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On Jan. 29, 2016, as Ole Miss coaches were preparing for a crucial recruiting weekend just ahead of National Signing Day, Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports broke the story that the NCAA had delivered a Notice of Allegations to the school, alleging violations in three sports.
Within minutes, Ole Miss officials including athletics director Ross Bjork, then-football coach Hugh Freeze and other staffers tasked with public relations management went to work, spending significant time that afternoon talking on the phone with reporters, who all reported a similar message: The NCAA’s case was largely about women’s basketball and violations that happened under Houston Nutt.
Whether that legally amounts to defamation and a breach of the non-disparagement language in Nutt’s 2011 separation agreement with Ole Miss will be for the courts to decide. Nutt has filed a second lawsuit — this time in Mississippi state court, after the first try in federal court earlier this year was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds — against Ole Miss on Wednesday, seeking compensatory and punitive damages, attorney’s fees and other relief. And who knows how a judge and perhaps eventually a jury will interpret the information as it applies to the law.
But after reading the 46-page complaint, which contains even more specific information than the first, is there any doubt that Nutt’s initial request — a public apology — was not only reasonable but well deserved?
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Again, from legal perspective, there are contentious facets of this case. Ole Miss will argue that the non-disparagement language applied only to a certain “control group” of people. Moreover, proving that the public narrative in early 2016 had an impact on Nutt’s reputation to the point where he couldn’t land another head coaching job in college football will not be easy.
But this much is true: Anyone who foisted the idea on members of the media that Nutt or violations from the Nutt era were the central theme of the first Notice of Allegations did so without regard for the truth.
And Thomas Mars of the Arkansas-based Friday, Eldredge & Clark law firm made a compelling argument that the misleading public relations campaign was done with a sophisticated level of purpose and coordination.
Bjork, in fact, had retained the services of an outside public relations consultant — Brian Curtis, who runs the Atlanta-based Paradigm Four firm, has sort of a niche business in college sports — and the lawsuit details numerous communications with him documented in public records around those key times.
Mars’ lawsuit says “two-thirds of AD Bjork’s cell phone calls on January 29-30, 2016 were with sports journalists, Coach Freeze, and the three members of the AD’s PR team. Ten of those conversations were between AD Bjork and (Kyle) Campbell, the head of PR hwo reported directly to AD Bjork. … University phone logs show that on a typical day, AD Bjork would have had no more than a few calls with (that group of people).”
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The lawsuit then details a play-by-play of phone calls between Freeze, Bjork and other officials in the inner-circle correlated with information reported by journalists that day.
There was a 13-minute call between Campbell and ESPN’s Chris Low, who later in the day tweeted “I’m told the Ole Miss Notice of Allegations doesn’t contain any surprises. Most of it predates Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss knew it was coming.” There was a call between Freeze and then-Fox Sports (now Sports Illustrated) reporter Bruce Feldman, who cited anonymous sources in saying “the majority of the allegations stem from women’s basketball and track as well as from incidents occurring with the previous Rebels football staff from the Houston Nutt era.” Ed Aschoff of ESPN, who had spoken with Bjork earlier that afternoon, wrote in a news story, quoting an anonymous source, “This is a fraction involving our current football staff.”
And those are just some of the examples cited by Mars, all either extremely misleading or flat-out untrue.
Neal McCready of Rebel Grove, who had spoken with Freeze a week earlier, tweeted on the day of Forde’s report: “The other football-related stuff dates back to the Houston Nutt era. Hearing that stuff is six years old.”
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On his podcast Thursday, McCready admitted that information came directly from Freeze: “Did we discuss the NCAA case? Yes. Did I ask, hey, what’s in it? Yes. Was I told it was mostly Nutt and women’s basketball? Yes. Did I feel misled? Yes. Did it piss me off later? Yes. Was I taking talking points and running? No.”
Full disclosure: I exchanged text messages that day with Campbell and reiterated my position that the school should release the NOA publicly, and until it did I would remain skeptical that the characterization of the allegations being provided by school officials was complete and accurate.
It simply didn’t make sense. If the charges weren’t that bad, why not just get them out there publicly?
Well, it turned out that we got the answer on the Friday before Memorial Day in 2016, when Ole Miss finally released the NOA. At that point, it became obvious the public relations campaign was a sham, designed to convey the message that the NCAA investigation wasn’t going to be a big problem for the school, helping Freeze and staff retain a recruiting class that eventually was ranked No. 7 by rivals.com.
And now that it’s being rehashed, it’s a horrible look for Ole Miss. Moreover, the lawsuit claims that Bjork and Freeze “were the only members of the Athletics Department who were allowed to read the specific allegations in the NOA.” If that’s true, and others in the athletic department were deputized to speak to reporters off the record and disseminate false information at the athletics director’s behest, that could be a major problem for Bjork.
Ole Miss officials didn’t immediately have a comment. Curtis didn’t return a phone call from USA TODAY Sports.
Eventually, they’ll have their chance to respond to the allegations that they damaged Nutt’s reputation. But it doesn’t appear for now that Nutt is going to let it go.
COACHING CAROUSEL CLIPS
►The shocking decision by Gary Andersen to quit on Oregon State in the middle of the season and walk away from $12.6 million remaining on his contract became less shocking after reading a series of text messages he sent to Oregonian columnist John Canzano over the last six weeks.
Setting aside the question of whether the texts were explicitly on or off the record — Canzano later added in his story that “Andersen was aware the texts were going to be published and we communicated on that front (Tuesday),” which falls well short of saying there was consent — it was a fascinating window into his thinking.
And that window reveals somebody who probably shouldn’t get another head coaching job at the FBS level.
While nobody is privy to the dynamics of every relationship between head coaches and reporters/columnists who cover their team, a number of people around the industry have expressed dismay at the lengths to which Andersen threw his coaching staff under the bus in explaining the 1-5 start (and 7-22 overall record at Oregon State).
One particularly jarring text: “I hired the wrong (expletive) guys and are still working our way through a bunch of recruiting years that stunk!! It’s year three! If these (expletives) can’t get it right I will not just say fire them and start over!! That’s not the way to go about it. If I (expletive) it up that bad I will take the bullet and ride off into the sunset! I will stay old school!! I will not die doing this (expletive)!! Stay tuned!”
Another: “I AM FIXING THIS PLACE IF IT KILLS!”
Those texts were neither normal nor indicative of someone with the emotional stability to be coaching at this level. These are hard jobs, public jobs. There’s lots of pressure and heartache, and when you’re the head of the organization, people look to the head coach to be the steady hand.
If Andersen had a vision that he could just walk away from Oregon State and slide into another head coaching job, that story sure didn’t help.
►The Arkansas Democrat Gazette took Bret Bielema’s contract to its in-house lawyers to examine what it would cost for Arkansas to make a coaching change, and it appears that the buyout might be significantly less than what has been reported. Rather than the full $15.4 million, a number that appears in a chart in the contract, it’s actually the basis for a somewhat complicated formula that determines how much he would be owed divided by the total number of months in the contract and then multiplied by the months remaining in the deal, which runs through 2020.
Typically, contracts are more straightforward in setting the payment schedule in case of termination without cause, but Arkansas’ is somewhat unusual, which accounts for the misinformation about the $15.4 million buyout gaining traction in recent weeks.
Sports economist Andy Schwarz reviewed the contract independently and told USA TODAY Sports that by his calculations, Arkansas would owe Bielema around $5.8 million if he’s fired before Jan. 1 of this year.
If that is indeed the case, it puts a much different light on the last half of the season for Arkansas. While there’s still no indication the school is considering a coaching change, Bielema is 10-24 in the SEC and has regressed since 2015. Arkansas suffered a damaging 48-22 loss at South Carolina last weekend to fall to 2-3.
Speaking of Arkansas, athletics director Jeff Long is a name that has gained traction recently in the Nebraska athletics director search, along with Iowa State’s Jamie Pollard. Oregon’s Rob Mullens has also been mentioned by people in the industry. Virginia is the other big athletics director opening at the moment, and one name that has consistently been brought up by those plugged into the search is Army’s Boo Corrigan.
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FAUX PAS OF THE WEEK
At this point, it’s almost like Tennessee’s Butch Jones is playing a parody of himself just to irritate his fan base. Having already uttered classics like “Champions of Life” and “Five-Star Hearts,” Jones added another cheeseball cliché to his repertoire when he introduced the phrase “Leadership Rep” into the college football lexicon.
“You don’t have to get a physical rep to get a rep,” Jones said at his weekly news conference. “You can get a leadership rep.”
Coaches have long talked about “mental reps,” which makes sense. If a player is injured, for instance, they can still be dialed into what’s happening on the field and mentally prepare to play. But “leadership rep” sounds like something out of a Stuart Smalley sketch.
Jones means well, but corny doesn’t play well when you’re not winning.
YOUR WEEKLY HARBAUGH
There has been Jim Harbaugh backlash this week after the Michigan State loss, followed by backlash to the backlash. But here’s the reality: Anyone talking about Harbaugh being under pressure is ridiculous.
Yes, the record against Ohio State and Michigan State isn’t good at 1-4. It should be better. And if it’s not, over time, something will have to give. But we’re not even close to that scenario yet, and you can be sure Harbaugh will never stick around Michigan long enough to get fired. That’s simply not going to happen.
It is equally ridiculous to compare Harbaugh’s 24-7 record to Brady Hoke’s identical 24-7 record to start his tenure. Hoke’s program faced a weaker Big Ten and got worse as time went on. It’s highly unlikely Harbaugh’s team is ever going to go through a 7-13 stretch like the one that got Hoke fired.
Michigan is on solid footing as a program, and the odds are it will break through at some point. Harbaugh is well on his way to winning nine or 10 games at Michigan for the third consecutive season, and Michigan fans would take that kind of “failure” given every time what the program has been over the last 20 years.
DUD OF THE WEEK
If you’ve been paying attention to the way Central Florida is just mercilessly destroying lesser teams, just imagine what the Knights are capable of against the worst team on their schedule. That would be East Carolina, and the Pirates are 36-point underdogs going to Orlando on Saturday. Very rarely do you get this kind of total mismatch: UCF is first nationally in scoring offense at 47.5 points per game, while ECU is dead last in FBS at 47.8 points allowed. Barring something unforeseen, it’s going to be a very good day for dynamic UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton and a really ugly one for the ECU defense.