The most interesting thing at this point about the NCAA investigation of Ole Miss is how most of the world, including me, has gone from thinking that Bjork, Freeze and Company would probably skate around any serious repercussions to the sudden realization that it’s likely a serious hammer is about to drop on the football program and the school’s athletic department.
How serious? That’s the question. The allegations are so numerous and significant that nobody has a real baseline of comparison from which to evaluate.
No one SI spoke to for this story downplayed the 15 Level I violations. A former committee member, who asked to remain anonymous, has seriously tracked NCAA cases for more than 15 years and couldn’t recall a case with that many. (Violations used to be classified as major and secondary, which makes comparisons imperfect. Now they are broken up from Level I to Level IV. Level I is the most serious). “In terms of sheer numbers, I can’t recall anything that matches this,” the former committee member said. “I just don’t recall anything that’s more serious.”
That’s almost a little scary, if you’re the school.
The other factor that puts the whole episode into uncharted territory is that the NCAA’s enforcement framework was radically changed a few years ago. Ole Miss is the first school to be evaluated in the new context.
… In 2013, the NCAA introduced a new penalty matrix. (It did so with the not-so-subtle headline of, “Violator Beware.”) The idea was to make penalties more consistent, something like federal sentencing guidelines. (If you commit armed robbery, there’s a minimum prison sentence. If you commit a Level I NCAA violation, there’s a consistent punishment).
It’s not that simple, though, as the allegations the Committee finds valid will get classified as aggravated, standard or mitigated. And that nuance ultimately determines the punishment, which leaves a lot of room for variables. Not all of the alleged violations occurred after 2013, so the entire case may not even flow through the matrix.
A handful of cases have gone through the new matrix, but all the people interviewed this week didn’t feel comfortable using those cases to predict what could happen at Ole Miss. “The matrix is kind of baffling, and I understand penalties better than most people,” said the former committee member who asked to remain anonymous. “We have seen a few cases all the way through. We don’t have enough of a body of case law to make any statements or accurate predictions.”
Take a peek at the chart. It’s easy to see how with 15 Level I violations, fans of SEC rivals could project years and years of postseason bans. Alternatively, Rebels supporters could be optimistic about mitigating many of the charges and receiving little more punishment. No one really knows.
The only safe assumption is that this matrix, which the NCAA unveiled in 2013, is about to have its first heavy dose of public scrutiny. “Even with a matrix, you have undecided major issues that have yet to be litigated and decided,” Marsh said. “You still have human beings involved [in the Committee on Infractions].”
Gee, kinda like a playoff selection committee, just with sanctions.
There are only two things for certain at this point. One is that the bleeding is going to continue for a while.
The only consistent thing about NCAA cases is that they unfold slowly. Ole Miss obviously wants this to end as quickly as possible. The school tried to spin the news this week as the end of the investigation.
The reality here is that the hearing before the Committee on Infractions won’t likely happen until the fall. Then there’s an appeals process. And considering the severity of the charges and how much Ole Miss is contesting, it’s hard to imagine things not being appealed. “This is going to be resolved in 2018 if it goes the distance,” Thomas said. “We’re looking at 2018. It’s a matter of when.”
At least we know where Hugh Freeze will be for the next couple of seasons. And that leads to the second thing we know — Freeze may or may not be a dead man walking, but if he’s not left severely crippled by the investigation, that’s gonna leave another mark on the credibility of the NCAA’s enforcement arm. There’s too much expected at this point for a light slap on the wrist to mollify those who expect a message to be sent.
… It’s safe to say that Freeze is fighting for his career. At the least, he faces a potential suspension, much like the ones served by Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, UConn’s Jim Calhoun and SMU’s Larry Brown. “This is an interesting test case under the new rules,” Thomas said. “Football has the most scholarships and the most staff. It does raise the question at some point of how close are we going to hold the head football coach to things that happened down the chain.”
The entire college coaching fraternity viewed Ole Miss’s anomalous recruiting success with skepticism. And there’s a strong curiosity in the coaching world of how the NCAA will handle Freeze. “If it’s a willful and intentional violation of rules, he should not be allowed to coach, “ said a Power 5 coach. “The rule says that coaches can’t coach [when NCAA issues occur]. We’re going to find out about the whole head coach control thing.”
If Freeze survives the NCAA process and potential suspension, he still has to win games at a watered-down program. Ole Miss went 5–7 last year and then lured a recruiting class so poor that Freeze labeled it “a penalty to be under the cloud we’re under.” It’s hard to imagine Freeze surviving the fickle NCAA process and the inevitable dip that Ole Miss is expected to take on the field.
Again, it’s amazing to think about the level of self-confidence Bjork and Freeze projected at the beginning of this process, that they continued to show even after the PR disaster of Laremy Tunsil’s draft night. In retrospect, that looks like nothing more than a bad case of bravado. The check for that nice dinner, it seems, is about to be presented.
As a Georgia fan, it’s not so much that I have anything personal against Ole Miss. I don’t take any pleasure out of what may be coming for the fans of the program or the players, like the incoming class, who are going to pay the price for the indiscretions of others. It’s just that I’d like to see the NCAA, for once, properly go after a program for its wrongdoing (if that’s what’s gone down, of course) in the absence of taking the Georgia Way approach of self-debasement. There’s a message I’d approve.