The SEC did not bar the hiring of Hugh Freeze in 2018

The SEC did not bar the hiring of Hugh Freeze in 2018

  • Sports
  • December 3, 2022
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In 2018, when several SEC schools were interested in hiring Hugh Freeze, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey sent a memorandum to conference presidents, chancellors, and athletic directors to update them on Freeze’s “conference-related status.”

Freeze was hired as Auburn’s head coach on Tuesday.

While Sankey’s 2018 memo, obtained by ESPN, did not prohibit schools from hiring Freeze, it was a stern reminder of the conditions and restrictions surrounding Freeze if an SEC school had hired him at the time. Freeze would have been suspended for the first two conference games of the 2018 season by NCAA penalties, but only as head coach and not as assistant coach.

Alabama, Auburn and Tennessee were among the schools interested in hiring Freeze as an assistant coach and/or coordinator following his fall at Ole Miss.

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Freeze was absent from coaching for the 2017 and 2018 seasons after breaking NCAA rules as the head coach at Ole Miss from 2012-16. He was the head coach of Liberty for the last four seasons before being given a second chance in the SEC at Auburn.

After rebuilding the Ole Miss program to a Top 25 level, Freeze quit in the weeks leading up to preseason practice in 2017. University officials found that he was making a series of calls to several on his university-issued cellphone had transacted numbers associated with a female escort service. Ole Miss was under investigation by the NCAA at the time. Ross Björk, then Ole Miss athletic director, said the two matters were separate but said he would have fired Freeze over a “pattern of misconduct” had Freeze not resigned.

Later in 2017, Ole Miss was placed on NCAA probation for violations that occurred partially under freeze, and the sanctions included a two-year bowl ban. Freeze was individually charged with a Level 1 violation by the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions and found guilty of failing to adequately monitor his football staff and interaction with boosters.

“We had a number of institutions interested in considering Hugh in 2018 who inquired about what had happened at his previous institution [Ole Miss] and whether there was any applicable accountability for the conference,” Sankey told ESPN on Friday. “The purpose of writing was to put all of our institutions on the same page with consistent information.”

Sources told ESPN that during that time, Sankey did not tell anyone that he was preventing SEC schools from hiring Freeze. However, Sankey told Freeze that it is his strong preference that Freeze leave the SEC and train elsewhere with no further NCAA issues — especially since Ole Miss is still on parole — and then return to the SEC when he has the opportunity.

Sankey said he and Freeze spoke on the phone earlier this week and that Sankey congratulated Freeze on his appointment at Auburn.

“I’m looking forward from this point. We’re informed by people’s pasts,” Sankey said, adding that he and Freeze have had multiple phone calls over the past five years. “I appreciate the way he responded during his press conference and I respect the fact that he and I have been able to have an open and honest conversation in the years since he left Ole Miss.”

Freeze said several times during his Tuesday press conference that he was grateful for second chances, adding, “I’m not sure if that’s true,” when asked about reports that Sankey had previously prevented him from playing in the league to be hired.

“He never did anything but shoot me straight and tell me what he thought was best, not just for the conference but for me,” Freeze said of Sankey. “I appreciate a man who treats you like this.”

In his November 12, 2018 memo, Sankey noted that SEC schools make independent decisions about who to hire, but those decisions must meet the expectations of SEC rule, which requires institutions to separate the NCAA and SEC bureaus need to contact regarding a prospective employee’s compliance background prior to the job offer.

Additionally, Sankey wrote in his memo that the Violations Committee described Ole Miss’s violations as “violating and undermining the core principles of the collegiate model.” Sankey added that Freeze was “directly involved in some of the less serious violations.”

As part of the powers conferred on him as commissioner, in 2018 Sankey outlined some of the conditions and limitations related to Freeze should he be hired by an SEC school.

These conditions included:

• Since Freeze has been found guilty of a Level I violation, the President or Chancellor is expected to contact Sankey directly before offering Freeze a position.

• Within 30 days of Freeze’s hiring, the school president, faculty athletic representative, athletic director, head coach and Freeze would have to meet with Sankey at the Birmingham Conference Office. Prior to this meeting, the school would provide Sankey with a written plan explaining Freeze’s full compliance oversight, and this plan would need to be approved and signed by the school’s President or Chancellor.

• Freeze would be required to attend an NCAA Regional Rules Meeting in 2019 and 2020 and stay at least two days.

• The freeze on off-campus recruitment activities would be prohibited until August 1, 2019.

• Any future violation of NCAA rules or SEC statutes related to Freeze would be subject to additional review.

On November 27, 2020, Sankey mailed a revised version of Bylaws to presidents, chancellors, and athletic directors who did not mention Freeze by name, but included provisions regarding the hiring of coaches in the SEC who previously had NCAA issues.

In that 2020 memo, Sankey noted that SEC agencies are required to “thoroughly review each candidate’s compliance record before offering a position, including interviewing the candidate directly and communicating with the candidate.” NCAA and the SEC regarding candidate compliance records.”

Additionally, Sankey said in that 2020 memo that a school’s president or chancellor is expected to contact him directly to discuss any coaching candidate being considered for employment who “engages in unethical behavior or activities.” participated that resulted in or could result in Level I, Level II or serious violations.”

Sankey added that he has received multiple inquiries from SEC schools about the status of “several of these individuals” in recent years [primarily assistant coaches] and expect that these investigations will continue.”

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