DESTIN, Fla. — Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze stepped to the podium in the theater of the Hilton SanDestin prior to SEC spring meetings and made his first public comments about the ongoing Ole Miss scandal in which the school self-imposed 11 scholarship reductions over four years.
"I don't believe and have zero knowledge that any of our coaches have ever paid a player," he said. "And if I get that knowledge, there will be problems."
Ole Miss released its response to the NCAA's notice of allegations on Friday. That response specifies nine allegations that took place during Freeze's tenure as its head coach, which began prior to the 2012 season. Of those nine, four are considered Level I violations.
"I stand here today owning the mistakes, but that is what they are and not some staff out trying to buy players," Freeze said.
"There's not a single charge in our letter that charges a staff out trying to buy players."
Freeze noted that of those four Level I violations, only one deals with staff involvement.
"Four are Level I's," Freeze said. "Of those four, three have zero staff involvement. One has a staff involved in it. We look forward to sharing our view in that case when the time is appropriate."
As Jeffrey Wright of RebelGrove.com noted on Twitter, that one allegation involving a member of the staff includes current tight ends coach and offensive recruiting coordinator Maurice Harris, who is charged with arranging contacts from a high school in Memphis through a booster.
Running backs coach Derrick Nix and defensive line coach Chris Kiffin are also alleged to have committed violations that are not considered Level I.
"Their mistakes, in my opinion, did not rise to the level of termination," Freeze said.
Unfortunately for Ole Miss, the process will continue thanks to former offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil's draft night debacle in which video surfaced on his own Twitter account of himself smoking out of a bong and gas mask. In addition, and more critical to the future of Ole Miss, screenshots were posted to Tunsil's Instagram account that suggested payments were made to players from members of the Ole Miss football staff.
Because of that, the school asked to exclude that aspect of the case from the response and to hold off on meeting with the NCAA's Committee on Infractions until it has fully investigated the incident (h/t ESPN's Chris Low). The lack of resolution there has created a cloud that hovers over the Ole Miss program like an offshore storm in the Gulf of Mexico, and forced Freeze to answer questions about paying players even after Ole Miss has self-imposed its penalties.
Tunsil's highly visible draft night drama has cast an even bigger shadow over a program that, on the field, has slowly taken steps forward in each of Freeze's four years in Oxford and earned New Year's Six bowl berths in each of the last two seasons.
The cornerstone of that success was Freeze's 2013 recruiting class that included Tunsil, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and Tony Conner. Since that class signed on the dotted line, Ole Miss—which has never won the SEC West—has finished inside of the top 20 in the 247Sports composite team rankings.
The rise of Ole Miss—seemingly out of nowhere—has injected fuel additive to the notion that the program has to be cutting corners to continue luring high-profile players to it.
"We've rocked the narrative of college football a little bit, and there's obviously some people that don't like that," Freeze said.
But Freeze, who came to the podium at the Hilton with prepared remarks, is steadfast in his defense of his program as one that isn't corrupt, just flawed.
"To me there's a difference in making a mistake and a willful intent to circumvent rules to try and gain an advantage. We have owned these mistakes."
Whether the NCAA will recognize that ownership remains to be seen.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.