Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze resigned in disgrace on Thursday and found himself dueling with O.J. Simpson for top billing on sports cable television. But when Yahoo Sports contacted a long-time college athletic director on Thursday night, he didn’t hesitate when asked about Freeze’s long-term coaching future: “I think he will coach again.”
The voice on the other end of the line was Jim Livengood, the respected former athletic director at UNLV, Arizona and Washington State. He’d seen the Yahoo Sports story about how Freeze’s call to an escort in January 2016 led to his resignation for a “pattern of personal misconduct” discovered by university officials. (Freeze said it was “a misdial.”)
The sheer stupidity of calling an escort from his school-issued phone earned Freeze a spot in the SEC West wing of the college football Hall of Shame. It will be on display somewhere alongside former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino’s neck brace from his mistress-aided motorcycle accident and the empties from former Alabama coach Mike Price’s drunken bender. Both Petrino and Price lost their jobs amid disgrace and were hired at a new school within a year. “Everyone in these situations,” Livengood said. “They all coach again.” Livengood’s sentiment was echoed by multiple university officials and industry sources on Thursday night and Friday morning, with one notably laughing “of course he will” get hired again.
This column is not an endorsement of Freeze’s coaching future, but a reminder of the inevitability of it. College sports is a cold-blooded, zero-sum business that disguises its billions in television revenue with ideals like amateurism, student athletes and core values. In college athletics, winning accompanied by tabloid scandal trumps losing with grace. Breaking NCAA rules and dialing an escort, in the eyes of those who run college sports, is far better in the rear-view mirror than a sub-.500 record. To the victors, the scandals are a mere inconvenience. Only the coaches with losing records are dispatched to the used-car lots. Livengood maintained a simple reason for Freeze being a college head coach again: “Because he won.”
Freeze will be saddled with dual reputational baggage – both inevitable NCAA mortal sins and a crushing personal downfall. He’s already been branded an NCAA cheater after his run of suspiciously successful recruiting classes led to a sweeping and ongoing NCAA investigation. Ole Miss self-imposed significant sanctions earlier this year, including a 2017 postseason ban, in advance of the completion of an ongoing NCAA investigation. (Further punishment to the school and potentially to Freeze is sure to follow when the NCAA case concludes later this year. Freeze will be a test case in how head coaching responsibility will be treated for infractions by a departed coach.)
Then there’s Freeze’s personal downfall, which has been viewed as peak Schadenfreude for a coach long known to quote God in conversation and the bible on Twitter. The image of his family as his Twitter billboard picture and scripture quotes throughout his feed provided delicious fodder for cynics on Thursday night. But there’s one way to endure the most embarrassing of scandals: “You better win,” Livengood said.
In Freeze’s first four seasons at Ole Miss from 2012 to 2015, the Rebels went 34-18. In the prior two seasons under Houston Nutt – the coach whose dogged lawyer unearthed the documents that undid Freeze – the Rebels went 6-18. Freeze beat Alabama in consecutive seasons in 2014 and 2015, something that will get whispered to the search firms and headhunters as Freeze attempts to find an ethically malleable administration in Conference USA or the Sun Belt down the road. The administering of Freeze’s rollout and public return will be key, as Livengood stressed the old political warning of avoiding a “drip, drip, drip” of negative stories in the upcoming weeks.
Once the nasty headlines fade at Ole Miss, the administrators in Oxford will at least be able to take solace in beginning to crystalize the immediate future of their program. From the moment Ole Miss self-imposed a 2017 postseason ban in February, Freeze was considered a dead man walking everywhere but at Ole Miss. Rebel administrators supported him with a ferocity that collided with naivety.
But since Ole Miss self-imposed and inherently acknowledged that the NCAA hammer was coming, Freeze’s dismissal in the industry was a matter of how and when rather than if. (If he’d been fired simply for losing after this year, the school would have had to buy out whatever was guaranteed of the $10 million remaining on his contract. Somewhere, the Ole Miss bean counters are smiling tonight).
Instead of bottoming out under Freeze or a short-timer like Baylor did with Jim Grobe, Freeze’s escort call made the decision for them. Expect Ole Miss to stick with interim coach Matt Luke until after the NCAA’s final decision is made. Luke is a considered a fine offensive line coach, dedicated alum and has been in the mix for smaller jobs. But for now, he’s going to serve as a coaching stopgap until Ole Miss can move forward. If Ole Miss gets a postseason ban for 2018, it’s going to be hard to lure a promising young coach to slog through a lost season and attempt to recruit to a program in NCAA ruins. It’s hard to imagine an established or promising coach coming to Oxford until the NCAA punishment is levied.
The uncertainty at Ole Miss would keep top young coaches like Memphis’ Mike Norvell, Tulsa’s Philip Montgomery and Boise State’s Bryan Harsin from even pondering a move to Oxford. (Anyone who mentions Chip Kelly for this job should immediately be administered a Breathalyzer). Instead, Ole Miss would have to be a bit more creative, perhaps offering a lot of money and years to a former Rebel assistant like Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre or UTSA’s Frank Wilson. (And yes, don’t be surprised if Les Miles speculation fills hours of air-time on Paul Finebaum’s show this fall).
This isn’t all-too dissimilar to Ole Miss picking up the pieces after Billy Brewer was fired prior to the 1994 season. Ole Miss eventually hired Tommy Tuberville for the 1996 season to resurrect it from the shackles of NCAA sanctions. (Think of a young up-and-comer like Arkansas State’s Blake Anderson, Troy’s Neal Brown or Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield). More than two decades later, history is repeating itself in Oxford with NCAA sanctions coming and an administration bracing for an extended run of uncertainty.
The first major pivot in Freeze’s eventual return will be what the NCAA decides in regards to the Rebels and Freeze. It’s too early to predict how Freeze’s personal implosion changes the case from the Ole Miss perspective, as it’s nearly impossible for coach and university to stay in lockstep like they’d been for years. Faced with a head coach responsibility charge, Freeze may receive some type of individual punishment. (As for how much the resignation impacts the NCAA’s ruling on the case, veteran NCAA Committee on Infractions Chair Tom Yeager said: “I don’t think it’s going to move the needle.”)
Instead, the NCAA case is a delay to history repeating itself again.
Hugh Freeze won big at a place that rarely did. His coaching ethics and personal life are facing a period of intense scrutiny and mockery. But despite all his shortcomings, hypocrisy and clumsy dialing (and lying), Freeze still has one thing that will eventually force an athletic director to call: a winning record.
Just ask Louisville’s Bobby Petrino, who had an affair, hired his mistress and lied to his bosses about all of it. He’s in the second season of a new seven-year contract expected to be worth more than $30 million. Not coincidentally, Louisville returns the Heisman Trophy winner and is expected to start the year in the top 15.