Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss’ football program are under review by NCAA. 

For those of us who reported the NCAA’s two takedowns of Ole Miss football in the 1980s and 1990s, this Louisville basketball fiasco really resonates. Indeed, Louisville basketball, to use a poker analogy, sees Ole Miss football’s past indiscretions and raises them infinitely.

Many will remember that Ole Miss received major NCAA sanctions two times in a seven-year period. Most of the violations were what we have come to expect in these NCAA cases: gifts to players, including cash and at least one car. But there was also the rather shocking revelation that Ole Miss football recruits had been transported to Memphis where they attended strip clubs. Among the rules broken was that recruits had been taken more than 30 miles off campus.

Rick Cleveland

Boy, did Louisville get around that one. Louisville brought the strippers to the Louisville basketball dormitory and then handed out condoms to the recruits for private sessions with the strippers. The recruits were minors. One was 16.

Incredibly, part of Louisville’s defense is that the strippers and sex weren’t all that expensive. Louisville contended that the alleged $5,400 spent was not a significant sum. The NCAA was not amused.

Louisville, naturally, has been hammered. Most significantly, Louisville, pending appeal, likely must vacate a Final Four appearance in 2012 and a national championship in 2013. (Do you hold a ceremony for taking down banners? Doubt it.)

The most significant comparison to the ongoing NCAA investigation of Ole Miss football is the NCAA’s treatment of Louisville head basketball coach Rick Pitino. Louisville’s defense was that paying for strippers and prostitutes was the work of one rogue employee and that nobody else, most certainly not Pitino, knew about it.

Ole Miss has maintained that Hugh Freeze similarly knew nothing of the Rebels’ rule breaking, some to which Ole Miss already has conceded.

The NCAA, in its findings against Louisville made public Thursday, says it doesn’t matter whether Pitino was ignorant of what was going on. The NCAA says it is Pitino’s job to know what was going on and that if he didn’t know, then he should have. Pitino has been charged with “failure to monitor his program” and suspended five conference games. Again, this is pending appeal. (One wonders why Louisville would appeal this. Considering the transgressions, it seems the proverbial slap on the wrist.)

Michael McCann, a professor of law at the University of New Hampshire who writes about sports law for Sports Illustrated and lectures on a regular basis at Mississippi College School of Law, was asked about any possible parallels between the Louisville and Ole Miss cases.

Michael McCann

“It’s hard to know if and how closely the NCAA will draw a parallel between Pitino and Freeze given that the underlying facts and allegations in the Louisville and Ole Miss controversies are so different,” McCann wrote in an email. “That said, I think Freeze and, by extension, Ole Miss should be concerned that the NCAA is willing to punish coaches for failing to learn that players and staff committed NCAA violations.

“At least based on the Pitino decision, it seems clear that in the NCAA’s view, the responsibilities of a head coach include closely monitoring what occurs in and around a program.,” McCann continued. “A coach saying he or she doesn’t know what staff and students are up to is no longer a viable defense, it seems. If the NCAA applies this more extensive view of a coach’s responsibilities to Freeze, it would undermine part of his and Ole Miss’s defense and put him in jeopardy of facing a suspension.”

The football equivalent of a five-conference basketball game suspension would be two. We shall see.

And it remains to be seen how many victories Ole Miss will be asked to forfeit. A Sugar Bowl? Two memorable wins over Alabama?

And does such forfeiture really matter if no championship is involved? I mean, Ole Miss players are not likely to give back their Sugar Bowl rings.

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Rick Cleveland

Rick Cleveland

Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 12 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.