Ole Miss did so much wrong during its football program’s tussle with the NCAA that it took five years and 53,000 pages of documentation to plow through the infractions case. When the case plodded to a merciful and predictable conclusion on Friday, with Ole Miss getting hammered by the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, the depths of the school’s mishandling of the case will resonate for years to come.
As the years passed and the allegations accumulated, Ole Miss officials deflected their misdeeds to a prior coaching staff, leaked lies to media members and couldn’t stop attempting to spin the reality of how badly their program had careened out of control.
But reality came cold and hard to Ole Miss on Friday morning, as the NCAA delivered a two-year postseason ban. The school will not be eligible to play in a bowl game in 2018, and its seniors will be able to transfer from the school without penalty. The school already imposed significant scholarship reductions, further hamstringing a program that’s been operating under a black cloud.
The NCAA gave Ole Miss its strongest insult short of the death penalty – lack of institutional control – and plenty of unsparing rhetoric. “Mississippi lacked control over its boosters and oversight of football recruiting activities,” according to the NCAA report issued on Friday. “Although the institution is now attempting to manage its boosters, this case is symptomatic of an out-of-control culture that has existed for decades.”
The only key figure in the case who appeared to get off somewhat easy was former coach Hugh Freeze, who avoided a show cause penalty. He can get hired as an assistant coach next year with no penalty and would have to sit out two games if he were a head coach. This would be easier, of course, if Freeze hadn’t used a school phone to call escorts, which got him fired this summer. His potential employment will be a fascinating ethical litmus test – albeit in a sport that still employs Bobby Petrino – in an era of heightened sensitivity after the fallout from the sexual harassment revelations against former film executive Harvey Weinstein.
The case’s legacy, which includes a book and boundless black helicopter conspiracy theories, may well be that Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork and Ole Miss officials gave future troubled schools a textbook case of how not to handle an NCAA infractions case. In future NCAA seminars, they’ll be showing the persistent leaks, pathetic spin and aura of combativeness as examples of how not to irritate and antagonize the NCAA. If someone could slip straight-laced SEC commissioner Greg Sankey some truth serum, the guess here is that he’d dress down Ole Miss officials for their persistent petulance, misleading leaks and general mishandling of this case. Ole Miss didn’t suspend assistant coaches when it appeared obvious they’d get significant punishments – four staff members received show cause orders – and a puzzling lack of contrition when NCAA punishment seemed inevitable.
Committee on Infractions Chair Greg Christopher pointed out perhaps the most telling part of how little they respected NCAA rules, as they kept cheating while the investigation was going on. “This case strikes at the heart of what College sports stand for,” said Christopher, “and is the direct result of a culture where rules violations were an acceptable part of the Ole Miss football program.” He went on to point out that Ole Miss’ rules violations “continued through the investigation of this case,” the ultimate middle finger to the NCAA.
The SEC’s NCAA playbook, with plenty of practice thanks to a century of cheating, comes straight from the Mike Slive era. It involves saying less than nothing. Ole Miss just couldn’t help itself, and the persistent public leaks and brushfires led to a contentious case. Slive’s old playbook has long been to stay quiet publicly and take your medicine. He’s long retired, but the advice would have resonated here. Ole Miss stayed so concerned with salvaging the next recruit and news cycle that they ended up becoming a poster child for petulance that the Committee couldn’t wait to spank.
“If you are going to deny a violation, which may be totally appropriate to do, you had better be sure that you are on strong evidentiary grounds,” said Stuart Brown, an independent attorney based in Atlanta, who spoke generally about recent NCAA cases.
Ole Miss attempted at times to try its case in the media, and the whole effort came off like a years-long message board screed of desperation that, predictably, only appeased the likes of RebelFan64 and other such conspiracy theorists. “The leaks are, they’re tough on the process,” Christopher said. “This is meant to be a confidential process to protect the institution and people involved.”
Earlier in the call, amid his opening script, he went out of his way to mention the persistent leaks in this case. It was a familiar echo from the North Carolina case. “As a membership-led organization, it’s important for us all to participate in good faith.” Translation: Ole Miss was so concerned with messaging recruits and fans they irked those holding the NCAA hammer.
Move over Mike Garrett, your tortured NCAA case that culminated in 2010 while the athletic director at USC finally has a peer for administrative mishandling.
“They had this denial and arrogant stance that was troublesome,” said a source familiar with the case. “They kept making public comments that were designed to help with recruiting to calm the fan base.”
About the only thing that fell right for Ole Miss officials was that the Friday news dump turned out to be glorious timing, with Tennessee’s debacle of a coaching search marching gloriously to the weekend and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher departing for Texas A&M.
The school’s own chancellor called the heavy booster involvement “disturbingly questionable.” The NCAA Committee on Infractions branded Ole Miss as the epitome of a football culture gone wrong, with 12 boosters and six staff members arranging $37,000 in illicit payments and benefits for recruits. Perhaps the most stinging critique from the NCAA was the notion that none of this came as a particular surprise.
Considering Ole Miss endured significant penalties in 1986 and 1994 for similar issues – “a recurring culture of noncompliance in the football program” according to the report – the attitude of the NCAA was that this type of behavior at Ole Miss had become expected, rather than the exception.
The exception, it turned out, was the Ole Miss’ ballyhooed recruiting class in 2013. That was the one with the Top 10 ranking that turned out to be both historically good and suspicious. Ole Miss has fought since then what Freeze would call “the narrative” the school cheated.
The narrative got its most definitive chapter today. Ole Miss will appeal the bowl ban, on grounds that it’s too harsh. But after reading the tone of the 82 pages in the NCAA’s report, the Committee doesn’t sound likely to move.
The report will now serve as an 82-page cautionary tale for schools in trouble.