After five seasons, Hugh Freeze has resigned as head coach at Ole Miss just two weeks before camp opens, the school announced Thursday evening. Freeze resigned Thursday afternoon after "a pattern of misconduct" became apparent in reviewing his phone records, Ole Miss chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said in a press conference. "In our analysis, we discovereda pattern of personal conduct inconsistent with the standard of expectations for the leader of our football team," AD Ross Bjork said. Bjork said Freeze did not deny the misconduct.
Bjork said Ole Miss would have fired Freeze if he did not resign, and that he leaves the school with no buyout or settlement.
The resignation comes as the school fights both an expansive NCAA inquiry into violations committed by the Rebels' football program and a subsequent lawsuit from former coach Houston Nutt claiming that Ole Miss has improperly pinned said NCAA violations on Nutt.
Nutt's lawsuit contends Ole Miss AD Ross Bjork, SID Kyle Campbell and Freeze conducted a smear campaign against him, contacting prominent local and national journalists and feeding them off-the-record information that the NCAA investigation implicated Nutt and not Freeze.
The lawsuit has hit the discovery phase, which led to tonight's news. That's where this report from USA Today's Dan Wolken comes in, and hold on to your hats.
On July 13 — one day after Nutt filed a federal lawsuit against Ole Miss alleging that the school violated the terms of its severance agreement — Nutt’s attorney, Thomas Mars, sent an e-mail to Lee Tyner, the school’s general counsel, referencing a “phone call Coach Freeze made that would be highly embarrassing for all of you and extremely difficult to explain.”
The call, which was made on the evening of Jan. 19, 2016, to a Detroit (313) area code, lasts just one minute, according to e-mails exchanged between the two parties. But the phone number is associated with several Web sites advertising a female escort based in Tampa, Fla., USA TODAY Sports has independently confirmed. The phone number has been disconnected.
According to Mars, the records do not show Freeze immediately redialing a different or similar number, nor do other calls to a 313 number appear in the phone records covering the days Mars requested.
Here's Yahoo's Pat Forde:
Yahoo Sports inquired with Freeze and athletic director Ross Bjork about a call at 8:34 p.m. on Jan. 21, 2016, to a Detroit number that is linked via various websites to a Florida-based escort service. Freeze told Yahoo last Friday that the call had been brought to Ole Miss administrators’ attention by former coach Houston Nutt’s attorney, Thomas Mars, and that they had questioned him about it. Freeze told Yahoo he had no idea why the call was on his phone records.
“I’ve got no idea, to be honest,” Freeze said. “I was in an 813 area code and that was a 313 number, I think that might have been a misdial. I don’t think there was even a conversation. There’s nothing to it.”
Yahoo Sports obtained Freeze’s phone records from Mars, whose client is suing Ole Miss for breach of contract. The call only lasted one minute, raising the possibility that it was a wrong number.
Freeze said he had the opportunity to redact numbers from his phone logs after a freedom of information request was made by Mars for his cell record. He said if there were anything nefarious about the call, he would have redacted it.
“If I was trying to hide something, I would have,” Freeze said. “That call shows up nowhere else on my records. There is no story to that one.”
Bjork told Yahoo on Friday that after receiving the information from Mars, the school had pulled records of Freeze’s cell calls and plowed through 39,000 calls without finding another instance of a call to the 313 number. However, the school kept digging through the records and must have found additional troubling information.
And here's ESPN's Mark Schlabach:
Bjork separately told ESPN that once university officials dove deeper into Freeze's phone records on a university-provided cell phone, going back as far as shortly after he was hired in 2012, they started finding more of a pattern with phone calls of the nature USA Today earlier reported after an open-records request.
"Once we looked at the rest of the phone records we found a pattern," Bjork told ESPN. "It was troubling."
Let's now return to this passage of Nutt's lawsuit.
"It is common knowledge among sports journalists that Coach Freeze does not take kindly to criticism," the filing reads. "Since the moment the NCAA investigation was first made public, Coach Freeze has distinguished himself from other Division I head football coaches by (a) exhibiting features that are massively defensive, (b) going to extraordinary lengths through social media and otherwise to promote his self-image as a deeply spiritual Godly man who's done nothing wrong and being persecuted."
And now that same lawsuit has a phone call from Freeze's university-issued cell phone to a Tampa escort service.
Assistant head coach/offensive line coach Matt Luke has been named interim head coach for the season. He will remain as interim head coach through the 2017 season. "He provides the level of enthusiasm that we need," Bjork said. Defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff has also been promoted to associate head coach.
Freeze enjoyed a meteoric rise through the coaching ranks, rocketing from NAIA Lambuth University to Ole Miss within a 4-season span.
He enjoyed a 39-25 mark in his five seasons as the Ole Miss head coach, taking a program that completely bottomed out -- 2-10, 0-8 in the SEC in Nutt's final season -- to back-to-back wins over Alabama and a long-awaited Sugar Bowl victory to close the 2015 season. The Rebels sunk to 5-7 last fall and self-imposed a bowl ban for the 2017 season.
As always, stay tuned to The Scoop for the latest.