For years, as the NCAA's investigation of Ole Miss lumbered on, fans of the Rebels wondered when the school's exemplary cooperation would end and the gloves would come off. After the response issued Tuesday afternoon, it appears that period of cooperation has ended and the tide has turned towards Ole Miss going on the offensive.
Rebels fans (a group to which I belong, but don't necessarily completely agree or disagree with this train of thought) paint the investigation that has taken place over the last several years, after starting out as an unrelated investigation into women's basketball and track and field, as a witch hunt.
NCAA apologists would like to portray the inquisition as the investigatory arm of the entity fulfilling its mission by turning over as many leaves as possible.
The truth, as usual, is probably somewhere in between and could have ramifications for years to come for both the NCAA and Ole Miss, as well as potentially other SEC institutions.
Despite the (at the time) ongoing investigation, Hugh Freeze was universally held in high esteem by Ole Miss and its fans after leading the Rebels to the 2016 Sugar Bowl, the second access bowl appearance in as many years.
After finishing 5-7 and dead last in the SEC West in 2016, some of the shine has come off of the Freeze tenure, investigation or not. The investigation lingered over the 2016 season, but the hearing with the Committee on Infractions should be around the beginning of the 2017 season and could affect the season either positively or negatively depending on the outcome.
Arguably, Ole Miss has one of the largest variances in possible outcomes in 2017. A more expanded preview will come here at Team Speed Kills in the upcoming months, but with an experienced offensive line in front of Shea Patterson, the offense should still be very good. If the defense can get better defensive line play and any semblance of linebacker play, the high end outcome looks to be about 10-2. An early road loss at Cal could potentially set the Rebels off on a lengthy losing streak with 3-9 not looking impossible.
A bad outcome in Indianapolis and a poor on-field season would almost give Ole Miss no choice but to cut ties with Freeze. But at that point, after publicly backing him throughout years of investigation, would the administration try to ride out the probation period and give Freeze a chance to rebuild with his new staff which will largely be entering its second season?
No one really knows the answer to this question, I suspect including Ole Miss Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter and Athletic Director Ross Bjork. Neither Vitter nor Bjork hired Freeze (Bjork was hired around the same time as Freeze through a hiring committee while Vitter took office in 2016), so they have no loyalty to “their guy,” but have been backing him without fail. Today's formal response does little to appear that the university and its leadership have swayed from that strategy of supporting Freeze unequivocally.
After the Miami/Nevin Shapiro investigation caused a shake-up of the NCAA investigatory department, North Carolina and Ole Miss are the first high profile schools to have cases slated to go before the Committee on Infractions. North Carolina’s case alleging academic fraud has been fought throughout the process by UNC as outside the purview of the NCAA’s remit as they argue it is more of an academic issue and that the classes on offer were available to all students rather than impermissible benefits available only to athletes.
With North Carolina fighting back and Ole Miss appearing ready to go to war in Indianapolis, what happens to the NCAA enforcement process if it appears that it takes a pair of notable losses in cases which have stretched several years? Does the NCAA blow up the investigation process again? Would this be the final impetus for Power Five schools to break away and form a new governing body?
On the other hand, if harsher than expected penalties come down on Ole Miss and/or North Carolina, does a newly emboldened enforcement department continue to use the tools it established in the Ole Miss process in other potential investigations including immunity interviews of athletes at other universities?
Other NCAA Schools
Many of the additional violations which were alleged in the revised notice of allegations earlier in 2017 were based off testimony from redacted prospective student athlete #39, widely reported as being Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis. These allegations include arguably the biggest bombshell of the entirety of the investigation, payment by a booster of $10,000 to Lewis along with monthly payments for a period of several months while he was a recruit.
Ole Miss is fighting most of the allegations stemming from Lewis, generally due to what they perceive as a lack of evidence and inconsistencies with Lewis' interviews. However, it is the nature of those interviews for which Lewis reportedly received immunity which could cause consternation amongst other NCAA schools. The response from Ole Miss paints Lewis as a seemingly disgruntled recruit that signed with a rival school and, if those charges are upheld by the Committee on Infractions, that strategy will be used by the NCAA for future investigations.
That cannot be a comforting thought to coaches and administrators at any school worrying about what they may not know their boosters are doing or of which they are accused. Based on Ole Miss’ denial of the NCAA having proof of most of the most serious accusations involving Lewis, if those charges are upheld without additional proof from the NCAA that should send a shudder down every major NCAA school.