Months of accusation, blame-deflection and bitter entrenchment on both sides of the NCAA’s prolonged war with Ole Miss culminated Thursday evening in the shocking resignation of coach Hugh Freeze.
Freeze reportedly made at least one call to a female escort service on his university-provided phone, information which came to light only as a result of bitter ex-Rebels coach Houston Nutt’s lawsuit against his former employer.
Nutt, if you’ll recall, took legal action against Ole Miss because of alleged off-the-record comments Freeze made to sportswriters, in which he purportedly attempted to shift the brunt of the then-new NCAA accusations onto the Nutt regime.
In this way, Freeze brought about his own destruction. And, while the circumstances surrounding his sudden departure are certainly surprising, the ultimate result is not.
As I wrote last month, the only possible outcome of Ole Miss v. NCAA would involve the resignation, firing or indefinite suspension of Freeze. The NCAA was always going to win this battle. That the Rebels’ athletic administration stood by its football coach in light of an all-out public assault only makes this defeat more bitter for the school.
How will Freeze’s proverbial SEC epitaph read? That depends who’s doing the writing.
He led Ole Miss to its first Sugar Bowl win in nearly 50 years, compiled a 39-25 overall record, beat the legendary Nick Saban — twice — and generally brought college football back to national relevance in Oxford, Miss. The images of Rebels fans rushing the field and climbing the goal posts at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium will forever remain an iconic highlight of the Freeze era.
But were those accomplishments built on a staff that, if the NCAA allegations are true, systemically skirted many of the sport’s rules? A dominant recruiting run fueled Freeze’s surprising on-field success. To his detractors, Thursday’s resignation can only be seen as an admission of guilt, even if his ultimate departure had more to do with personal misconduct.
That’s Hugh Freeze, the football coach. Hugh Freeze, the human being, is a much trickier subject.
Piety was always part of the 47-year-old’s public persona. This does not make Freeze unique among football coaches, but for some of those who most supported him — particularly fans, players and their families — his religious devotion made him appealing in the same way Tim Tebow’s faith did.
Freeze’s decision to bow out of a fight that Ole Miss administrators, players and fans often fought on his behalf, amid some Mike Price-esque accusations unquestionably tarnishes his legacy. There is far too much smoke surrounding this situation for any reasonable person to not shout, “fire!” Freeze preached one thing from his pulpit, and did another backstage.
Nobody is without fault, but Freeze made himself an easy target for ridicule by selling himself as something better.
When we look back upon Rebels football in the 2010s, Freeze’s string of NCAA woes will define it as much as the football team’s run of on-field glory. So will a bumbling PR campaign that desperately tried to paint an embattled coach as the victim.
You want to know who the real victims are here? It’s not Freeze, who made millions as a head football coach in the SEC. It’s not his staff, most of whom should escape this with their careers intact.
The real losers are Ole Miss, its players and its fans.
Freeze (perhaps literally) bought them success on Saturdays for a time. But his players are stuck on a head coach-less team banned from playing in the postseason. His fans, many of them season ticket-holders or donors, are doomed to suffer through a lost season.
And the school, meanwhile, will have to prove to the NCAA that Freeze’s departure marks a legitimate turning point for a program stuck in its crosshairs for many months. Ross Bjork will have to hire a new football coach, who will have to rebuild this program from the ground level and prevent it from drifting into obscurity.
I find it hard to imagine that this is what the likes of Shea Patterson, Van Jefferson and Greg Little signed up for when they faxed their LOIs into the Ole Miss athletic office. The eventual rebuild of Rebels football will be slow and painful for all involved.
Freeze — who all along has self-righteously huffed and puffed about accountability — never lived up to his own words. He never really took ownership of a program that has been gradually slipping into a poisonous bog amid his ridiculous PR charade. The end certainly didn’t come on Freeze’s terms, and perhaps that was deserved.
But, ultimately, the Nutt lawsuit merely hastened the inevitable. Freeze was never going to escape this embarrassing fate.