Hugh Freeze on NCAA troubles surrounding Ole Miss: 'I own it'

ByChris Low ESPN logo
Tuesday, May 31, 2016

SANDESTIN, Fla. --Ole Misscoach Hugh Freeze told on Monday that he accepts responsibility for the Rebels' NCAA troubles, but he adamantly denies that he or anybody on his staff knowingly violated rules.

Ole Miss last week self-imposed the loss of 11 football scholarships over a four-year period from 2015-18 as part of its response to an NCAA notice of allegations, stemming from an NCAA investigation into the Rebels'athletic department that began nearly four years ago and turned up 28 rules violations in football, women's basketball and track and field.

Of the 13 alleged violations in football, nine were committed on Freeze's watch, and four were the more serious Level I violations.

"The first thing I would say is that I own it. That's part of it when you're the head coach. You take the good with the bad," said Freeze, who's in Sandestin for the SEC spring meetings. "But there's a big difference between making mistakes in recruiting and going out there with the intent to cheat.

"I don't have any information that anybody on my staff has been involved in any illegal payments to players or offering any inducements to players, and if I did have that information, I would fire them."

Ole Miss has requested that its meeting with the NCAA's Committee on Infractions be delayed while the school further investigates the NFL draft night comments of former offensive tackleLaremy Tunsiland whether he received extra benefits from staff members.

Freeze declined Monday to discuss what Tunsil meant with his draft night comments about accepting money from a coach or the leaked text messages between Tunsil and Ole Miss assistant athletic director John Miller, in which Tunsil asked for money to help with his mother's rent and utilities.

"That's something I can't talk about right now because both sides are still looking into it, but I feel confident with the report we do have from the NCAA that our staff is not involved in any purposeful breaking of the rules," Freeze said. "Have we made mistakes in recruiting? Yes, and we've taken steps to make sure we don't make those same mistakes again. But to say me or anybody on my staff is out there cheating to gain advantage just isn't true."

Three of the four Level I violations under Freeze Involve Tunsil or somebody from Tunsil's family allegedly receiving money, free lodging or extra benefits. Tunsil was suspended for seven games last season for his use of loaner vehicles at no cost for a six-month period, and his estranged stepfather, Lindsey Miller, allegedly received $800 and free lodging from Ole Miss boosters.

The fourth Level I violation under Freeze involves Walter Hughes, a Fellowship of Christian Athletes huddle leader at East High School in Memphis, illegally transporting recruits to the Ole Miss campus and Rebels assistant coach Maurice Harris allegedly making contact with the recruits through Hughes. The NCAA considers Hughes an Ole Miss booster, even though he also transported recruits to other SEC schools for unofficial visits. Ole Miss plans to argue that this allegation doesn't rise to a Level I charge when it appears before the Committee on Infractions.

Ole Miss, as part of its self-imposed sanctions, has disassociated boosters involved in the allegations, including Hughes and Cannon Motors, the Oxford, Mississippi, dealership that supplied the loaner vehicles to Tunsil. Some assistant coaches were taken off road recruiting as punishment, and the Rebels also previously self-imposed a ban on unofficial visits from Feb. 21, 2016, to March 31, 2016.

Freeze repeated that he will hold everybody in his program accountable, but said the punishment has to fit the infraction.

"We're not going to terminate a guy who makes a mistake and didn't have any intent to go out and cheat," Freeze said. "There is no charge in these allegations of a staff member being involved in a payment or offering extra benefits. There's none of that in there."

The NCAA has also accused Ole Miss of four Level I violations under the previous regime, when Houston Nutt was coach. Those involve academic fraud and a former assistant coach, David Saunders, allegedly arranging for fraudulent ACT scores for recruits and another former assistant, Chris Vaughn, communicating with witnesses in an NCAA investigation after being told by the NCAA to refrain from having those conversations.

"The four under the previous staff, we can't do anything about those," Freeze said. "There are nine under me, and as I said, I own them. But when you step back and look at what's in the report, three of the four Level I violations since I've been here didn't involve anybody on our staff, and the five secondary violations are things we've already served penalties for.

"That's not an excuse and doesn't make it right, and we have to be better. But I take it personally when our reputation is damaged and our school's reputation is damaged, and it's important to look at some of these things in a little different light than what's being portrayed out there."