Thomas Mars, on the case.
“I would hope this wouldn’t become a legal situation,” Mars told Yahoo Sports in May. “But if the university doesn’t recognize at some point the damage that’s been done … this was a smear campaign. If it weren’t so deceitful and morally wrong, it would probably go down in college football history as one of the best trick plays ever.”
Hugh Freeze was unmoved.
Looking to prove Freeze and athletic director Ross Bjork did, indeed, call reporters who soon published stories based on unnamed sources that pinned the infraction’s case mostly on Houston Nutt, the attorney used-open record laws to request phone records from both men for a six-day stretch of January 2016.
When looking through those, an unrelated call was discovered – a single, one-minute phone call from Freeze to a number associated with a Tampa, Florida, escort.
Last week, just before Freeze was set to take the podium at SEC Media Day, Nutt filed a lawsuit seeking damages for the lies, alleging Ole Miss had called reporters to “a false narrative” that was good for Hugh Freeze and damaging to Houston Nutt.
Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss also didn’t apologize then. Freeze played the victim card, broke into a preacher’s lecture and complained about how unfair it was that he didn’t get to talk football.
As for Nutt, well, this was a legal situation now, and Freeze said he couldn’t say much since he was the Ole Miss football coach.
Well, he isn’t anymore.
Late last week, the escort call was brought to Ole Miss’ attention via the media. The coach and the school dismissed it as a wrong number.
“I think that might have been a misdial,” Freeze told Yahoo Sports last week. “I don’t think there was even a conversation. There’s nothing to it.”
Ole Miss decided to buy the story and stand by its coach.
“It didn’t appear at the time to be a part of a pattern,” Bjork said at a hastily called news conference Thursday night in Oxford.
Ole Miss officials didn’t stop, though. They began combing through all of Freeze’s records and quickly “confirmed a pattern of personal behavior inconsistent with the stands we expect from the head football coach,” chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said.
The school wouldn’t specifically say what that pattern was, citing Freeze’s privacy, but the implication is clear. What Bjork deemed “concerning” behavior wasn’t a one-time thing. When confronted Wednesday night, Freeze came clean to his bosses. By Thursday he resigned before the school could fire him.
“A sad day,” Vitter said.
There will be very few tears shed about it across the South. Mention Freeze to SEC coaches and you were as likely to get an eye roll as anything else. He propped himself up as a man of extreme faith – his religion on his sleeve, his Bible verses on his Twitter.
Yet as he scored top recruit after top recruit, it rubbed many the wrong way. Publicly, he was holier than thou. Privately, he was willing to drive the program right up a mountain and then off the NCAA infraction cliff, unconcerned who got crushed along the way.
And now this, an embarrassing scandal, the genesis of which stems not so much from his phone calls to escorts, but his phone calls to reporters, the cheap and temporary lies he told to save his own reputation through another National Signing Day.
There was never a concern for an injured party – be it Houston Nutt or all the recruits and their parents who the misdirection was designed to fool. They were the ones conned into sticking with the Rebels, led to believe everything was fine, when in truth bowl bans and sanctions that will crush competitiveness were coming. They were sold a false promise.
Freeze didn’t care about them, let alone Houston Nutt. Pumped up on hubris, he couldn’t do the simplest things – say he was sorry, tell the truth, admit his mistakes. He thought he could lie and preach his way through that one, too.
Pride goeth before destruction, it says somewhere, and a haughty spirit before a fall.