Days after Laremy Tunsil’s draft stock tumbled and took the Ole Miss football program down with it, Hugh Freeze says he was still in the dark.
“I know nothing,” he told ClarionLedger.com‘s Daniel Paulling on May 5. “I’m not involved in the fact-finding process.”
Facing several unresolved NCAA violations and his former player’s public admission to taking dirty money, the Rebels coach was hiding behind a time-honored tactic in the world of major college sports: plausible deniability.
Monday, less than a week after Ole Miss announced it had committed 28 offenses (13 of them in the football department), Freeze adopted a new strategy: delusion.
Speaking with multiple media outlets before the SEC spring meetings, the coach proclaimed himself accountable.
“The first thing I would say is that I own it,” he said.
Then, he began the fruitless task of trying to uphold the honor of a program that has become one of the country’s most delinquent.
“There is a difference between making mistakes and cheating,” he told GridironNow.com‘s Tony Barnhart.
That’s true, but those things are not mutually exclusive. Ole Miss cheated, and it was a mistake. The school will feel the full consequences of those actions when the NCAA adds to the Rebels’ laundry list of self-imposed punishments later this year.
Freeze essentially wiped his hands of any wrongdoing and did the same for his staff, implying that recent discipline — taking a pair of assistants off the recruiting trail for a month — was sufficient punishment for those who had some hand in Ole Miss’ misdeeds.
The coach then became indignant: His program was being viewed unfairly, with the most recent wave of violations being lumped into Houston Nutt’s Oxford regime from 2008-2011.
“The four under the previous staff, we can’t do anything about those,” Freeze told ESPN.com‘s Chris Low. “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,” Freeze added.
To be blunt, the task of amending the damage done here will require years of strong public relations work. And that’s after the NCAA announces its own line of punishments (Note: there is a chance the NCAA will simply accept Ole Miss’ self-imposed sanctions and leave it at that, but that’s not likely).
The stench of violations and their consequences will stick around for years. That, coupled with the fact that the Rebels have not won a conference title in more than five decades, does not leave much room for optimism in Oxford.
“There’s great wisdom in being patient and making sure you get the facts,” Freeze told Paulling after the NFL draft. “And we’re still in that process.”
Now, that fact-finding process — at least from Ole Miss’ perspective — is complete, and the school is in a rough spot.
“I take it personally when our reputation is damaged and our school’s reputation is damaged,” Freeze told Low on Monday. “And it’s important to look at some of these things in a little different light than what’s being portrayed out there.”
Ole Miss fans would be wise to look at Freeze’s portrayal in a different light than the one he’s shining on it.