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Opinions from three people familiar with the NCAA investigative process varied Friday on the jeopardy Mississippi could face after the social-media revelations Thursday night aimed at first-round draft pick Laremy Tunsil.
One source told Yahoo Sports: “This information is as compelling and incredible as you can get at the NCAA. But it’s not a slam dunk. They’re going to have a hard time proving it.”
But another said of the Rebels: “They’re screwed.”
This is one of the problems with the complex world of NCAA rules and procedures. Even those well-versed in them can see a situation very differently.
All three sources agreed on one thing: further investigation of Ole Miss undoubtedly already has begun. The school released a statement Friday saying it “will aggressively investigate and fully cooperate with the NCAA and the SEC.” And the NCAA assuredly has been in communication with the school. (The NCAA refuses to comment on current investigations; Ole Miss in January received a Notice of Allegations alleging around 30 violations in football, women’s basketball and track. The school has not released the notice.)
“The NCAA, I bet, is on campus today,” one source said. “Or at least has called to say they’ll be there this weekend. They’re going to want to see everything. They’ll be asking the school to pull [Ole Miss coaches’] phones, freeze computers, all of that. They’ll want to do interviews and get people on the record as soon as possible.”
Of particular interest will be the words of assistant athletic director for football operations John Miller and assistant athletic director for high school and junior-college relations Barney Farrar. They are apparently the two staffers mentioned in a purported text exchange between Tunsil and Miller that was posted on Tunsil’s Instagram account Thursday night.
Ole Miss told ESPN on Friday it is trying to verify the authenticity of the text messages. In the text images, which are dated from February and April 2015, Tunsil allegedly asks Miller for help paying his rent and later for help paying his mother’s electric bill.
In regard to the rent, Miller allegedly tells Tunsil to “see Barney next week,” an apparent reference to Farrar. In regard to the electric bill, Miller expresses surprise at the amount – $305 for one month – and allegedly says, “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.”
One source said the NCAA will “try to find independent corroborating evidence."
“They’re not going to ruin a coach’s career on that alone,” the source said. “But the fact that it’s a text is pretty strong evidence. It’s not just word of mouth.”
All three sources said Tunsil, who was suspended for seven games in 2015 for violating NCAA rules, is unlikely to cooperate further with an NCAA investigation – his college career is over. If that’s the case, it would leave the NCAA unable to further pin him down on his statements Thursday night, when he appeared to confirm that he received money from Ole Miss coaches.
During his draft press conference in Chicago, Tunsil also had to answer questions about a video that appeared on his Twitter account of him apparently smoking marijuana in a gas mask. So there was some ambiguity as to what Tunsil was admitting to when asked about that and the alleged text exchange from his Instagram account.
But when asked directly by a reporter whether he took money from a coach, Tunsil said, “I’d have to say yeah.” He also said, in reference to the text images, “Those were true. I made a mistake of that happening.”
If Ole Miss were attempting to explain the situation, one source said, it theoretically could say that this was simply idle text banter that resulted in nothing unless there is a money trail to support it. Or that Tunsil’s press conference answers could be interpreted a number of ways.
A source also raised the question of whether Tunsil in his alleged texts may simply have been seeking permissible benefits from the staff: a scholarship check, or money from the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Opportunity Fund, which the NCAA characterizes thusly: “As a guiding principle, the fund shall be used to assist student-athletes in meeting financial needs that arise in conjunction with participation in intercollegiate athletics, enrollment in an academic curriculum or that recognize academic achievement.”
ESPN reported Friday that Miller served as a liaison for athletes to receive money from the opportunity fund. However, a source familiar with that fund and its uses told Yahoo Sports it could not be applied to paying rent or paying family bills. Same with emergency funds.
“To pay to fly home for a funeral, yes,” the source said. “But not to pay bills. There are no funds that allow you to pay parents’ utilities.”
Another source said that if the text exchange regarding the utility bill can be verified, it will be problematic for Ole Miss.
“That’s pretty bad,” the source said. “It’s hard to explain. That’s going to be a tough thing to justify to the NCAA.”
One of the few things certain about the Tunsil revelations of Thursday night is that it will further lengthen an NCAA investigation that has gone on for years. An unidentified third party requested and received an extension for the time it had to respond to the January Notice of Allegations – but now there could be new allegations, as the investigation begins all over again.