When they heard a bookstore here was hosting their favorite author — the one who broke story after story about the NCAA investigation of recruiting violations at Ole Miss, and then uncovered the phone call to an escort service that toppled a coach — Mississippi State fans from across the region made the time.
A car salesman took a break in the middle of his shift to get his copy signed, confessing this was the first book he had read since college. Three women in their 50s, avid followers of the author’s work covering Mississippi State recruiting, asked if he’d had any death threats lately and expressed concern about his safety. In what has become a common occurrence, one Mississippi State fan got one book signed for himself and then placed a stack of additional copies on the table — taunting gifts for friends and relatives who root for Ole Miss — and asked the author to write, in each copy, “You deserve it.”
In a normal year, the Egg Bowl coinciding with Thanksgiving would cause stress for those planning holiday gatherings across this state, raising concerns that passions inflamed by the Ole Miss-Mississippi State rivalry could inspire altercations over the dinner table. This year, those concerns are particularly acute, thanks to Steve Robertson, a Mississippi State recruiting reporter and author of “Flim Flam: The Truth Behind the Blind-Faith Culture that Led to the Explosive NCAA Investigation of Ole Miss Football.”
The book is the story behind how Robertson, a 45-year-old father of four and lifelong Mississippi State fan who lives in Starkville, became the go-to source for updates on the NCAA’s yearslong investigation of Ole Miss football, and then unwittingly uncovered the evidence that led to former Rebels coach Hugh Freeze’s ouster this summer.
As far as Robertson knows, his story of a fan of one team figuring prominently in events that heighten tensions in a rivalry is without precedent in college football history, unless you count Harvey Updyke, the Alabama fan who poisoned the iconic oak trees overlooking Toomer’s Corner at Auburn.
“And I reject that comparison on principle. That guy’s crazy, and I was doing journalism,” Robertson said while driving around Starkville one day recently. “But yeah, that’s the only thing I can think of.”
A native of Columbia, a small city in southern Mississippi, Robertson worked in management for a retail furniture company before striking out as a recruiting reporter for Gene’s Page, a Mississippi State fan site affiliated with 24/7 Sports. He broke the stories of big-time commitments, including future star defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and quarterback Dak Prescott, and developed a strong following for his podcast, The Boneyard.
Robertson cuts a bit an unusual profile, with his arms and hands covered in tattoos referencing his twin loves: Mississippi State and 1980s hair metal bands. (Acts referenced among Robertson’s tattoos include Motley Crue, Warrant, Ratt, Whitesnake and Ozzy Osbourne.)
“I know, I look like something out of a Korn video,” he said.
Among Ole Miss fans, Robertson acquired the nickname “Rose Bowl,” a mocking reference to his prediction that the 2001 Mississippi State team would win the Southeastern Conference and play in the BCS championship game in Pasadena. The Bulldogs finished 3-8 that season.
Like many Mississippi State fans, Robertson looked on with suspicion in 2013 when Ole Miss landed one of the top recruiting classes in the country. Then he started getting tips about an NCAA investigation that, Robertson claims, he repeatedly tried to pass along to reporters at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, among other papers. He couldn’t get a reporter interested, he said, so he started telling his audience what he was hearing, via his podcast and social media.
As tips kept coming in, Robertson started filing open records requests at Ole Miss in an attempt to learn the identities of the boosters involved in the NCAA investigation. When the university would release documents only with names redacted, Robertson took Ole Miss to the state ethics commission, arguing the school was violating the state’s open records law.
He won, forcing Ole Miss to disclose the names of more than a dozen boosters and Oxford-area businesses accused of providing impermissible benefits to Rebels recruits. The Clarion-Ledger story about the disclosures cited Robertson’s legal battle.
As Robertson’s news of public records battles with Ole Miss circulated, one of his friends connected him with someone else engaged in a legal tussle with the university: Thomas Mars, an Arkansas attorney who represented former Ole Miss football coach Houston Nutt.
As the NCAA investigation had progressed, several news stories citing anonymous sources reported that Nutt was largely responsible for the violations. Nutt, believing Freeze and others at Ole Miss were the anonymous sources, filed a defamation lawsuit against the school.
Mars needed help sifting through Freeze’s phone records, obtained through an open records request, and Robertson agreed to help. The men wanted to see if Freeze had spoken with reporters around the time Ole Miss received an updated notice of allegations from the NCAA on Jan. 23, 2016. They decided to request Freeze’s phone records for the day before through the day after. Mars asked for the wrong days, though: Instead of asking for Jan. 22-24, he requested Jan. 19-21.
Robertson searched through the records anyway, and there, on Jan. 19, he saw a number with a Detroit area code. Robertson typed the number into Google, and results showed the number was linked to a series of ads for a Tampa-area escort service. Ole Miss, prompted by Mars, reviewed more of Freeze’s university phone records and discovered a pattern of similar phone calls. On July 20, within days of Robertson’s discovery, Freeze resigned.
“The phone record heard around the world,” Robertson said.
Around Oxford, Freeze was revered both for beating Alabama twice in three years and for his public persona as a pious Christian. His resignation left the program reeling. Ole Miss is 5-6 this season and opened as 17-point underdogs to 8-3 Mississippi State in Thursday night’s game.
Robertson said his lawyer has advised him to avoid visiting Oxford for the foreseeable future.
“He says if anything ever happens, we won’t be able to find a witness to support my version of the events,” Robertson explained.
Although Freeze is gone, the NCAA’s enforcement case against Ole Miss continued. The NCAA’s Committee on Infractions held a hearing on the case in September and could issue its ruling any day.
Among Mississippi State fans at the signing, there was a deep sense of euphoria at Robertson’s role in bringing about Freeze’s downfall. One man told Robertson he was his hero. Another asked for his email, so he could send along other tips about Ole Miss recruiting violations.
After the signing, Robertson read a few passages from the book and then took questions.
One man, who wore a “Rose Bowl Was Right” shirt, stood and shook the book with reverence.
“I just want to tell you to keep doing what you’re doing,” he said. “There are generations of Mississippi State faithful that are so thankful for this book.”
Robertson’s publisher, a white-haired man in jeans and a denim shirt, stood in the background, cheerily discussing sales figures. “Flim Flam” — named for a line in Ole Miss’ Hotty Toddy Cheer — debuted No. 1 on the “Mississippi reads” list in the Clarion-Ledger. Plans for a sequel are in the works.
When the publisher learned he was speaking with a reporter, however, he asked his name not be used, out of concern the revelation that he was involved with the book would ruin business relationships with Ole Miss fans. He specifically set up the publishing house under a corporation that didn’t list his name, he explained, to avoid a paper trail connecting him to the book.
“It’s a real good book, and we’re real proud of it,” the publisher said. “I just thought it best I stay incognito on this.”