In late January 2016, Houston Nutt suddenly started getting questions about NCAA violations at his last coaching job, at the University of Mississippi.
Questions from colleagues at CBS Sports, where Nutt was working as an analyst. Questions from coaching friends within the sport. Even questions from his mother. Emogene Nutt read the latest news back home in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and called her son asking, “What did you do?”
“It hurts you,” Nutt said to Yahoo Sports this week. “It devastates you.”
This was the residual effect of an Ole Miss damage-control strategy in the wake of revelations about NCAA violations – a strategy that seemed like an attempt to divert scrutiny from current coach Hugh Freeze and staff to Nutt, who was the Rebels’ head coach from 2008-11. That has left Nutt feeling wronged and seeking recourse – a public apology from the university, and an acknowledgement that Mississippi tried to portray him as a bigger part of its problem than he actually was.
Thus far there has been little in the way of meaningful response from the school. If an acknowledgement and apology isn’t forthcoming, the possibility of a defamation suit against Ole Miss remains in play according to Nutt’s very persistent attorney, Thomas Mars.
“I would hope this wouldn’t become a legal situation,” Mars said. “But if the university doesn’t recognize at some point the damage that’s been done … I would like to think the appropriate action will be taken.
“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.”
On Jan. 29, 2016, the Rebels found themselves working on crisis containment. That day, Yahoo Sports published information that the school very much wanted to keep out of public view at the time: Ole Miss had received a Notice of Allegations from the NCAA earlier that month, and the athletic program was charged with major violations.
The timing of this breaking news was hardly ideal for the football coaching staff. It was a Friday, and Ole Miss had a lot of recruits on campus for the final big recruiting weekend before National Signing Day five days later.
Yahoo Sports reported that there were allegations of major violations in three sports: football, women’s basketball and track and field. The story said there were “roughly 30” alleged violations, but the breakdown of how many were in each sport was unclear.
A day after the Yahoo Sports story, Ole Miss issued a statement from athletic director Ross Bjork that included the following assessment of the NOA: “Included in the notice are alleged violations of NCAA bylaws in women’s basketball in 2012; track and field in 2012-13; and in football, with many of the allegations dating back to the former football staff in 2010 and the withholding and reinstatement process around Laremy Tunsil in fall of 2015.”
That was the school’s official response. It’s what was said unofficially that has infuriated Nutt.
Very quickly after the Yahoo Sports story broke on Jan. 29, other media outlets began publishing their own stories. Mars noted that virtually all of them had the same message: This isn’t a major problem for Hugh Freeze or the current athletic administration.
These are some of the excerpts Mars collected from those stories:
From SB Nation: “One Ole Miss source tells Steven Godfrey they believe only five of the 32 are alleged football violations, and that coaches are ‘confident’ allegations related to the current staff are secondary violations. In addition, an NCAA source tells Bud Elliott that the ‘vast majority’ of the football allegations are more than two years old.”
From The (Jackson) Clarion-Ledger: “Most of the violations revolve around women’s basketball and track and field with a ‘very minimal’ number related to the current football staff as a result of former left tackle Laremy Tunsil, a source close to the situation said. The source added most of the football violations stem from six years ago.”
From ESPN.com: “Allegations connected to Mississippi’s football team largely derived from the 2008-11 tenure of Houston Nutt, sources said. Freeze was named the Rebels’ coach in December 2011.”
From RebelGrove.com, an Ole Miss fan site: “A ‘very minimal number’ of allegations are tied to the current football staff, and those are related to former Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil.”
Mars is certain of what transpired: Someone or some group of people at Ole Miss quickly leaked information to media members in an effort to minimize the appearance of impropriety related to the football program in general and Freeze’s staff in specific.
“I’m 100 percent certain the information was leaked by the university,” Mars said. “And I’m absolutely certain I could prove that in court.”
The problem for Ole Miss was this: The leaked information didn’t match the facts.
When the school finally released the Notice of Allegations in May 2016, 13 of the 28 alleged violations were tied to football, and nine of those occurred during Freeze’s time as head coach. Four of the football violations are tied to Nutt’s staff: Former assistants David Saunders and Chris Vaughn allegedly perpetrated academic fraud pertaining to ACT scores in 2010; allegedly arranged for impermissible housing, meals and transportation in the same year; and subsequently lied to NCAA investigators after being fired by the school.
So it’s not like Nutt’s tenure comes out with a pristine shine. There were major alleged violations on his watch, and the school is not disputing those allegations. But clearly, the actual NCAA violation numbers didn’t match up with most of the stories that came out in late January 2016.
(The rest of the story: After Tunsil’s 2016 NFL draft night debacle reignited the NCAA investigation, Ole Miss now stands charged with 21 football violations. Among them are a charge of lack of institutional control and a charge specifically aimed at Freeze for failure to fulfill his compliance responsibilities as head coach. In response, the school self-imposed a 2017 postseason ban. A hearing before the NCAA Committee on Infractions is expected in June, multiple sources told Yahoo Sports.)
Nutt believes the initial portrayal of the NOA has negatively impacted his ability to get another coaching job.
“My name wasn’t mentioned in the report but my name’s on the ticker [on television],” Nutt said. “My name is thrown out there a lot. It’s a frustrating thing.
“I’m 59 years old. It’s not like I’m going to get the next big job. But you miss ball so much. … It’s just bad when you get hit from all sides and blindsided by it.”
Thursday morning, Ole Miss athletic spokesman Kyle Campbell responded to a Yahoo Sports request for comment on Nutt’s assertions: “Within a day of the news breaking, the athletics department released a public statement on the matter acknowledging that both the current football staff and the former staff are named in the NOA. … In addition, the university has not received any formal request for an apology.”
Mars argued that his repeated attempts to engage Ole Miss officials on this topic – most notably general counsel Lee Tyner – have gotten him nowhere.
“I’ve been stonewalled every step of the way,” said Mars, who provided Yahoo Sports with copies of email exchanges with Mississippi officials expressing his frustration in attempts to get information and establish dialogue. “It’s very disappointing that a university with the reputation Ole Miss has would react in this way.”
That has led to Mars taking his fight for Houston Nutt’s reputation beyond emails to administrators in Oxford.
“The university can still do the right thing,” he said. “Only time will tell if Chancellor [Jeffrey] Vitter has that kind of courage.”
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