Will Ross Bjork and Hugh Freeze survive? Will Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter be strong enough to handle his AD, coach and the mess in Oxford?
Is there anything that stirs more passion in Mississippi than a heated political discussion or campaign? Of course there is and the easy answer is SEC football, in particular the rivalry between Ole Miss and Mississippi State. When NCAA allegations were announced against Ole Miss athletics about a year ago, a firestorm of denials, finger-pointing, defiance, charges of persecution by the NCAA, a lot of spin control by Ole Miss and much, much more erupted. The volume increased recently with additional and very serious allegations against Ole Miss football. New Chancellor Jeff Vitter, Athletic Director Ross Bjork and Head Football Coach Hugh Freeze filmed a 20 minute video to discuss the allegations, how Ole Miss would respond and announced a self-imposed bowl ban for 2017 and that the school would forfeit almost $8 million in SEC postseason revenue. While discussing the video with a friend, I made the mistake of calling it a press conference. I was quickly corrected. It was not a press conference and reporters were not invited so no questions by the press took place. The situation at Ole Miss has received widespread national coverage. While the final outcome may not be known for another year, the overwhelming consensus is the Rebels will suffer more severe penalties from the NCAA. It has been argued the NCAA wants to make an example of Ole Miss and that the university’s pre-emptive self-imposed penalties were a self-serving appeasement that won’t satisfy the NCAA. The most interesting speculation is how the investigation will impact Vitter, Bjork
and Freeze. Of course, Freeze has drawn the most attention. At best his reputation has been tainted and at worst he will be fired. Some have even suggested he would already be fired except the Rebels want the NCAA to show cause so Freeze can be dismissed without a big buyout of his multi-million dollar contract. Remember, early in the investigation, an indignant, almost self-righteous Freeze challenged anyone to report any football recruiting violations if they had proof. Many also don’t see how AD Bjork can survive. The NCAA allegations include 15 Level I violations, the most serious, including “lack of institutional control” and a lack of compliance. While it may be small potatoes compared to the alleged football violations, under Bjork’s tenure, the Rebels’ track and field and women’s basketball program had already been hit by NCAA violations. I don’t think there is much doubt that Bjork is in almost as much trouble as Freeze. And what about Chancellor Vitter? He is new to the Oxford campus, but in last week’s video he disputed the most serious allegations against Ole Miss and backed both Bjork and Freeze. If the Ole Miss defense of Bjork and Freeze fails, at best, Vitter will have egg on his face.
The betrayal impacts more than Ole Miss athletes
While there is little doubt Ole Miss will receive more punishment from the NCAA, there is also no question the recruiting violations are a major blow to Rebel football. A lot of Ole Miss athletes will suffer, including many who did not receive under the table benefits. Vitter, Bjork and Freeze will take hits to varying degrees, but the real betrayal is the Ole Miss family who love and support their school. As one prominent Ole Miss graduate told me last week, a lot of reputations will be stained, but some of the alumni responsible for serious recruiting violations and handing out cash to induce high school prospects will mostly get off without any punishment or public embarrassment.
Vinnie was told he could join “the club”
I have gotten to know a very nice, elderly gentleman named Vinnie. Vinnie was a Major League Baseball scout. He was originally from New Jersey but lived in Meridian for three years. Vinnie loved to play tennis, and a number of times he played with a Meridian favorite son, the late Congressman Sonny Montgomery. He also played regularly with a school assistant principal. One day the school administrator told Vinnie his club now accepted Italians into its membership and he was invited to join. The “club” was the Ku Klux Klan. Vinnie, of course, turned down the generous membership offer of KKK membership.