It didn’t all start with Laremy Tunsil’s gas mask. Of the 13 violations levied by the NCAA against Ole Miss football, four predate the arrival of the gifted tackle Tunsil and the coach who has lifted the Rebels to prominence. But nine did occur under Hugh Freeze, and more revelations could lie ahead.
On Friday, Ole Miss revealed the NCAA’s notice of allegations and, seeking to mitigate the damage, forfeited 11 football scholarships over a four-year span. The school received its notice in January and released it the Friday before Memorial Day. Even that bit of PR artistry failed to bury the lead, which was: Ole Miss has requested more time to investigate whether Tunsil, captured in a video while wearing a gas mask and smoking something of uncertain provenance, was paid to play college football.
Tunsil was named in three allegations. Others could be forthcoming. Shortly after the gas-mask clip hit the Internet on the first night of the NFL draft, a text exchange between Tunsil and John Miller, an Ole Miss assistant athletic director, was leaked in which the player seeks money to pay his mother’s rent/utilities and Miller seems to gripe about the price. After being picked by the Dolphins, Tunsil was asked if he’d taken money from his college coaches. His response: “I’d have to say yeah.”
We’d already seen hints that the SEC’s fastest-rising program might have been built on shifting sand. Tunsil was suspended for seven games last season for driving three loaner cars without deigning to pay. Defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who’s from the Grayson High and who in 2013 was the nation’s No. 1 recruit, was suspended for the Sugar Bowl after he broke a window and fell from a ledge at the Buckhead Grand Hyatt and was charged with marijuana possession.
Linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, Robert’s older brother, was hospitalized twice last fall, the second time after being found “unresponsive.” He did not play in the final two regular-season games. No explanation was given.
The root of the Ole Miss rise was its 2013 recruiting class, which included 5-star prospects Tunsil (who’d recanted his commitment to Georgia), Robert Nkemdiche and receiver Laquon Treadwell. That class lifted Ole Miss into the top five of the national rankings in 2014, to two famous victories over Alabama and to consecutive major bowls. Will that yield be worth what could be coming?
Tunsil, R. Nkemdiche and Treadwell were Round 1 draftees in April, but only the latter, who went 23rd overall, was taken in a slot commensurate to his talent. Tunsil slipped to 13th, Nkemdiche to 29th. That’s the effect a gas-mask video and a fall from a hotel ledge can have on prospective employers, and those incidents made us wonder: What kind of program was Ole Miss running?
Now this: Nine violations, four deemed major, alleged against the Rebels under Freeze. Before February’s National Signing Day, whispers held that the allegations would mostly involve violations under former coach Houston Nutt. Having received the notice in January, Ole Miss knew better. But why let the truth stand in the way of another bumper crop? (Rivals rated the Rebels’ 2016 class the nation’s seventh-best.)
Having penalized itself while admitting that “serious violations” occurred, Ole Miss now must determine if Tunsil was indeed paid by coaches. If so, there’ll be more allegations, harsher sanctions — remember, the NCAA has yet to affix its penalties — and maybe even a Freeze-out.
Twice in two days, we’ve seen up-from-oblivion programs brought low. In the grand scheme, Ole Miss’ stuff (loaner cars, possibly paying a player) is garden-variety. Baylor’s was reprehensible human behavior. So don’t play the moral-equivalence game here. There is no moral equivalence.