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While acknowledging that major violations occurred, the University of Mississippi has dug in behind the compliance handiwork of its outside legal counsel in its defense against the most serious NCAA charges.
Specifically, the school is vigorously rebutting the NCAA enforcement allegations that Ole Miss lacked institutional control and that football coach Hugh Freeze violated his responsibility for rules compliance within his program. It also disputed some or all of five other allegations. There are 21 total charges against the football program.
“Most importantly, the University contests the allegations concerning institutional control and head coach responsibility,” the school wrote in its 125-page response to the February Notice of Allegations.
That response was released publicly Tuesday, keeping in motion a timetable that could result in an NCAA Committee on Infractions hearing in September and a ruling before the end of 2017. In that response, Mississippi takes two significant courses of defensive action:
• It portrays former football staffer Barney Farrar as a rogue cheater who worked diligently to keep his violations hidden from Freeze and the athletic department.
• It assails the credibility of the NCAA’s most significant and most controversial witnesses – players who were recruited by the Rebels but chose to play elsewhere in the Southeastern Conference.
In regard to Farrar, the former assistant athletic director for junior college and high school relations, Ole Miss says he “purposefully and actively circumvented the University’s monitoring systems and disregarded his head coach’s repeated directives.” He also lied about his impermissible activities when questioned, the school and NCAA both said.
Elsewhere in the response, Mississippi specifically targets the accuracy of information from NCAA interviews of “Student-Athlete 39,” which is Mississippi State player Leo Lewis III. He is the primary source of the most explosive single allegation in the NCAA’s NOA: That among several Ole Miss booster payments he received was a $10,000 cash handout on the eve of National Signing Day in exchange for signing with the Rebels. Lewis instead signed with the archrival Bulldogs, and the NCAA’s use of information from him and at least one other player from another SEC school disturbed some Ole Miss officials.
The Mississippi response says Lewis’ “testimony was, at best, incomplete and inconsistent. In critical part, (Student-Athlete 39’s) testimony was either contradicted or not corroborated by his friends and family and, in several instances, refuted by objective facts. Nevertheless, the enforcement staff, and thus the Notice, embrace all of (Student- Athlete 39’s) accusations.”
(The NCAA enforcement staff will issue its own response to the Ole Miss response later this summer, with a prescribed window to respond within 60 days. It’s unclear whether that document will be made public.)
The characterization of Farrar – who stands accused of four Level One violations (the most serious level in the NCAA’s hierarchy) – led his attorney, Bruse Loyd, to label him as “a scapegoat” to Yahoo Sports last week. Loyd had seen the school’s response and knew how his client would look when the document went public.
What was not part of Ole Miss’ document release Tuesday: The individual response briefs filed by Freeze, Farrar and others.
“Without Coach Farrar’s response and Coach Freeze’s response, there’s only half a story,” Loyd told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday. “Alumni, friends and fans of Mississippi, and of the SEC in general, are going to be beside themselves when they don’t get the other side of the story.”
Loyd said he does not have the authority to release Farrar’s brief independently.
One eye-opening element of the Mississippi response was the assertion that Farrar’s personal attorney (not Loyd) was involved in violations. That individual was identified as “Booster 14,” the alleged provider of the $10,000 payment to Lewis. While Ole Miss disputes whether that payment actually transpired, it does not dispute impermissible contact between the player and booster and has disassociated the as-yet-unnamed lawyer.
(The school said in its response that third-party names originally were going to be included in the document but were withheld pending a legal challenge.)
Mississippi’s most difficult task in combating the lack of institutional control charge could be arguing that it did not have a pervasive booster problem. The fact that there are 14 unnamed boosters mentioned in the report, and that many of them had to be disassociated from the program, suggests something quite to the contrary.
Despite that, Ole Miss is arguing that it had no reason to suspect anything was amiss.
“Most of the involved boosters were completely unknown to the staff and institutional leadership and acted with the intent for their actions to remain hidden,” the school wrote. “… None were advertising or aggrandizing their contacts with student-athletes on social media. Many acted without the knowledge of or solicitation by any staff member. … None of these boosters had any sort of regular presence around the athletics complex. These boosters do not regularly watch games from sidelines or meet prospective student-athletes in lounges or facilities bearing their name. Irrespective of their business relationships or giving history, these are typical boosters without any unusual interest in connecting with student-athletes. No booster fits the ‘high profile’ mold that would have required enhanced monitoring from the University.”
The school touts its written policies and procedures regarding booster contact with athletes and recruits as evidence that it sufficiently educated its fans on the rules. Still, a large number chose to ignore those rules and allegedly provide an array of impermissible benefits ranging from cars to lodging to meals to hunting privileges to cold, hard cash.
Ole Miss’ previously self-imposed penalties, such as a 2017 postseason ban and recruiting restrictions, will be taken into effect by the Committee on Infractions. But a Notice of Allegations that spans many years, two coaching tenures and a variety of tried-and-true violations – academic fraud, booster excess, rule-breaking staff members and multiple cover-up attempts – opens up the school to the potential for a crushing blow from the NCAA.
As for Mississippi’s adamant defense of Freeze: It will be flying in the face of current NCAA precedent if he does not receive a significant penalty from the Committee on Infractions. Basketball coaches Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim and Larry Brown all were suspended multiple games for NCAA violations that occurred on their watch. For Freeze to emerge from this labyrinthine process unscathed – while several of his assistants are named in violations – would seem unlikely.
But this much is clear: Mississippi is mounting an aggressive defense. Whether aggressive equates to successful remains to be seen.