Ole Miss defends Hugh Freeze in response to NCAA Notice of Allegations

Dr. Saturday
Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss find themselves on the defensive after the NCAA’s updated Notice of Allegations. (Getty)
Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss find themselves on the defensive after the NCAA’s updated Notice of Allegations. (Getty)

Ole Miss has released its response to the latest Notice of Allegations (NOA) it received from the NCAA and the school is coming out in full support of Hugh Freeze.

Back in February, the school confirmed that it had received the NOA, which contains 21 football violations, and was subsequently self-imposing a number of penalties (on top of the sanctions self-imposed in May 2016). Ole Miss agreed with many of the violations and thusly imposed a one-year postseason ban — including its annual SEC postseason revenue (nearly $8 million) — but disagreed with others.

Among the violations Ole Miss is disputing includes the dreaded lack of institutional control along with the NCAA’s assertion that Freeze “violated head coach responsibility legislation.” In the response released Tuesday, Ole Miss detailed the ways it is disputing those violations, both of which are deemed Level I violations — the most serious.

[Pat Forde: Ole Miss digs in with Hugh Freeze while throwing former staffer under the bus]

When determining its response and what it considers appropriate punishment, Ole Miss said it weighed two main factors: “the fact that all but three of the Level I allegations were the result of intentional misconduct specifically intended to evade monitoring systems implemented by the University, the athletics department, and the head football coach” and “the University’s proactive approach to compliance, including its efforts to detect and investigate potential violations, and its exemplary cooperation throughout this four-plus-year process.”

In disputing the lack of institutional control violation, which was not included in the NCAA’s initial NOA in the case, Ole Miss says it has “consistently satisfied the four pillars of institutional control: “adequate compliance measures exist”; “they are appropriately conveyed to those who need to be aware of them”; “they are monitored to ensure that such measures are being followed”; and “on learning of a violation, the institution takes swift action.” Ole Miss also touts its compliance practices, including the ways it improved its compliance systems “based on lessons learned” during the NCAA investigation.

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“The lack of institutional control charge is not supported by the evidence,” the school said. “This is not a case about ignoring red flags or a failure to implement a necessary institutional policy, rule, or best practice. To the contrary, the University has been operating, consistently monitoring, and improving its compliance systems to prevent and detect potential issues and violations in real time. Strong compliance measures existed throughout the relevant period, and the institution’s expectations with respect to integrity and the NCAA rules were appropriately conveyed to the right people.”

In response to the head coach responsibility accusation, Ole Miss is standing firmly behind Hugh Freeze, disputing the allegation “in its entirety”:

This case does not involve a head coach who facilitated or participated in violations or otherwise ignored red flags associated with them. Freeze developed and implemented a broad, staff-wide compliance program dedicated to satisfying the NCAA’s amended head coach responsibility legislation in early 2013, and he has continuously worked to expand and improve upon that program ever since. Those who have worked under Freeze consistently report his emphasis on compliance, including his direction to promptly involve the University’s compliance staff in their recruiting choices.

These reports are corroborated by the available objective evidence, including phone and text records reflecting regular communications with compliance throughout Freeze’s tenure, Freeze’s inclusion of compliance issues and compliance staff members in football staff meetings, and multiple instances of self-reports of his staff’s violations. If a head coach control charge premised on presumed responsibility can be rebutted under the amended legislation — that is, if the rule is going to be something more than a vehicle to hold head coaches strictly liable for what happens under their watch — Freeze has done so.

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Ole Miss says the institutional control and head coach allegations “rely almost exclusively” on testimony from “Student-Athlete 39,” a former Ole Miss recruit who signed with another school. Ole Miss says Student-Athlete 39’s (reported by many outlets to be Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis) testimony was “at best incomplete and inconsistent.” Ole Miss also alleges that some of his testimony was “either contradicted or not corroborated” by those close to him.

While conceding that some of Student-Athlete 39’s claims were “credibly and persuasively supported” in some of the allegations, Ole Miss also contends that it was not allowed to question Student-Athlete 39 during subsequent NCAA interviews.

One of the more explosive claims involving Student-Athlete 39 involves an alleged $10,000 cash payment. This particular allegation, Ole Miss says, is the “most refuted or undermined by objective evidence.”

After providing its evidence it says disproves Student-Athlete 39’s testimony alleging a $10,000 payment (beginning on page 54 of the response), Ole Miss notes his “curious request” for potential immunity (from loss of eligibility) in exchange for his testimony. The school noted the player’s response on Twitter — a GIF of the Joker from “The Dark Knight” clapping — after the Notice of Allegations was publicly released in February.

And as his attorney anticipated in an interview with Yahoo Sports, Ole Miss placed heavy blame on former staff member Barney Farrar, saying he “intentionally hid misconduct from the University’s compliance staff and his head coach, and used multiple intermediaries in his scheme.”

Ole Miss goes after Farrar hard when attempting to dispute the coach responsibility violation against Freeze:

“Freeze cannot reasonably be held responsible for Farrar’s actions where Farrar violated University policies designed to monitor compliance and lied directly to Freeze about his use of a second phone for recruiting,” Ole Miss said.

The case will now move forward toward a meeting with the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, where a final ruling could be made.

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Sam Cooper is a writer for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!

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