As a full-service Southeastern Conference blog, we’re here to deliver what you come here for: high-level legal analysis of the lawsuit former Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt filed against his former employer in a Mississippi federal court on Wednesday.
I know, you probably snickered when you saw that Nutt sued Ole Miss alleging that Ole Miss damaged his reputation with false and/or misleading statements in reference to the ongoing NCAA investigation into the Ole Miss football program. There are, obviously, reasons that Nutt has been unable to secure employment as a football coach since leaving Ole Miss, and those reasons have nothing to do with anything people connected to Ole Miss have said about him. But when you’re a head coach who’s won 56 percent of his career games, allegations that you committed NCAA violations certainly don’t help your resume.
So, after reading through the 21-page cause of action, what does the lawyer think? This case appears to have some merit.
(As an aside, Nutt’s counsel is Thomas Mars of Friday, Eldredge & Clark, a respected law firm based in Little Rock. There’s your first clue that this isn’t some frivolous lawsuit: a fly-by-night might not mind filing a bogus claim in exchange for a little media attention, but a law firm such as this has no reason to take on a case unless there’s a very real cause of action.)
At issue is Nutt’s Severance Agreement with Ole Miss
The TL;DR of the cause of action is that, as part of his resignation from Ole Miss, Nutt signed a severance agreement which contained a clause prohibiting Ole Miss (more likely, any party to the agreement) from “making any statement relative to Coach Nutt’s tenure at Ole Miss that may damage or harm his reputation at (sic) a football coach.”
Note the absence of a word: “false.” The severance agreement (which was filed under seal as part of the lawsuit) prohibits Ole Miss from making any statements about Coach Nutt that might damage his reputation, without specifying that the statements be false. This means that, even if the statement that “most of the violations being investigated occurred under Houston Nutt” were true, Ole Miss still couldn’t publicly say that.
Of course, the cause of action also sets out a good case that the statement — that many (or “a majority”) of the allegations occurred under a previous staff or were related to other athletics programs at Ole Miss — is, in fact, false or misleading. Some of that depends on your definition of “many,” obviously, but of the 13 allegations leveled against the Ole Miss football program, nine of them allegedly occurred under Freeze. It’s technically correct that a majority of the 30 allegations were leveled against either the football program for violations under Nutt or against other programs.
But that’s where the word “misleading” comes into play, and that’s also why the cause of action spends a lot of ink on just why Ole Miss might have had a motive to throw Nutt under the bus: to preserve its recruiting class. The cause of action sets forth a pretty good case that whether the statements were technically true or not, the clear intent was to mislead people into believing that the NCAA investigation was mostly about stuff that occurred on Nutt’s watch.
Coaches like Nutt are why severance agreements exist
If you’ve ever wondered why coaches almost never seem to go on the warpath against a former employer, this is why. There are 130 FBS head coaching jobs and, quite obviously, a lot more than 130 men who would like to be an FBS head coach. Even if you include assistant coaching jobs, there are only 1,300 or so full-time coaching jobs at the FBS level — and many of those jobs, particularly outside the Power Five conferences, don’t pay particularly well.
The desire for continued employment in such a market gives coaches a lot of reasons to toe the line. But sometimes, a coach can’t find employment anyway. And sometimes, that coach happens to be a television analyst for a cable network.
In other words, Houston Nutt is exactly why a school like Ole Miss would want a severance agreement preventing the now-former coach from disparaging them. Of course, the only reason a coach would agree to such a thing is because the university agrees to the same thing, and that’s where Ole Miss might be in trouble.
This is some high-level investigatin’
Ole Miss might have gotten away with this if not for FOIA. And if not for the recruits in the room.
Several articles referenced in the cause of action referenced unspecified “sources” telling them that the majority of the allegations occurred under Nutt. But a then-recruit, named in the suit (I won’t name him here, but it’s a current Ole Miss player) spilled the beans to the media, indicating that Freeze himself was telling the same story to recruits.
What’s more, it appears Nutt’s lawyer obtained Ole Miss’s phone records to blow this whole thing out of the water. Of course, it’s an Arkansas-based law firm, so we know that they know how to use FOIA, but this is quite impressive investigatin’. Numerous phone calls between Ole Miss and unnamed journalists, many of these calls initiated by Freeze and/or Ole Miss AD Ross Bjork, immediately preceded said journalists writing articles citing unspecified “sources” delivering the Ole Miss party line — making clear that Ole Miss, in fact, was the source.
This could be a PR disaster for Ole Miss
As if it wasn’t already. But the portrait painted by this cause of action presents Ole Miss in a very unflattering light.
Of course, that’s kind of the point of a lawsuit. Still, if even half of the allegations contained in this lawsuit are true, Ole Miss could have another headache on its hands. The lawsuit paints a portrait of a university and a coaching staff that were willing to tell outright lies to recruits in order to secure their signatures on National Signing Day — but also withholding the Notice of Allegations and telling “off the record” falsehoods to journalists covering the sport in order to keep up appearances.
And in the process, they stained the good name of ol’ Houston Dale Nutt. Stop snickering.