SEC spring football practice is nearing and it looks like Ole Miss commander Hugh Freeze and the Volunteers Butch Jones may be walking a tightrope at their respective programs. The guys at Gridiron Now give us some insight.
Let’s get this straight at the top: This is bad for Ole Miss and Hugh Freeze.
When the NCAA sends you an amended notice of allegations to bump the number of charges from 13 to 21 – and one of those eight additional charges is a lack of institutional control – that ain’t good.
When you find it necessary to self-impose a 2017 postseason ban in February, that ain’t good.
When part of your self-imposed postseason ban is losing $7.8 million, which was your share of the SEC bowl revenue, that ain’t good.
Ole Miss still has to officially respond to each charge. Where it disagrees with the NCAA’s committee on infractions, the school will have to document its position. That response probably will come in May. There is a lot of work to do.
When the news came down Wednesday, my mind immediately went to April 28, 2016, a date that will live in infamy if you’re a Rebels fan. I was sitting in a hotel room in Nashville because I had a meeting with Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason the next day. I turned on the NFL draft because I wanted to see if Ole Miss was going to make school history by having three players taken in the first round. I envisioned a photo from Chicago with Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche holding up “No. 1” jerseys with coach Hugh Freeze. It would be recruiting gold for Ole Miss.
But right before the draft started, pictures were posted on Tunsil’s Twitter account showing him wearing a gas mask and smoking something out of a bong. He dropped from a sure top-five pick to No. 13. Later, posts showed up on his Instagram account, apparently of him asking for money from a football staffer.
Then, he admitted to the media in Chicago that he accepted money from a school official to pay his mother’s power bill. At that moment, it became clear that Ole Miss’ dream was about to become a nightmare.
Now let me say this again because some people will miss this: If the charges are proven true, Ole Miss deserves the punishment it gets.
Setting that aside, two things have become irritating about this process.
Following this logic, it’s not possible that a recruit from out of state (such as Treadwell, who is from the Chicago area) could visit Ole Miss, fall in love with the place and decide it would be fun to play and go to school there.
What those people are saying is that if schools like Ole Miss know their place and stay in their lane, they are fine. Get out of your lane and you’ll get branded as a cheater.
And you can’t say that the subsequent NCAA charges justify the attitude. Heck, some people branded Ole Miss as cheaters the day after National Signing Day in 2013.
Second, there is the idea that some people are today celebrating the struggles of Ole Miss. Wednesday was a bad day for Ole Miss, but it also was a bad day for the SEC.
The SEC worked hard under the guidance of former commissioner Mike Slive (2002-15) to clean up NCAA issues. Current commissioner Greg Sankey has continued that work and is chairman of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions. I imagine this is difficult time for both.
Hugh Freeze took Ole Miss to some great places. There were the back-to-back wins over Alabama and trips to consecutive “New Year’s Six” bowls. But the reality is that this long investigation has blunted that momentum. Last season, Ole Miss went 5-7. The 2017 recruiting class was the consensus No. 30 class, good for just 12th in the SEC.
I don’t know if Ole Miss football can come back from this anytime soon, especially given the competition in the SEC West.
Jones’ apparent protégé and one of the favorite coaches on his staff left the program when Zach Azzanni bid farewell to join the Chicago Bears as wide receivers coach. Azzanni had coached receivers at Tennessee for the past three seasons. But he seemed to be quickly outgrowing that position.
Azzanni was named the Volunteers’ passing game coordinator before the 2015 season. That’s a path to being an eventual offensive coordinator. That sure seemed like the case until Jones decided to promote tight ends coach Larry Scott to offensive coordinator last month, following the departure of Mike DeBord.
Azzanni was essentially passed over and the reason was glaringly clear: recruiting.
Scott has strong ties in talent-rich Florida, where the Vols have had good success. Scott never has been an offensive coordinator. Azzanni had been a passing game coordinator at Florida and an offensive coordinator at Western Kentucky; he held both positions for one season.
All this came after DeBord left for the same gig at Indiana. Yes, the Hoosiers hired away a coordinator from Tennessee after Jones essentially had hired DeBord off the scrap heap. DeBord wasn’t even coaching when he received that career-changing call from Jones. So, in just a little more than three months, Jones has lost two assistants who should have been the most loyal.
In all, that’s five assistants who gone from last season and that doesn’t include Scott, who has a new role. Three of the new coaches – quarterbacks coach Mike Canales, secondary coach Charlton Warren and defensive line coach Brady Hoke – are new to the program. In case you missed it, this is not a good year for transition. Oh, and the Vols have a new strength and conditioning coach, too.
This isn’t to say that Jones hasn’t upgraded his staff. Perhaps he has. There certainly were some changes that needed to be made.
But the lack of continuity is disconcerting. If coaches were competent, why would they be fired? If coaches felt sure about the future of the Tennessee program, why would they leave?
The turnover certainly can’t help recruiting as a whole. What will signees think about all the changes once they arrive on campus? Their recruiter may now be across the country. What will high school coaches and parents think when a familiar recruiter comes in with an unfamiliar orange?
It’s worth noting that former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley had several coaching changes throughout his Vols tenure and almost managed to survive his fourth season. But survival was never the goal for Jones. He may survive 2016, but will he ever thrive?
Information originally appeared on Gridiron Now and was written by Tony Barnhart and Dave Hooker.