At ole miss, one man is deemed the Rebel

The school says an ex-staffer is guilty of vi­o­la­tions. He says he’s a scape­goat.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY WILL HOB­SON

When Barney Far­rar was 23 — long be­fore he would be­come a cen­tral fig­ure in a col­lege foot­ball re­cruit­ing scan­dal that would cap­ti­vate this state — he fell asleep one night while driv­ing and crashed into a bridge.

The im­pact crushed much of Far­rar’s face and dam­aged his op­tic nerves, blind­ing him. The paramedics had to lance his throat just so he could breathe, and the sur­geons needed pho­tos to guide them as they re­paired his face. Far­rar re­gained his sight, but the wreck left him with one wan­der­ing eye and with­out pe­riph­eral vi­sion.

In the decades that fol­lowed, Far­rar’s tun­nel vi­sion led to him oc­ca­sion­ally run­ning into goal posts and play­ers. He de­vel­oped a habit of drop­ping back a few steps when walk­ing in a group, so he could see where ev­ery­one was headed.

“I like to fol­low,” Far­rar, 57, said last week as he mo­tioned for com­pan­ions to go ahead. It’s a quirk be­fit­ting a man who has spent most of his life in the back­ground of big col­lege foot­ball pro­grams, fol­low­ing the or­ders of high-priced head coaches and spe­cial­iz­ing in the hum­bling but cru­cial work of re­cruit­ing.

Yet ac­cord­ing to the Uni­ver­sity of Mis­sis­sippi, Far­rar, a for­mer as­sis­tant ath­letic di­rec­tor the school fired in De­cem­ber, is guilty of go­ing rogue, of cheat­ing to en­tice top re­cruits and ly­ing about it to his bosses and NCAA in­ves­ti­ga­tors. The NCAA has ac­cused Far­rar of ar­rang­ing il­licit cash pay­ments and thou­sands of dol­lars in free Ole Miss mer­chan­dise for re­cruits. Far­rar de­nies the al­le­ga­tions and awaits a hear­ing this fall. He faces po­ten­tial

penal­ties that could de­rail, if not end, his ca­reer.

In his first pub­lic in­ter­view since his fir­ing, Far­rar broke down in tears sev­eral times last week as he dis­cussed his plight.

“I love coach­ing. I love teach­ing young men. I love go­ing to ‘Last Chance U’ and giv­ing out sec­ond chances, be­cause there are kids out there who de­serve sec­ond chances,” he said. “And they’ve taken that away from me.”

Far­rar’s friends por­tray him as a fall guy, of­fered up by Ole Miss to the NCAA in the hopes of min­i­miz­ing penal­ties against for­mer head foot­ball coach Hugh Freeze. If true, this strat­egy im­ploded last month when the dis­cov­ery of a phone call to an es­cort ser­vice led to Freeze’s res­ig­na­tion.

“I think they thought Barney is the least so­phis­ti­cated of us, and the most ex­pend­able, and we’ve got to do what we can to pro­tect Coach Freeze,” said Bruse Loyd, Far­rar’s lawyer. “I think they thought that Barney would just go qui­etly into the night. And he didn’t.”

Ole Miss of­fi­cials de­clined in­ter­view re­quests and re­leased a state­ment from Alice Clark, vice chan­cel­lor for uni­ver­sity re­la­tions.

“Through­out this process, Ole Miss has been com­mit­ted to do­ing what is right — when we un­cover an is­sue, we in­ves­ti­gate, we take re­spon­si­bil­ity, we hold peo­ple ac­count­able, and we cor­rect any prob­lems we find,” Clark wrote.

As Far­rar awaits his chance to plead his case, this foot­ball-ob­sessed state di­vided by an in­tense ri­valry hangs on ev­ery twist and turn of a nearly five-year saga that has fea­tured phone hack­ing and sus­pi­cions of col­lu­sion, and has dom­i­nated lo­cal air­waves and head­lines, dwarf­ing that other story in the news about hack­ing and sus­pi­cions of col­lu­sion.

“It’s been the big­gest story in the state,” said Neal McCready, pub­lisher of Re­bel­, a web­site that cov­ers Ole Miss foot­ball. “Its ten­ta­cles reach over to Mis­sis­sippi State, reach through­out the league [the South­east­ern Con­fer­ence] . . . . And all the cliches you hear about foot­ball in the South, here, are true . . . . This is all any­body’s talk­ing about.”

‘That ain’t good for me’

As the NFL draft was about to be­gin in April 2016, Far­rar sat in his of­fice in the Ole Miss foot­ball com­plex, hop­ing to see re­cently de­parted of­fen­sive tackle Laremy Tun­sil se­lected early. Just be­fore the draft be­gan, Tun­sil’s Twit­ter ac­count was taken over by a hacker who posted a video of Tun­sil wear­ing a gas mask and smok­ing mar­i­juana through a bong.

Within min­utes, Far­rar was on the phone with NFL scouts, try­ing to al­le­vi­ate con­cerns.

“I’d bet my life on this guy; I’d jump on a sword for him,” Far­rar re­called telling one scout when, on the screen, news broke that Tun­sil’s In­sta­gram ac­count had been hacked as well and was post­ing in­crim­i­nat­ing text mes­sages in­volv­ing Ole Miss staffers.

Far­rar rose from a hum­ble up­bring­ing to the top tier of col­lege foot­ball based on his abil­ity to re­cruit, es­pe­cially in Mis­sis­sippi. High school and ju­nior col­lege coaches here at­tribute Far­rar’s re­cruit­ing knack, in part, to his deep knowl­edge of his home state.

Far­rar was raised in a se­ries of tiny north­ern Mis­sis­sippi towns by his mother, who was deaf and mute. He never knew his bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther. When he was 13, his step­fa­ther, also deaf and mute, died of a heart at­tack.

Far­rar went on to col­lege at Delta State Uni­ver­sity on Mis­sis­sippi’s western edge, where he played as an un­der­sized de­fen­sive back and got his start coach­ing. He broke into big-time col­lege re­cruit­ing at Clem­son in the 1980s, then went to Rice be­fore land­ing at Ole Miss in 2006. Af­ter a de­tour to Iowa State, and then South­ern Mis­sis­sippi — where he sur­vived throat can­cer — Far­rar re­turned to Ox­ford in 2011 to help new coach Freeze build a win­ner.

Freeze quickly be­came a po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure, beloved around Ox­ford for beat­ing Alabama twice and win­ning a Sugar Bowl but viewed skep­ti­cally around the SEC.

Freeze cul­ti­vated a pub­lic per­sona as a pi­ous Chris­tian — he reg­u­larly tweeted Bi­ble verses and said his play­ers com­peted out of love while op­po­nents were mo­ti­vated by hate — that struck some as sanc­ti­mo­nious. And his in­stantly suc­cess­ful re­cruit­ing op­er­a­tion raised sus­pi­cions it was more than faith-based foot­ball that was help­ing Ole Miss lure play­ers away from tra­di­tional pow­ers such as Alabama, LSU and Auburn.

The se­ries of hacked text mes­sages on draft night seemed to lend cred­i­bil­ity to those sus­pi­cions.

“Coach freeze and the whole ole miss pro­gram are snakes. They cheat!” the hacker — whose iden­tity has never been pub­licly dis­closed — wrote on In­sta­gram, next to im­ages of text mes­sages from 2015, be­tween Tun­sil and John Miller, Ole Miss’s di­rec­tor of foot­ball oper­a­tions.

In the texts, Tun­sil asked for help pay­ing his rent and his mother’s elec­tric bill. At one point, Miller replied, “See Barney next week.”

“When I saw John Miller’s text, I thought, ‘Uh, that ain’t good for John,’ ” Far­rar re­called. “Then I saw ‘See Barney,’ and I thought, ‘Uh-oh. That ain’t good for me.’ ”

In a news con­fer­ence af­ter he was se­lected by the Mi­ami Dol­phins, Tun­sil was asked if he had ac­cepted money from Ole Miss coaches.

“I would have to say, yeah,” Tun­sil replied.

Min­utes later, a re­porter asked if Tun­sil had spo­ken with NCAA in­ves­ti­ga­tors. Be­fore he could an­swer, a woman who worked for Tun­sil’s agent — Jimmy Sex­ton, also Freeze’s agent — in­ter­rupted and ush­ered Tun­sil off the stage.

‘Think of it as a va­ca­tion’

When the Tun­sil draft night hack hap­pened, the NCAA had just com­pleted a three-year in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Ole Miss foot­ball, women’s bas­ket­ball and track and field. A few days later — as spec­u­la­tion swirled about Tun­sil’s text mes­sages — the NCAA re­opened its in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Ole Miss foot­ball.

Far­rar in­sisted the sit­u­a­tion was ex­plain­able. In 2015 — when the mes­sages were ex­changed — the NCAA al­lowed schools to make need-based money avail­able for ath­letes through a “stu­dent-ath­lete op­por­tu­nity fund.” Ac­cord­ing to Far­rar, Tun­sil was tex­ting about draw­ing from this above­board fund, not $100 hand­shakes or bags full of cash. (Tun­sil did not re­ply to re­quests to com­ment).

Ini­tially, Ole Miss stood by Far­rar. In mid-Novem­ber, though, as an in­ter­view for Far­rar with NCAA in­ves­ti­ga­tors ap­proached, Freeze pulled Far­rar aside dur­ing prac­tice one day and said they needed to meet with Ath­letic Di­rec­tor Ross Bjork. Later that day, Bjork and Freeze ex­plained to Far­rar that he needed to go on ad­min­is­tra­tive leave, as a pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sure, while the in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­tin­ued.

Bjork told him to “think of it as a va­ca­tion,” Far­rar said, and Freeze told him ev­ery­thing would re­turn to nor­mal when the case was over.

“I’ve had Stage 4 throat can­cer, and this both­ers me more than that,” he said he told the men.

Bjork de­clined an in­ter­view re­quest. Freeze, who an­swered the door of his Ox­ford home last week, de­clined to an­swer ques­tions about Far­rar and threat­ened to have a re­porter ar­rested.

Last Dec. 1, Far­rar spoke with NCAA in­ves­ti­ga­tors and mem­bers of the Ole Miss le­gal team. A week later, Bjork sum­moned Far­rar to an­other meet­ing. That morn­ing, Far­rar said, he re­ceived a text from Freeze: “Love you like a brother.”

Far­rar said when he ar­rived at the meet­ing, Bjork handed him a let­ter ex­plain­ing his ca­reer at Ole Miss was over.

“You have not met our ex­pec­ta­tions with re­spect to uni­ver­sity poli­cies and NCAA rules com­pli­ance. There­fore, ef­fec­tive im­me­di­ately, we are ter­mi­nat­ing your job du­ties,” Bjork wrote. The let­ter did not spec­ify which rules Far­rar vi­o­lated, and Bjork did not elab­o­rate, Far­rar said.

“I was like a man with­out a coun­try,” Far­rar said.

Within a few weeks, Far­rar no­ticed he stopped re­ceiv­ing a reg­u­lar text mes­sage Freeze sent all Ole Miss coaches: a daily Bi­ble verse.

‘An out­lier at the uni­ver­sity’

On Feb. 22, Ole Miss posted a video on YouTube to up­date “the Ole Miss fam­ily” on the NCAA in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The video was shot to look like a news con­fer­ence, with Chan­cel­lor Jef­frey Vit­ter, Bjork and Freeze seated be­hind a ta­ble, in front of a blue back­drop dot­ted with the school logo.

The NCAA had fin­ished its in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the men an­nounced, and sent Ole Miss its “No­tice of Al­le­ga­tions.” The list in­cluded 21 al­le­ga­tions, some dat­ing from 2010, that ran the gamut from se­ri­ous rule-break­ing to less egre­gious of­fenses. A few pages be­fore al­leg­ing a booster paid a re­cruit at least $13,000 and Far­rar knew about it, the NCAA ac­cused an­other Ole Miss coach of let­ting a player sleep on his couch for two nights, an im­per­mis­si­ble ben­e­fit the NCAA val­ued at $33.

None of the al­le­ga­tions per­tained to the hacked text mes­sages from Tun­sil to Miller, who re­mains on the Ole Miss staff. But the NCAA un­cov­ered other ev­i­dence that Ole Miss agreed showed Far­rar broke re­cruit­ing rules.

The NCAA ac­cused Far­rar of in­volve­ment with the booster’s pay­ments to a re­cruit and also said he ar­ranged free Ole Miss mer­chan­dise, rides, meals, and ho­tel rooms for re­cruits. Far­rar has ac­cepted re­spon­si­bil­ity for some of the rides, meals and lodg­ing vi­o­la­tions — which he has ex­plained as un­in­ten­tional over­sights — and de­nied the rest.

The NCAA in­ves­tiga­tive process is shrouded in se­crecy, as ev­i­dence can be viewed only by those con­nected to the case. How­ever, glimpses of ev­i­dence emerge in cases in­volv­ing pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, whose com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­come pub­lic records.

In its re­sponse to the NCAA, Ole Miss ref­er­enced an in­crim­i­nat­ing text mes­sage found on Far­rar’s uni­ver­sity phone.

On Feb. 3, 2015, the day be­fore Na­tional Sign­ing Day, Far­rar re­ceived a text mes­sage from a booster that was meant for a re­cruit the NCAA called “Stu­den­tAth­lete 39.” The re­cruit was later iden­ti­fied in lo­cal me­dia as Leo Lewis, a highly touted line­backer who had orig­i­nally com­mit­ted to Ole Miss, then changed his mind and de­cided to at­tend Mis­sis­sippi State. Lewis has told the NCAA the Ole Miss booster paid him at least $13,000.

The text ar­rived on Far­rar’s phone as word had started to cir­cu­late that Ole Miss had lost Lewis to its cross-state ri­val.

“I need you to call me im­me­di­ately,” wrote the booster, who was not iden­ti­fied. “We met and agreed upon things . . . . What is go­ing on? You swore to me on your daugh­ter. Please call me. You owe me that.”

Ole Miss ac­knowl­edged the text mes­sage showed a booster im­prop­erly in­volved in re­cruit­ing but dis­puted whether a pay­ment oc­curred. Re­gard­less, the school blamed any mis­deeds on Far­rar.

“Far­rar is an out­lier at the uni­ver­sity and does not rep­re­sent the cul­ture of ‘do­ing things the right way’ that has been cu­rated by the uni­ver­sity’s ad­min­is­tra­tive and aca­demics lead­er­ship as well as its foot­ball head coach,” Ole Miss wrote.

In the YouTube video, Freeze thanked Ole Miss lead­er­ship for “un­wa­ver­ing” sup­port and ex­pressed dis­ap­point­ment at learn­ing one of his staffers had bro­ken NCAA rules.

“From the mo­ment I ar­rived in De­cem­ber of 2011, I have em­pha­sized to all of my staff that our pro­gram is founded on cer­tain core val­ues: faith, at­ti­tude, men­tal tough­ness, in­tegrity and love,” Freeze said. “Do­ing things the right way.”

Lawyers, rags and money

When writ­ing sto­ries set in Ox­ford, there is a temp­ta­tion to in­voke the style and themes ex­plored by its most fa­mous na­tive son, the au­thor Wil­liam Faulkner. But with a small army of lawyers at work in con­nec­tion the NCAA in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Ole Miss, an­other au­thor with an Ox­ford con­nec­tion is a more apt ref­er­ence: John Gr­isham.

In July, a pre­vi­ously un­fore­seen le­gal threat to Ole Miss ended Freeze’s ten­ure with light­ning speed. On July 12, for­mer Ole Miss coach Hous­ton Nutt sued the uni­ver­sity for defama­tion, al­leg­ing Ole Miss of­fi­cials told re­porters most of the re­cruit­ing vi­o­la­tions oc­curred un­der Nutt’s watch. Eight days later, Freeze re­signed af­ter Nutt’s at­tor­ney un­cov­ered a phone call from Freeze to a num­ber con­nected to an es­cort ser­vice. The call was part of a “pat­tern of mis­con­duct” Freeze ad­mit­ted to, Ole Miss of­fi­cials said.

Far­rar de­clined to com­ment on Freeze’s trou­bles, other than to say he prays for Freeze and his fam­ily daily.

As the months passed and the NCAA’s al­le­ga­tions have drawn scru­tiny, peo­ple around Ox­ford have fix­ated on how heav­ily the case — es­pe­cially the strong­est charges levied against Far­rar — hinge on the tes­ti­mony of two Mis­sis­sippi State play­ers: line­backer Lewis and de­fen­sive line­man Kobe Jones.

“There’s a sense here that there was col­lu­sion, whether it can be proven or not, be­tween the NCAA in­ves­ti­ga­tors and Mis­sis­sippi State to get those kids to turn on Ole Miss,” said McCready, the Re­bel­ pub­lisher.

Mis­sis­sippi State ath­let­ics of­fi­cials de­clined to com­ment. In a state­ment, the NCAA said its en­force­ment staff “un­der­stands peo­ple who pro­vide in­for­ma­tion will have their own in­ter­ests . . . . Not only is the staff trained to be dis­cern­ing, the process in­cludes mul­ti­ple steps to as­sure that any con­clu­sions are based on re­li­able in­for­ma­tion.”

Lewis al­leges Far­rar con­nected him with a booster who paid him to at­tend Ole Miss. But the fact that Lewis ul­ti­mately didn’t at­tend Ole Miss has raised ques­tions about his mo­ti­va­tions.

Lewis has ad­mit­ted to tak­ing money from one other school, ac­cord­ing to re­sponses to the NCAA filed by both Ole Miss and Far­rar. In ex­change for his tes­ti­mony, the NCAA has of­fered Lewis im­mu­nity. Ole Miss has sug­gested that Lewis is us­ing this process to avoid pun­ish­ment for tak­ing money from an­other school, while also hurt­ing a ri­val.

Mis­sis­sippi State de­clined to make Lewis and Jones avail­able for in­ter­views. Lewis’s lawyer said his client has told the truth.

“Leo Lewis stands by ev­ery­thing he is al­leged to have re­ported, truth­fully and ac­cu­rately, re­lated to any in­ves­ti­ga­tion he par­tic­i­pated in,” at­tor­ney John Wheeler said.

Lewis and Jones also have al­leged Far­rar sent them to Rebel Rags, an Ox­ford store, to col­lect thou­sands of dol­lars in free Ole Miss gear. In dis­put­ing those ac­cu­sa­tions, Far­rar has an ally: Terry War­ren, the owner of Rebel Rags and an Ole Miss booster, who has sued the Mis­sis­sippi State play­ers for defama­tion, al­leg­ing they fab­ri­cated their tes­ti­mony.

The lawyer for Rebel Rags, Char­lie Merkel, has said he has com­piled sales re­ceipts and tes­ti­mony from oth­ers who ac­com­pa­nied Lewis and Jones on their re­cruit­ing trips that shows the play­ers lied. Merkel pro­vided this ev­i­dence to the NCAA, he said, in the hopes they would drop the al­le­ga­tions in­volv­ing the store, to no avail.

On Sept. 11, at a ho­tel in Cov­ing­ton, Ky., th­ese var­i­ous par­ties and their lawyers will ap­pear be­fore the NCAA’s Com­mit­tee on In­frac­tions, who will be tasked with de­ter­min­ing whom to be­lieve.

Ole Miss, which has self-im­posed a one year post­sea­son ban, could face more se­vere penal­ties. Freeze faces a po­ten­tial show­cause or­der that could de­lay his re­turn to coach­ing.

Far­rar will be fight­ing for his chance to work in the back­ground some­where else. Mem­o­ra­bilia from his ca­reer dec­o­rates his Ox­ford con­do­minium. A framed, signed pic­ture of Tun­sil walk­ing off the field with his arm draped around Far­rar — “Love you Man!” Tun­sil wrote — sits on one shelf. On an­other, there’s a sign with a mes­sage Far­rar finds calm­ing: “BARNEY, TRUST ME. I HAVE EV­ERY­THING UN­DER CON­TROL. JE­SUS.”

Far­rar cred­its his for­mer boss at Rice, head coach Ken Hat­field, with help­ing him re­dis­cover his Chris­tian faith. Hat­field was one of the most de­cent, moral men he ever worked for, Far­rar said.

Reached by phone last month in Arkansas, Hat­field said he had heard his for­mer re­cruiter was in trou­ble with the NCAA. The re­tired coach, 74, praised Far­rar ef­fu­sively.

“There wasn’t any­body from a bank pres­i­dent down to a school­teacher that didn’t just fall in love with Barney,” Hat­field said.

When asked if he could ever imag­ine Far­rar in­volved with boost­ers pay­ing play­ers, though, Hat­field de­clined to an­swer.

“I’m not go­ing to com­ment on the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion be­cause I don’t know it,” Hat­field said. “The deal­ings I’ve had with him, he’s been hon­est and up­right . . . . You’re go­ing to have to make your own de­ci­sions about Barney.”


Barney Far­rar, a for­mer foot­ball staffer at the Uni­ver­sity of Mis­sis­sippi, is at the cen­ter of an NCAA in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­leged vi­o­la­tions at the school.



TOP: Barney Far­rar was fired from Ole Miss in De­cem­ber. ABOVE: For­mer Rebels Coach Hugh Freeze cut off ties to Far­rar, but prob­lems con­tin­ued to fol­low him, lead­ing to his sur­pris­ing res­ig­na­tion in July, which uni­ver­sity Chan­cel­lor Jef­frey Vit­ter and Ath­letic Di­rec­tor Ross Bjork, right, an­nounced.


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