Greeson: Expectations are cloudy as NCAA comes to Ole Miss

Greeson: Expectations are cloudy as NCAA comes to Ole Miss

July 15th, 2016 by Jay Greeson in Sports - Columns

Mississippi head coach Hugh Freeze speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days, Thursday, July 14, 2016, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Photo by Brynn Anderson

HOOVER, Ala. — In a lot of ways, Thursday as the SEC media event concluded in a suburb of Birmingham was about expectations.

Sure, there was the expected order of finish that would punctuate this annual convergence of cameras, college football craziness and cliches. Though the expectation of accuracy on those picks — which had Alabama topping Tennessee in the SEC title game most frequently among the ballots — seems strained since the media's track record is way more lottery than lock.

As for the expectations for the final trio of coaches speaking, first-year South Carolina boss Will Muschamp went first and exceeded expectations. In fact, in a year when the absence of Steve Spurrier's personality was glaring, Muschamp exceeded all expectations, at least in the personality department.

LSU's Les Miles followed, and for a guy who has been known to eat grass and who launched the former website "Quotable Les Miles" with his memorable one-liners, he certainly met expectations. He spent a few minutes detailing his hopes to help bridge the social and racial divides in our country before quickly turning to summer travel tips and reminding the room that Cuba is a communist country.

Jay Greeson

Jay Greeson

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Then there was Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, who had to be expecting several questions about the offseason of unrest that has landed in Oxford since the first night of the NFL draft.

In fact, Freeze tried to head off that talking point with some opening remarks.

"Before I get into football, I would love to address our NCAA case right now, and as I've said, with the limited amount that I can discuss," Freeze said, "I remain very confident in who we are and our core values and how we do things."

Freeze's comfort level to this point is understandable for all things Ole Miss football. Back-to-back Big Six bowl appearances. Averaging right at 10 wins per season. A Sugar Bowl title. And, according to Freeze, the highest grade point average in program history last fall.

In fact, the first round of the NFL draft was supposed to be the umbrella in a tall and neat Hotty Toddy.

Three Ole Miss Rebels were pegged as first-round picks, led by tackle Laremy Tunsil, who many thought could be the No. 1 overall pick. Less than an hour before the draft, though, old photos of Tunsil smoking marijuana through a gas mask started circulating. Tunsil started falling in the draft, and then another social media nightmare surfaced with online exchanges between Tunsil and some Ole Miss officials that involved potential NCAA violations.

Tunsil fell to No. 13 overall — costing him millions of dollars — and the NCAA was on its way to Oxford.

"Of course I was upset about that, but I didn't let that cloud my happiness for those guys who were realizing their dreams and seeing all their hard work pay off," Ole Miss senior tight end Evan Engram said of the draft-day tumbles of Tunsil, Robert Nkemdiche and Laquan Treadwell. "Those are our brothers, and as mad as I was at all that crap that was being said, I was still happy for them for making the NFL."

All three of those players became millionaires in the draft this past spring, and when they — along with Engram and safety Tony Connor — came to Oxford for the start of the 2013 season, there were many whispers and questions about how Freeze landed such a star-studded class.

In fact, Freeze even challenged anyone with evidence about violations in the Ole Miss program to come forward. It was a bold challenge, and with the benefit of hindsight, one Freeze wishes he could take back.

"Sometimes you make decisions that probably aren't the sharpest," he said Thursday. "Like I said earlier, I did mean that (tweet) with sincerity. I really want everyone around our program and everyone within our program to do everything the right way.

"And so that tweet was, you know — the intent was, man, let's find out what's going on and look into it. Do I regret doing it? Absolutely."

How the Rebels move forward this season almost assuredly will be unaffected by the NCAA background noise. First, the Rebels are talented, and they have the SEC's best quarterback in Chad Kelly. Secondly, the governing body of college sports moves at a slothlike pace. Finally, the issues at North Carolina and Baylor and elsewhere are ahead of Freeze and Co. in the pecking order of penalties.

Will Ole Miss issue some kind of pre-emptive penalty, not unlike some of the other major programs have done when facing the NCAA spotlight?

Freeze said Thursday that he is looking forward in a lot of ways to his program's day in court, so to speak.

"We believe our response to the Notice of Allegations stands on its own. As a head coach, I understand that I'm held accountable for the things that happened within our building and even outside the walls of our building," he said. "Our compliance team is working extremely hard to seek a resolution to this case — and also into the events from NFL draft night — and we look forward to the conclusion of this entire process. No one looks forward to that more than I do."

One SEC coach anonymously told Sports Illustrated he believes the NCAA needs to stay true to the claim of holding head coaches ultimately responsible for infractions, whether they knew of them or not.

"And we will learn from where we made the mistakes, of course, but, you know, there's a lot of things we did right also. And it still doesn't always work out and you don't always have control over every aspect outside of the walls of your building," Freeze said. "We look forward to that day, we really do, where we can say here's our program, here's what brought us to this allegation, and we will accept the ruling when it comes."

As far as expectations for the next chapter for Freeze and the Rebels, well, since the NCAA now is involved, that's almost as impossible to predict as the SEC standings.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com and 423-757-6343.

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