Less than six weeks before Ole Miss is set to kick off its 2017 football campaign, it’s program has been hit with another blow.
The school announced Thursday evening that coach Hugh Freeze has resigned from his post, effective immediately.
During the ensuing press conference both chancellor Jeffrey Vitter and athletic director Ross Bjork detailed Freeze’s resignation, which occurred earlier in the day after an internal investigation. Both said the resignation is not directly connected to the ongoing NCAA investigation that has clouded the program for years.
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“This is a very painful decision,” Vitter said, “but it is the right decision.”
The resignation stems from an internal investigation in which the university discovered a “concerning pattern” personally with Freeze, Bjork said. The school responded to a public records request in which it was asked for Freeze’s phone records over a six-day stretch in January 2017.
Freeze redacted personal calls but Bjork said one, which wasn’t removed, was brought to the school’s attention last week.
According to the school’s investigation, the call lasted less than a minute. Bjork said it was the only time Freeze called the number dating back to his start at Ole Miss in 2011.
“It did not appear at the time to be a part of a pattern,” Bjork said. “We initially attributed the call to a miss-dial number.”
However, Bjork said the school looked into the rest of Freeze’s phone records and “discovered a pattern of conduct that is not consistent with our expectations as the leader of our football program.”
USA Today’s Dan Wolken reported Thursday just before Freeze’s resignation was announced that the number in question was “associated to a female escort service.”
Bjork was asked specifically about the alleged call to an escort service. He declined to delve into Freeze’s personal life.
“His privacy is important, but again, the conduct was just not something that we thought we could continue with him as our head coach,” Bjork said.
In five seasons in Oxford, Freeze had a 39-25 overall record. He was 19-21 in the SEC.
He took over the program after Houston Nutt was fired following a 2-10 season in 2011. Freeze’s first season in Oxford was punctuated by a Birmingham Bowl win that gave him a 7-6 record in his Rebel debut.
Bjork said there is no buyout. Freeze was set to make more than $4.7 million.
Although the resignation is unrelated to the NCAA’s probe, Ole Miss will still need to deal with hefty allegations levied against the Rebels.
Freeze’s program has been under fire for several seasons, dating back to when his highly-touted 2013 signing class raised plenty of eyebrows nationally as to how the Rebels were able to build such a class.
In two Notice of Allegations letters from the NCAA, Ole Miss is accused of 21 charges of academic, booster and recruiting fraud and misconduct. Seventeen of the charges are Level I, which are the most serious. Among the charges, the NCAA accused Freeze of a lack of institutional control. The school already self-imposed multiple penalties, including a one-year bowl ban for 2017.
In addition to being under investigation by the NCAA, Freeze, 47, and Ole Miss were hit with a civil lawsuit from Nutt just before SEC Media Days.
Nutt alleged Freeze and the school created a “false narrative” to place blame on him for the ongoing NCAA investigation. Nutt is seeking compensatory and punitive damages for lost wages, emotional distress, embarrassment and attorney's fees.
Freeze declined to comment about the lawsuit while in Hoover, Alabama, last week.
Gulfport’s Matt Luke named interim head coach
Gulfport native Matt Luke has been named interim head coach.
Luke, who previously served as co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, lettered at Ole Miss from 1995-1998. After serving as a student assistant at Ole Miss in 1999, Luke also made coaching stops at Murray State, Duke and Tennessee.
“Matt is a great coach,” Bjork said. “He’s a leader, he’s a rock, he’s an Ole Miss Rebel, and I’m confident — and especially even more confident after watching him address the team — that he will lead the program and team to this difficult time.
“We will support him in every way.”
In addition to Luke’s promotion, new defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff will be elevated to associate head coach.
A timetable for the search for a new head coach has not been set, Bjork said.
“It’s about the team,” Bjork said. “The team is the focus right now. I told the football staff that the No. 1 thing, the beginning and the end, is the team and that’s all that matters. I haven’t even thought about a search. We had to get a plan in place right now. We start practice in less than two weeks.
“There will be a lot of time to conduct a search for a permanent head coach.”
The Rebels will open their season Sept. 2 against South Alabama.