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Mississippi football has spent three years walking a high wire without a net.
Thursday night, after several wobbles but just inches from finishing this dangerously ambitious walk in triumph, the Rebels fell.
It could be a very hard landing.
The first round of the NFL draft, generally a celebration for young men and the schools they attended, turned into a real-time nightmare for Ole Miss and a stunning series of embarrassments for its star offensive tackle, Laremy Tunsil. In a viciously timed display of social-media revenge, someone apparently hacked into Tunsil’s Twitter and Instagram accounts – posting information that led the No. 13 pick to admitting that a released video of him smoking what appears to be marijuana in a gas mask was real, and apparently admitting that he took money from an Ole Miss staffer while a player for the Rebels.
How’s that for destroying draft night? And further jeopardizing Ole Miss' tenuous status with the NCAA?
After this startling live attack on his character, Tunsil was asked repeatedly about getting paid by Ole Miss in his news conference Thursday night from draft headquarters in Chicago. He initially denied it, but then said, “I made a mistake. A huge mistake. You know, that happened.”
Pressed on whether that meant he had taken money from a coach, Tunsil said, “I’d have to say, 'yeah.' ”
Tunsil thus seemingly gave credence to an Instagram post on his account of an alleged text conversation between the player and Ole Miss director of football operations John Miller. In that conversation, dated Feb. 15, 2015, Tunsil tells Miller he needs money for rent, and Miller tells Tunsil to “see Barney next week” – an apparent reference to Barney Farrar, assistant athletic director for high school and junior college relations, and a man generally considered key to Ole Miss’ recruiting successes.
Then on April 7, 2015, according to the Instagram post, Tunsil asked Miller for money to pay for his mother’s light bill. Tunsil says the bill is “305” dollars, and Miller allegedly expresses surprise at the amount.
“I thought we all agreed on an amt – that number keeps changing. … Someone needs to explain exact cost – I have no way of handling surprise amounts.”
The surprise amount from these revelations Thursday night could be truly costly for Miller, head coach Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss as a whole.
They now have a fresh five-alarm fire to deal with. The school already had received a Notice of Allegations from the NCAA in late January which sources confirmed to Yahoo Sports contained about 30 alleged violations in three sports – football, women’s basketball and track. Some of the football allegations pertain to Tunsil, who missed seven games this season for impermissible benefits he received.
Ole Miss has not made public the Notice of Allegations. Thursday night, athletic director Ross Bjork did not return a text message from Yahoo Sports seeking comment on the Tunsil situation.
But this situation will assuredly restart the clock on that NCAA investigation, although Tunsil may be difficult to compel to cooperate now that his college playing days are over. Still, this bizarre televised melodrama was both shocking and not overly surprising to many in college football who privately have been critical of Mississippi’s quantum leap in recruiting and attendant on-field success.
It all began a little over three years ago, on signing day 2013. That’s when Mississippi football set an audacious course toward this night, the first round of the 2016 NFL draft.
It didn’t end the way the Rebels envisioned.
This was supposed to be a night of triumph for the breakthrough 2013 recruiting class that featured Tunsil, defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell – all of them blue-chip recruits who stunned the college football world by choosing the Rebels, and all of them went pro as soon as they were eligible.
Instead, it was a night when Tunsil slid out of the top 10 to No. 13. A few months ago he was considered a possible No. 1 overall pick, but baggage kept piling up: the seven-game suspension; a lawsuit filed this week by his stepfather, with whom he had an altercation in June 2015; and then the defamatory social media releases during the draft.
Treadwell was taken with the No. 23 pick of the first round. But Nkemdiche had his own slide, dropping to Arizona at No. 29 – that drop likely was attributable to a strange December incident in which Nkemdiche fell 15 feet from an Atlanta hotel balcony and was hospitalized. He later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor marijuana possession. Nkemdiche’s older brother and Ole Miss teammate, Denzel, also had off-field issues last season. Both missed the Rebels’ Sugar Bowl victory over Oklahoma State.
All three Ole Miss first-rounders committed to the school with some surprise attached. Tunsil had previously committed to Georgia before dropping the Bulldogs cold late in the recruiting process. Nkemdiche had previously committed to Clemson. And Treadwell raised eyebrows by becoming the rare Chicago-area recruit to decide Ole Miss was the place for him.
Those three, joined by a strong surrounding cast, elevated perennial second-class SEC citizen Ole Miss to contender status. The Rebels went from 8-5 to 9-4 to 10-3 during their three seasons, upsetting kingpin Alabama the past two seasons.
That success fed further recruiting success that theoretically sets up Ole Miss for success down the road. But the wild events of Thursday night cast doubt on everything.
The Tunsil bombshells overwhelmed news that was reported earlier Thursday night by the Tuscaloosa News: that ALABAMA defensive line coach Bo Davis will leave the program – voluntarily or otherwise – due to potential rules violations.
That itself could be big news, but it was wiped off the docket by Ole Miss plunging from great heights in real time. We don’t yet know how violent the landing will be – but it looks bad. The higher a downtrodden program climbs, the steeper it might fall.
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