HOOVER, Ala. — It's a 10-minute stroll from the campus of Ole Miss, down the circular drive on Ole Taylor Road to Rowan Oak, where famed author William Faulkner dreamed up stories of the Southern conscience.
Even he couldn't have dreamed up one like this.
At just about any college football program outside the SEC, Hugh Freeze would've been fired by now. But there he was Thursday, less than 24 hours after being named in a defamation and breach of contract lawsuit—on top of being a central figure in an NCAA investigation of the Ole Miss program that alleges 21 rules violations—standing at the podium at SEC media days and talking about character and integrity in dealing with adversity.
The adversity created by Freeze.
"I would absolutely love to share my opinion on [the lawsuit]," Freeze said, after spending 16 minutes and using 2,754 words in an opening monologue clearly designed to take up the majority of his time on the dais. "But unfortunately, it's a legal case, and I can't comment on it."
Why should we be surprised?
From the moment Ole Miss was informed it was being investigated by the NCAA, to NFL draft night 2016 when former star lineman Laremy Tunsil said he was paid by Ole Miss, through two NCAA notices of allegations, to being the central figure in the lawsuit filed by former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, the university has publicly and firmly stood behind Freeze.
When you beat Alabama in two of the last three seasons, the stench of it all is easier to stomach.
That's why Freeze is still employed, through everything he's presided over. Wins.
What Nutt and his lawsuit claim—backed by damning phone records—might hurt the persona of Freeze as a God-fearing, character-driven man, but until Ole Miss stops winning games, it won't matter. Everyone will turn a blind eye.
"Hugh is one of the good guys in college football," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said earlier in the morning.
It's getting harder and harder to believe with each passing week.
Ole Miss is in the middle of an NCAA investigation so detailed and damaging that the university and coach are facing a devastating trifecta of allegations: the worst for a program (lack of institutional control), the worst for a coach (failure to monitor) and a third that could prevent Freeze from coaching (a show-cause order) for an indeterminate amount of time.
The initial NCAA letter of inquiry in January 2016 charged Ole Miss with 13 violations. A year later, a second letter of inquiry grew the charges to 21, including a staff member facilitating an Ole Miss booster's $13,000 payment to a high school recruit (who later signed with rival Mississippi State).
This is damaging stuff, and the last thing Freeze needed—after the university self-imposed a bowl ban for the 2017 season and scholarship reductions—was Nutt suing his former employer the day before Freeze arrived at SEC media days and alleging a dirty and slimy scheme Freeze concocted to place blame for NCAA violations on Nutt, whom he replaced in Oxford.
Wait, it gets more devious with each twisting turn.
According to the lawsuit filed by Nutt's attorney Thomas Mars, who spent a decade as the general counsel for Walmart and was director of the Arkansas State Police (translation: he's not filing frivolous lawsuits), Freeze used journalists to promote a narrative that NCAA violations at Ole Miss were primarily connected to Nutt. Mars and Nutt contend Freeze did this to protect his 2016 recruiting class, a group that was ranked No. 5 in the country by Scout.com and included the year's top-ranked quarterback, Shea Patterson.
Per phone records obtained by Mars in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act, 10 days before national signing day, Freeze allegedly called seven journalists to promote the narrative, and in each instance, the journalists wrote stories or tweeted content they attributed to "sources" close to the program.
The Nutt narrative took hold, and Freeze saved his recruiting class. Three months later, Ole Miss released the NCAA's initial notice of allegations—after sitting on it and refusing Freedom of Information requests—and the reality that Freeze was a central figure was exposed. Only two parties can release a notice of allegations: the NCAA (which never does) and the offending school.
In February 2017, a second notice of allegations was delivered to Ole Miss, and among the new charges were the dreaded lack of institutional control and failure to monitor. It was then that the NCAA enforcement staff suggested to the infractions committee that two of the allegations should lead to a show-cause edict for Freeze.
"Integrity is not always doing the right thing," Freeze said Thursday. "But it is when something is done that is not right, you acknowledge it, you own it and you move on from it, and you make the necessary steps that you have to correct it."
Freeze spoke about his team and how they're dealing with the self-imposed bowl ban. He brought in former Navy SEALs to speak to being accountable through adversity.
He spoke about the "lot we have inherited" and that they have caused "in some cases," and how they have to make the most of it.
I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, who is more character-driven and full of integrity than Hugh Freeze?
He sure does know how to beat Nick Saban, though.
In Faulkner's famous short story Barn Burning, the central character, Abner Snopes, is a man cut from power, avoiding all sense of accountability and blaming a world that has wronged him. Those around him are powerless and culpable.
The barn is burning, Ole Miss.
You going to extinguish it or ignore it?
I think we all know the answer.