Even for those without a stake in Mississippi football, you admired Hugh Freeze for his backstory.
He coached high school girls’ basketball. He was the prep coach whose family helped shape Michael Oher of “The Blind Side” book and movie fame.
His desire to become a college coach was so deep, Freeze paid for a plane ticket to a bowl game and sat in a hotel lobby for four hours to gain a couple of minutes of access to Ed Orgeron, who was about to become Mississippi’s head coach. The daring move paid off with a bottom-rung job.
Freeze never stopped grinding, swiftly moving up the ladder and becoming the Rebels’ head coach for 2012. In his third season he had Ole Miss ranked as high as No 3 nationally.
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This good guy was on his way to finishing first.
The image, already fading as Ole Miss faces numerous NCAA violations mostly tied to recruiting, took another hit in a lawsuit filed Wednesday by his predecessor Houston Nutt, perfectly timed to advance Freeze’s appearance at SEC Media Days on Thursday.
Freeze predictably stiff-armed direct comment on the lawsuit that targets him, athletic director Russ Bjork, formerly of Missouri, and the university. The suit alleges breach of contract and breach of good faith and fair dealing.
Nutt, the head coach from 2008-2011, says Freeze and Bjork ran a smear campaign against him by telling reporters Nutt was to blame for the violations.
What a mess. What a SEC-type of story.
In 2016, the NCAA delivered its notice of allegations to Mississippi. Four of the 13 allegations took place during Nutt’s tenure, but most happened in the Freeze era.
Who can forget the 2016 NFL Draft when a screenshot of offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil’s Instagram account showed a text message exchange between him and a Rebels football coach asking for $305 to pay his mother’s bills?
During a news conference after he was selected, Tunsil was asked if he had taken money from the coach. “I’d have to say, yeah,” was his response.
Tunsil was part of the 2013 recruiting class that was nationally ranked in the top 10 and produced three players — Tunsil, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche — rated tops at their positions and taken in the first round of the draft.
Suddenly, Mississippi was a recruiting powerhouse, and the Rebels were about to sign another great class in 2016, when, according to Nutt, Freeze initiated his calls to reporters to create the narrative that the serious NCAA issues didn’t occur under his watch.
The suit doesn’t name the reporters but quotes tweets such as, “I’m told the Ole Miss Notice of Allegations doesn’t contain any surprises. Most of it predates Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss new it was coming.”
Advance to Thursday. Freeze was the last of 14 SEC coaches to take the main stage and before answering a question, he delivered a 2,753-word introduction that consumed about 17 minutes.
“Seems like every year that I’ve stood here, with the exception of my first, there are other things I have to talk about other than our kids,” Freeze said at the outset.
Ole Miss has self-imposed a bowl ban along with other penalties but the NCAA figures to come down harder. This is the first major football case that primarily considered under the NCAA’s new penalty structure introduced in 2013 that holds head coaches more accountable.
Louisville basketball fell under the new order. Last month, the NCAA announced Cardinals basketball coach Rick Pitino was suspended for five ACC games and that the program could forfeit games in which players who received the extra recruiting benefit — in this case, prostitutes and dancers on recruiting visits — participated. That includes the 2013 national championship.
The NCAA didn’t find that Pitino knew about the illicit activity, as he has maintained. But it essentially ignored the “ignorance as defense” dodge and are holding him accountable for what occurs in his program. Louisville has appealed the ruling.
As Mississippi and Freeze await the NCAA ruling, they’ll deal with the Nutt lawsuit and get ready for a season that will unfold under a dark cloud. And a coach who was once the toast of college football stands to add a sad chapter to his story.