HOOVER, Ala. — Hugh Freeze might as well have lugged a phone book onstage and started reading names.
The embattled Ole Miss football coach spent nearly 17 minutes trolling the depths of his roster for tidbits that would delay the inevitable: questions about a lengthy NCAA investigation and a surprise lawsuit filed by former Rebels coach Houston Nutt on Wednesday.
“I want to talk about something other than all the drama that’s going on,” he pleaded near the end of his opening filibuster.
Once reporters got the floor, a Rebels team that went 5-7 the previous season took an obvious back seat to Ole Miss’ ongoing off-field saga.
Freeze has long claimed to accept responsibility for his program’s transgressions while deflecting the finer points of allegations. Thursday morning, he followed a similar strategy: Accept blame in generic, broad ways. Subtly play the victim. Decline comment on specific matters, defer to a future meeting with the Committee of Infractions and say things like, “It’s the lot that we have inherited and we have caused in some cases.”
Nutt’s lawsuit added an unexpected layer of drama to this week’s proceedings.
Filed Wednesday, the 21-page document alleged that Ole Miss representatives made “certain false and defamatory statements” about Nutt in the wake of an NCAA-issed Notice of Allegations 18 months ago.
Nutt’s official target is listed as “Ole Miss Athletic Foundation et al,” but it’s clear he’s after one man: Freeze.
He noted that the NCAA’s original Notice of Allegations — a 47-page document detailing Ole Miss’ discrepancies — featured Freeze’s name “10 times” while making zero mention of Nutt. Despite this, the university’s first official statement on the matter alleged that “many” of the football program’s violations occurred during Nutt’s tenure. The suit also alleges that Ole Miss withheld an updated Notice of Allegations (which featured Freeze’s name “48 times” and made no mention of Nutt) from the public for four months from February to June of this year.
Many other allegations in the suit made the same point: Freeze and Ole Miss tried to “carry out a carefully orchestrated misinformation campaign” against Nutt, when it was eventually revealed that Freeze’s staff had committed nine of the 13 football violations.
That “campaign” was allegedly carried out by members of the media. Nutt alleged that Freeze and other Ole Miss employees lied to several prominent reporters in an attempt to pin the Rebels’ troubles on Nutt.
There’s also this direct attack on Freeze:
It is common knowledge among sports journalists that Coach Freeze does not take kindly to criticism. Since the moment the NCAA investigation was first made public, Coach Freeze has distinguished himself from other Division 1 head football coaches by: (a) consistently exhibiting behaviors that are massively defensive; (b) going to extraordinary lengths through social media and otherwise to promote his self-image as a deeply spiritual Godly man who’s done nothing wrong and is being persecuted; and (c) attempting to cultivate personal relationships with sports journalists for the purpose of promoting his self-image through positive news stories and, as further alleged below, exploiting their trust and deliberately misleading them into tweeting and writing news stories that furthered Coach Freeze’s agenda. These personal characteristics contributed to Coach Freeze’s decision to play the leading role in the self-serving smear campaign that foreseeably damaged Coach Nutt’s reputation.
Thursday, Freeze cited the effect negative attention has had on his family. Specifically, he said, social media has been a disruption for his children. He also lamented that his players aren’t able to be the focus at media events. All unfortunate and regrettable.
It fed a doomed campaign for empathy that’s been wobbling along for awhile now; For the fifth time in six years, Freeze said, he had to field questions he wished didn’t exist.
Houston Nutt undoubtedly rolled his eyes, and it’s hard to blame him.