SANDESTIN, Fla. — Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze told ESPN.com on Monday that he accepts responsibility for the Rebels' NCAA troubles, but adamantly denies that he or anybody on his staff knowingly violated rules.
Ole Miss last week self-imposed the loss of 11 football scholarships over a four-year period from 2015-18 as part of its response to an NCAA Notice of Allegations, stemming from an NCAA investigation into the Rebels' athletic department that began nearly four years ago and turned up 28 rules violations in football, women's basketball and track and field. Of the 13 alleged violations in football, nine were committed on Freeze's watch, and four were the more serious Level I violations.
"The first thing I would say is that I own it. That's part of it when you're the head coach. You take the good with the bad," said Freeze, who's in Sandestin for the SEC spring meetings. "But there's a big difference between making mistakes in recruiting and going out there with the intent to cheat. I don't have any information that anybody on my staff has been involved in any illegal payments to players or offering any inducements to players, and if I did have that information, I would fire them."
Freeze understands that the NCAA cloud over his program may hover for a while longer. Ole Miss has requested that its meeting with the NCAA's Committee on Infractions be delayed while the school further investigates the NFL draft night comments of former offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and whether or not he received extra benefits from staff members.
Freeze declined Monday to discuss what Tunsil meant with his draft night comments or the leaked text messages between Tunsil and Ole Miss assistant athletic director John Miller in which Tunsil asked for money to help with his mother's rent and utilities.
"That's something I can't talk about right now because both sides are still looking into it, but I feel confident with the report we do have from the NCAA that our staff is not involved in any purposeful breaking of the rules," Freeze said. "Have we made mistakes in recruiting? Yes, and we've taken steps to make sure we don't make those same mistakes again. But to say me or anybody on my staff is out there cheating to gain advantage just isn't true."
Three of the four Level 1 violations under Freeze Involve Tunsil or somebody from Tunsil's family allegedly receiving money, free lodging or extra benefits. Tunsil was suspended for seven games last season for his use of loaner vehicles at no cost for a six-month period, and his estranged stepfather, Lindsey Miller, allegedly received $800 from an Ole Miss booster as well as free lodging.
The fourth Level 1 violation under Freeze involves a Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) huddle leader at East High School in Memphis, Walter Hughes, illegally transporting recruits to Ole Miss' campus and that Ole Miss assistant coach Maurice Harris allegedly made contact with the recruits through Hughes. The NCAA considers Hughes an Ole Miss booster even though he's also transported recruits to other SEC schools for unofficial visits. Ole Miss plans to argue that this allegation doesn't rise to a Level 1 charge when it appears before the Committee on Infractions.
The NCAA has also accused Ole Miss of four Level I violations under the previous Ole Miss regime when Houston Nutt was coach. Those involve academic fraud and a former assistant coach, David Saunders, allegedly arranging for fraudulent ACT scores for recruits and another former assistant, Chris Vaughn, communicating with witnesses of an NCAA investigation after being told by the NCAA to refrain from having those conversations.
"The four under the previous staff, we can't do anything about those," Freeze said. "There are nine under me, and as I said, I own them. But when you step back and look at what's in the report, three of the four Level I violations since I've been here didn't involve anybody on our staff, and the five secondary violations are things we've already served penalties for. That's not an excuse and doesn't make it right, and we have to be better. But I take it personally when our reputation is damaged and our school's reputation is damaged, and it's important to look at some of these things in a little different light than what's being portrayed out there."