Stay tuned in Ole Miss’ NCAA case

Published 12:01 pm Monday, May 30, 2016

The first part of the speculation is over.

With most fans and supporters of Ole Miss football spending the last four months claiming the end result won’t be that bad while other fan bases wondering how a usual afterthought in the Southeastern Conference all of sudden started recruiting and winning big under Hugh Freeze were convinced the hammer was about to be dropped, everybody saw everything when Ole Miss finally released the Notice of Allegations it received from the NCAA back in January along with its response Friday.

Truth is it’s likely going to end up somewhere in the middle.

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Some of the 13 alleged rules violations in football are serious — some very serious. Eight of the allegations are deemed Level I infractions, the most serious in the eyes of the NCAA.

But much of that wasn’t speculation at all.

If you didn’t know before Ole Miss showed its hand that former offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil and current safety C.J. Hampton were given free use of loaner cars by Cannon Motors and kept them too long (and that Tunsil got an interest-free promissory note on a down payment for another vehicle), then you haven’t been paying attention and probably aren’t reading this column. Both sat out games last season because of it.

The notice did reveal that Tunsil’s stepfather got at least $500 from a booster in 2014 and that assistants Chris Kiffin and Maurice Harris either paid for trips, meals and lodging for recruits and their families on visits or arranged for them to get those things for free. Another assistant, running backs coach Derrick Nix, is alleged to have helped arrange for a recruit to receive the same impermissible benefits in the summer of 2010, though Ole Miss disagrees with the allegation against Nix as well as the degree of Harris’ involvement and will have its chance to argue anything it wants in regards to the NCAA’s findings in a future hearing with the Committee on Infractions (COI).

There’s also the most egregious offense of academic fraud involving two of former coach Houston Nutt’s staffers, David Saunders and Chris Vaughn, whose well-documented roles in funneling recruits to Wayne County High School in the summer of 2010 to receive fraudulent ACT scores in order to try to get them into Ole Miss got Saunders an eight-year show-cause penalty from the NCAA and Vaughn fired from his last job as Texas’ defensive backs coach with surely more to come for him.

Loose end

What wasn’t clear before the school released the documents was whether its investigation into Tunsil’s draft-night claim that he was paid by someone on staff at Ole Miss was already a part of the NCAA’s initial probe. It wasn’t.

Which means it could be a while before the case is finally closed.

Ole Miss admitted in that letter Friday the leaked screenshot of text exchanges between Tunsil and assistant athletic director for football operations John Miller, which at one point showed Tunsil asking for money to pay for rent and family bills, was “new information.” The NCAA has 60 days to respond to Ole Miss’ response, which the school submitted on April 21, and then start the COI hearing, but the school has asked that its hearing be taken off the summer docket so that it can finish looking into the situation.

So now the rest of the speculation begins.

The school has worked with the NCAA during the four-year investigation and has done what it can to get out in front of it. It fired the former head coaches of the other two programs — women’s basketball and track and field — involved in this mess, stripped itself of 11 football scholarships over the next four years, disassociated boosters and put itself on three years of probation, making it clear in its response it tried to use precedent set forth in other NCAA cases with similar offenses in an effort to be proactive with its own penalties.

But the NCAA rarely accepts a school’s self-inflicted punishment as the end game. Additional penalties are likely. More scholarship reductions? A postseason ban? Discipline for coaches, including Freeze?

Freeze isn’t implicated in any of the wrongdoing, but new NCAA rules still allow for head coaches to be suspended for up to a year for violations committed by their staff. Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim was suspended nine games this past season for what the NCAA deemed was a failure to monitor the program.

Maybe Ole Miss can explain away those texts between Tunsil and Miller to the NCAA’s satisfaction. If it can’t, more allegations are sure to come, bringing with them more uncertainty for a program and a fan base that are ready for all of this to be over.

Stay tuned.

Davis Potter is the sports editor of the EAGLE. You can contact him at Follow him on Twitter at @DPotterOE.