Gone are Steve Spurrier's quips and gone are Les Miles' unique turns of phrase, but one ex-head coach did manage to steal the show at SEC media days this week, anyway -- without even speaking at the four-day event in Hoover, Alabama.
Six years removed from his last season as head coach at Ole Miss, Houston Nutt became the biggest story in the SEC this week in an otherwise quiet four days of media sessions to kick off the college football preseason. On Wednesday, the 59-year-old Nutt -- who coached the Rebels from 2008-11 after a long stint at Arkansas -- filed a lawsuit (read it here) against Ole Miss, claiming that his severance agreement was violated. Nutt's suit accuses current Rebels coach Hugh Freeze and athletic director Ross Bjork, among others, of spreading false and damaging information about him in regards to the NCAA investigation that has been hovering over the university for years.
The investigation came to light nearly three years ago, and when Ole Miss received its first notice of allegations -- which it did not publicly release at the time -- various reports citing anonymous sources indicated that the focus was mostly on sports other than football, and that the football violations that did occur mostly happened under Nutt's watch, before Freeze's arrival before the 2012 season.
While some of the allegations do date back to the Nutt era, the notion that most of them did turned out to be untrue, and Nutt alleges that leadership of the football team, including Freeze, was responsible for spreading a "false narrative" that unfairly shifted the blame.
Ole Miss has received two notices of allegations in the past two years with 21 violations, which, according to the AP, include 17 that happened while Freeze has been head coach. Yahoo Sports reported in May that Nutt wanted an apology. Now, Nutt wants more, as he is suing for damages for lost wages, emotional distress, embarrassment and attorney's fees, with the lawsuit claiming that the "defendants' actions were malicious, fraudulent, egregious, in bad faith and in total disregard for the rights of Coach Nutt."
Not coincidentally, the lawsuit was announced one day before Freeze was scheduled to speak at SEC media days on Thursday, in the final slot among the 14 coaches, making it a main event of sorts after a mostly forgettable few days that didn't include much actual news. Unsurprisingly, Freeze deflected any direct questions about the lawsuit.
"I would absolutely love to share my opinion on it," Freeze said. "Unfortunately it's a legal case, and I can't comment."
In fact, Freeze gave a long opening statement that lasted about 15 minutes, effectively limiting the time for questions afterward.
Hugh Freeze had the longest opening statement at 2,773 words. Jim McElwain had the shortest at 213. pic.twitter.com/1MgeI8Nz8u- Ben Jones (@BW_Jones) July 13, 2017
While Freeze hasn't won an SEC West title, he's still taken Ole Miss to heights rarely seen, with top-20 finishes and major bowl bids in both 2014 and '15. The latter team finished 10th in the AP poll, the program's first top-10 team since the John Vaught era in 1969. That success came on the back of unprecedented recruiting success that began with signing out-of-state five-star recruits Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche in the program-changing class of 2013. Such sudden recruiting success naturally raised some suspicions, and Tunsil, of course, became the story of draft day in 2016 with a hacked Twitter account, the infamous gas-mask bong video and Instagram posts allegedly showing that he had accepted money at Ole Miss.
The NCAA has charged Ole Miss with lack of institutional control and Freeze with failure to monitor, alleging various payments to players from boosters among other recruiting violations. Although it has already self-imposed some penalties, including a 2017 bowl ban, the Ole Miss administration has disputed many of the charges and strongly supported Freeze, saying that he had no knowledge of violations when they occurred.
After the goodwill Freeze built up through successful seasons that featured rare wins over Alabama, the conversation lately has been about anything but football success (the team also fell to 5-7 last season), which Freeze expressed frustration with on Thursday.
"Seems like every year that I've stood here, with the exception of my first, that there's other things that I have to talk about other than our kids," Freeze said.
Freeze's frustration resulted in a suitable follow-up question later about who's to blame for having to talk so much about things other than actual football.
"We've got to be responsible for the areas in which we were deficient in … that we didn't either react or act properly, or whether it was staff or whether it was boosters," Freeze said. "So we have to own that. And me being in the position I am, I've got to stand and look people in the eyes and take that. And, you know, I have been doing it for several years now … and I'll certainly be glad and rejoice and thank God when it's over, but in the meantime, I've been charged with leading us through this time. And so I've got to look at myself, our staff, our boosters, our people and our players and try the best I can to manage that while we go through it."
The Nutt lawsuit comes on the heels of the never-ending news about the investigation, in addition to a lawsuit filed by a clothing store, Rebel Rags, against two Mississippi State football players, accusing them of giving false statements to the NCAA about receiving free merchandise.
Draft night drama. A long list of possible NCAA violations. A clothing store suing rival football players. And now a former coach filing a lawsuit because of the current one. If that wasn't bad enough, expectations aren't exactly high for the team on the field in a season in which the postseason isn't an option.
The administration has stood behind Freeze so far, but last season's results were already a step backward, and the increased recruiting difficulty because of the NCAA investigation will make it even harder to duplicate the results of 2014-15 going forward. No matter what it says now, that will make it easier for institutional support of Freeze to waver as time goes on.
Freeze would have loved to have spent Thursday discussing his current team and its 2017 prospects -- most football questions deal with how they'll handle the distractions -- but circumstances have made that impossible. The Nutt lawsuit is just the latest reason why it's hard to imagine Freeze ever having a normal, controversy-free appearance at SEC media days as the coach of Ole Miss again.