HOOVER, Ala. – Hugh Freeze kept referencing his faith and quoting scripture Thursday as he answered a series of questions about the 13 NCAA allegations of rules violations levied against the Ole Miss football program.
One unspoken proverb he should’ve heeded in February of 2013: Be careful what you wish for.
Back then, just days before the Rebels signed an eyebrow-raising recruiting class ranked seventh nationally by Rivals.com and featured three 5-star prospects, Freeze was rankled by whispers that he was cheating to get it done. Ole Miss didn’t land this much elite talent, until suddenly it did.
“If you have facts about a violation,” Freeze tweeted three and a half years ago, “send it to compliance.”
He included the Ole Miss compliance office’s email address. Oops.
Thursday, at SEC Media Days, Freeze stood before the assembled media facing an uncertain future. His school has spent $1.5 million on outside counsel to compile a 154-page response to the NCAA’s notice of 28 allegations – including some for women’s basketball and track and field – in which it acknowledged a violation did occur in 27 instances.
Freeze and Ole Miss await their day in college-athletics court, an appearance before the NCAA’s committee on infractions. The Rebels football program already has taken some medicine, self-imposing a 10-scholarship reduction over the next three seasons, hoping to mitigate the damage.
Seems like Freeze would like to take back that 2013 call to bring on the evidence, now that so much has piled up. So I asked him Thursday.
“Yeah,” said Freeze, who deserves a measure of credit for the moment of candor. “Sometimes you make decisions that probably aren’t the sharpest. … That tweet was, you know – the intent was, ‘Man, let’s find out what’s going on and look into it.’ Do I regret doing it? Absolutely.”
Because then came the NCAA investigation – which turned up, among other things, an allegation that former football assistants committed ACT exam fraud involving three recruits – and Rebels star Laremy Tunsil (a member of that vaunted ’13 signing class) admitting on NFL draft night that he took money from Ole Miss coaches.
And so there Freeze stood Thursday, quoting scripture and surely praying that sanctions don’t scorch his program like hellfire.
“As a head coach, I understand that I’m held accountable for the things that happened within our building – and even outside the walls of our building,” which should, as they say, put the fear of God into Freeze. “If you’re going to be a person of faith that I say I am – that doesn’t mean I’m perfect; it means that’s why I need it – man, you really hold onto, like, James 1: You consider it all joy when you encounter these trials and tribulations.”
The question now, of course, is whether he’ll find absolution. Freeze balked at a reporter’s question Thursday about him previously indicating confidence that the NCAA will not find fault with him personally.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever said ‘confident,’” he said. “You have to be able to prove that you’ve set a tone of compliance, which I’m confident that I’ve done that. But ultimately, that’s not my say.
“There will come a day where we get to stand before the committee of infractions, which are the ones that matter, and we will be held accountable for any wrongdoing that is found, and that’s the way it should be. We don’t want it to be. I have zero interest – zero interest – in cutting corners to be successful.”
Except, maybe Ole Miss did. With righteous indignation, Freeze snapped at those who dared insinuate such a thing back in 2013. His tone had changed dramatically by Thursday afternoon.
“We did dot a a bunch of I’s and cross a lot of T’s,” he said. “Could we have been better? Obviously we could … and we will learn from where we made the mistakes, of course. But there’s a lot of things we did right also.”
Soon, that will be weighed on the scales of NCAA justice. The evidence Freeze dared doubters to send is now in.
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.