Freeze out; Ole Miss cites mis­con­duct

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - Hugh Freeze

Mis­sis­sippi foot­ball Coach Hugh Freeze re­signed Thurs­day af­ter univer­sity of­fi­cials found a “pat­tern of per­sonal mis­con­duct” that they found un­ac­cept­able.

Freeze’s res­ig­na­tion brings a stun­ning end to a five-year ten­ure that saw a Sugar Bowl vic­tory, but also a wide-rang­ing NCAA in­ves­ti­ga­tion into rules vi­o­la­tions. His ul­ti­mate down­fall came af­ter school of­fi­cials in­ves­ti­gated Freeze’s phone records and found mis­con­duct.

“In our anal­y­sis, we dis­cov­ered a pat­tern of con­duct that is not con­sis­tent with our ex­pec­ta­tions as the leader of our foot­ball pro­gram,” Ath­letic Di­rec­tor Ross Bjork said. “As of yes­ter­day, there ap­peared to be a con­cern­ing pat­tern.”

Bjork said the school’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion started last week af­ter a Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion re­quest re­vealed a con­cern­ing phone call that lasted less than a minute. The school then looked into the rest of his phone records and

found more prob­lems.

Bjork said Freeze “ad­mit­ted the con­duct” and that the coach of­fered his res­ig­na­tion Thurs­day af­ter­noon. When pressed to ex­plain Freeze’s con­duct, Bjork said the school needed to “protect that in­for­ma­tion.”

“His pri­vacy is im­por­tant,” Bjork said. “The con­duct was just not some­thing we could con­tinue with as our head coach.”

Co-of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Matt Luke has been named the in­terim coach.

“This is a sad day for the Univer­sity of Mis­sis­sippi,” Ole Miss Chan­cel­lor Jef­frey Vit­ter said.

Vit­ter and Bjork both said Freeze’s res­ig­na­tion is strictly be­cause of his per­sonal con­duct and not be­cause of the on­go­ing NCAA in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The Rebels had a quick rise un­der Freeze, re­cruit­ing

at a high level and reach­ing an apex with a Sugar Bowl vic­tory over Ok­la­homa State fol­low­ing the 2015 sea­son.

But an NCAA in­ves­ti­ga­tion — al­leg­ing 21 charges of aca­demic, booster, and re­cruit­ing mis­con­duct — has over­shad­owed much of that suc­cess, es­pe­cially over the past year. The school has al­ready self-im­posed sev­eral penal­ties, in­clud­ing a oneyear post­sea­son ban for the up­com­ing sea­son.

Freeze — who was mak­ing more than $5 mil­lion per year — had a 39-25 record over 5 sea­sons, in­clud­ing a 19-21 mark in the South­east­ern Con­fer­ence. Bjork said Freeze will re­ceive no buy­out on his con­tract.

Freeze’s exit — just a few weeks be­fore pre­sea­son camp be­gins — com­pletes a stun­ning fall for a coach con­sid­ered one of the pro­fes­sion’s ris­ing stars a few years ago.

Freeze, 47, was the Arkansas State Univer­sity head coach for one sea­son in 2011, win­ning the Sun Belt Con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship af­ter serv­ing as the Red Wolves’ of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor the year be­fore. He then took over Ole Miss af­ter Hous­ton Nutt was fired dur­ing a 2011 sea­son that ended with a 2-10 record. The Rebels im­me­di­ately im­proved un­der Freeze, fin­ish­ing 7-6 in 2012 and win­ning the Birm­ing­ham Bowl.

The Rebels con­tin­ued to surge on the field and on the re­cruit­ing trail over the next sev­eral sea­sons. They signed some of the nation’s top re­cruits in 2013, in­clud­ing de­fen­sive line­man Robert Nkemdiche, re­ceiver Laquon Tread­well and of­fen­sive line­man Laremy Tun­sil. They helped push the pro­gram to 8 vic­to­ries in 2013, 9 in 2014 and a 10-3 record in 2015.

But Ole Miss’ new­found abil­ity to re­cruit at a high level drew the at­ten­tion of the NCAA, which was al­ready in­ves­ti­gat­ing the school for a hand­ful of vi­o­la­tions that oc­curred dur­ing Nutt’s ten­ure.

The school has re­ceived two No­tice of Al­le­ga­tions let­ters from the NCAA over the past two years. The first al­leged 13 rules vi­o­la­tions, in­clud­ing nine that were clas­si­fied as Level I, which the gov­ern­ing body deems the most se­ri­ous.

The case ex­panded in April 2016 af­ter Tun­sil be­came the story of the NFL Draft af­ter a bizarre video of him smok­ing from a gas mask-bong con­trap­tion was posted on his Twit­ter ac­count just be­fore the se­lec­tions be­gan.

There also was a post on Tun­sil’s In­sta­gram ac­count show­ing an al­leged text con­ver­sa­tion with a foot­ball staff mem­ber about ar­rang­ing pay­ment for bills.

Though the NCAA didn’t ap­pear to find much from that par­tic­u­lar ex­change, the gov­ern­ing body did re­open its in­ves­ti­ga­tion, send­ing a sec­ond No­tice of Al­le­ga­tions ear­lier this year that ex­panded the case to 21 al­le­ga­tions, in­clud­ing 17 that are Level I.

Freeze, a north Mis­sis­sippi na­tive, had an un­likely rise to ma­jor col­lege coach­ing, spend­ing about a decade as a suc­cess­ful high school coach in Mem­phis, be­fore land­ing a job at Ole Miss in the mid-2000s un­der Ed Org­eron. Af­ter Org­eron was fired in 2007, Freeze be­came the head coach at Lam­buth, a tiny NAIA school in west­ern Ten­nessee.

Freeze’s spe­cialty was on of­fense and the Rebels were es­pe­cially ef­fi­cient on that side of the ball. Be­hind quar­ter­backs like Bo Wal­lace and Chad Kelly, Ole Miss was con­sis­tently one of the best schools in the SEC through the air.

AP/PHE­LAN M. EBENHACK

abruptly re­signed as head foot­ball coach at Mis­sis­sippi on Thurs­day night af­ter it was re­vealed that school of­fi­cials found a pat­tern of phone calls from a univer­sity-pro­vided cell­phone to a num­ber as­so­ci­ated with a fe­male es­cort ser­vice.

Freeze

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