Freeze out as Ole Miss coach

Published 9:27 am Friday, July 21, 2017

OXFORD (AP) — Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze resigned Thursday after university officials found a “pattern of personal misconduct” that started with the school’s investigation into a call to an escort service.

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.

The 47-year-old Freeze — who was making more than $5 million per year — will receive no buyout, Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork said.

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

It was a recently filed civil lawsuit from Houston Nutt — who coached Ole Miss from 2008-11 — against the university that unearthed the phone records that eventually revealed Freeze’s school-issued cellphone had dialed an escort service on at least one occasion in 2016.

Bjork said the school’s investigation started last week after an outside 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.”

Freeze’s university cell phone records obtained by The Associated Press show a 1-minute call made on Jan. 19, 2016, to a Detroit-based number. An internet search shows the number linked to a site that offers various escort services.

“I’ve got no idea, to be honest,” Freeze told Yahoo Sports, which first reported the nature of the call. “I was in an 813 area code and that was a 313 number, I think that might have been a misdial. I don’t think there was even a conversation. There’s nothing to it.”

In researching their civil suit, Nutt’s lawyers made a Freedom of Information filing asking for Freeze’s phone records for several days in January 2016. The aim — which is detailed in the suit — was to try and show that Ole Miss officials conspired to spread misinformation to media and form a “smear campaign” against Nutt.

It found much more.

Subsequent research by Ole Miss officials into Freeze’s phone records found more misconduct.
One of Nutt’s attorneys, Walter Morrison, said late Thursday night that Freeze’s attempt to pin blame for the NCAA investigation on Nutt backfired in a huge way.

“It’s sad the university did not deal with this in the manner of which they should have,” Morrison said. “And if they had dealt with Houston Nutt appropriately to begin with, he would not have been besmirched, he would have been treated appropriately and fairly, consistent with the severance agreement that all of us signed.
“And interestingly enough, Hugh Freeze would probably still have his job.”

Bjork said Freeze would have been fired if he hadn’t offered his resignation. He added that Freeze’s resignation is strictly because of his personal conduct and not because of the current NCAA investigation.

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

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 one-year postseason ban for the upcoming season.

Freeze had a 39-25 record over five seasons, including a 19-21 mark in the Southeastern Conference.

Freeze’s shocking 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 took over after Nutt was fired during a miserable 2011 season that ended with a 2-10 record. Ole Miss 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 eight wins in 2013, nine in ‘14 and a 10-3 record in ‘15.

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 was also 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 NOA 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.

He became Arkansas State’s offensive coordinator in 2010 and was promoted to head coach in 2011. He led the Red Wolves to a Sun Belt Conference title before being hired at Ole Miss.

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.