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Ole Mess: Freeze Forced to Resign

By Matt Smith
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For the third time this century, an SEC head football coach has been forced out in the middle of the offseason.

For the third time this century, an SEC head football coach has been forced out in the middle of the offseason.

Now former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze joined Mike Price (Alabama, 2003) and Bobby Petrino (Arkansas, 2012) on Thursday night when it was announced that the embattled leader of the Rebels was resigning.

USA Today reported Thursday that a lawyer for former Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt, who filed a defamation lawsuit against Freeze and other members of the Ole Miss athletic department last week, informed the university of a January 2016 phone call made from Freeze’s school-issued cell phone to a number linked to a female escort service. The call came during a period from which Nutt’s legal representation had requested phone records from both Freeze and Bjork.

Despite only one call of less than one minute in length to the number in question, Ole Miss looked into Freeze's phone records further, leading to a discovery of personal behavior that was deemed unacceptable.

“We discovered a pattern of conduct that is not consistent with our expectations of the leader of our football program,” athletic director Ross Bjork said Thursday evening. “Coach Freeze admitted the conduct. He offered his resignation and we accepted.”

The knowledge of Freeze’s personal life behavior forced the school to demand his resignation or fire him with cause, protecting the school from any buyout or settlement payments.

Ole Miss is in the midst of a long NCAA investigation into its football program that is expected to conclude sometime this fall. The school self-imposed a bowl ban for the 2017 season in February, but harsher penalties are expected. Ole Miss had publicly supported Freeze throughout the NCAA ordeal, but the possibility of a show-cause penalty from the NCAA left his future in doubt. The resignation was unrelated to this matter, per Bjork and university chancellor Jeff Vitter. 

This decision, given Vitter’s comments noted above, is likely to have no impact on penalties the program receives from the NCAA.

Both parties must move forward in separate directions. Price and Petrino both had new head coaching jobs, at UTEP and Western Kentucky respectively, within nine months of their dismissals from SEC programs. Those coaches were not dealing with NCAA issues however, which will likely be Freeze’s biggest hurdle to returning to the sidelines sooner rather than later.

For Ole Miss, Luke will be the leader for the next four months, but doing enough to have his interim tag removed, a la Ed Orgeron at LSU last year, seems like a stretch. Group of Five coaches expected to be up for Power Five jobs after the season include Memphis’ Mike Norvell, Tulsa’s Philip Montgomery and Troy’s Neal Brown. The attractiveness of the Ole Miss job to that trio and other ladder-climbing coaches is, of course, subject to the conclusion of the NCAA investigation.

Ole Miss and all of its fans have been clamoring for clarity on its future for well over a year now. They didn’t expect it to come at this time and in this manner, but there is no longer uncertainty about whether or not Freeze will be the head coach beyond the 2017 season.

Freeze will be back. When and where is less certain because of the NCAA matter, but good coaches get second chances for mistakes in their personal lives. That will never change.

Ole Miss is now left to pick up the pieces from a wild five-year ride with Freeze. The finish line appeared near just weeks ago, but now Ole Miss has been sent back to the starting gate. With the shocking news of Thursday evening, how long and how steep this new race is is anyone’s guess.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.