ANN ARBOR — No athletic department has been through more upheaval the past two years than the University of Mississippi.
Quarterback Shea Patterson escapes a tackle by Texas A&M defensive lineman Daeshon Hall while playing for Mississippi in 2017. A Toledo native, Patterson is seeking immediate eligibility at Michigan.
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Major NCAA violations. Salacious details. Photos of a football player smoking marijuana through a gas mask. The drip, drip, drip of scandal reached a crescendo in August when it was discovered that coach Hugh Freeze, who showcased himself as a wholesome Christian with strong morals, called an escort service from his university-issued cell phone and was subsequently fired.
Apparently athletic director Ross Bjork is fine with the recent past coming back to life. On Monday, Ole Miss objected to former quarterback Shea Patterson’s waiver request for immediate eligibility at Michigan, where the Toledo native has enrolled and been practicing this spring.
“What astonished me about their response was how disingenuous it was, and how flawed it was, and how inadequate it was,” said Arkansas attorney Tom Mars, who represents Patterson. “It revealed that even now they just couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge things that they detailed in the Houston Nutt apology.”
But it didn’t shake Mars’ confidence in Patterson’s request. Mars expects the NCAA’s final response, which is expected in the next two weeks, to still be good news for Michigan.
“I’ve been quoted as saying that this is an open and shut case,” Mars said. “I’ve always believed that, and I believe it today. I’ve always believed with a very high probability that the NCAA would conclude that the misconduct by Ole Miss was egregious, to say the least, and grant Shea Patterson immediate eligibility.
“The objections that Ole Miss made in the written response to the NCAA didn’t lessen my confidence. To the contrary, my confidence level went even higher.
“I’m fairly confident that one or two other schools where Shea’s former teammates who were similarly misled will submit waiver applications sometime next week with even more evidence of Ole Miss’ egregious behavior.”
The NCAA Committee on Infractions hammered Ole Miss in December, handing down a bowl ban on top of the self-imposed year of exile by the Rebels. There were scholarship reductions and the dreaded lack of institutional control. There were 15 violations defined as Level I, the most serious charge.
The NCAA’s findings brought an end to a dark chapter in Ole Miss’ football history. The entire mess included an orchestrated public relations campaign to mislead potential recruits in the class of 2016 — Patterson was the crown jewel of the fifth-ranked class — about the severity of forthcoming NCAA violations and what they entailed.
Nutt, the program’s former coach, was the primary target, with the university lying about his role in the proceedings by pinning most of the blame on actions that occurred during his tenure. It attracted a lawsuit and Mars, who discovered the escort service phone call.
In October, Ole Miss settled with Nutt and issued a formal apology which read: “Certain statements made by University employees in January 2016 appear to have contributed to misleading media reports about Coach Nutt. To the extent any such statements harmed Coach Nutt’s reputation, the University apologizes, as this was not the intent. The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations dated January 22, 2016, did not name or implicate Coach Nutt in any misconduct, and it would have been inappropriate for any University employee to suggest otherwise.”
Six months later, it’s almost as if Ole Miss has reneged on its statement, because the bulk of Patterson’s request revolved around the same details in Nutt’s lawsuit. There is little doubt that members of the 2016 recruiting class would have thought differently about committing to Ole Miss had they been aware of the scope of the NCAA violations involving the football program.
The university had the option of supporting, opposing, or not responding to Patterson’s request for eligibility. Ole Miss did not have to admit to or deny any allegations. They opted for the lowest road.
“We would not oppose a waiver of the year in residence requirement based on a legitimate reason for any student-athlete who wants to transfer from Ole Miss,” Bjork said in the statement to The Blade, which was given to other media outlets. “With the waiver in question, the way it was written, we had no choice but to respond the way we did. With anyone who leaves our program, we wish them the best academically and athletically. At this point, it’s not really our matter; it’s an NCAA and Michigan matter.”
Ole Miss’ default argument is that it didn’t mislead recruits. At the time, the details shared with recruits and their parents were true. But text messages, Twitter direct messages, and emails point to Freeze and Bjork knowing that storm clouds were on the horizon.
“It seemed very odd to me that they would file a response that's so disingenuous,” Mars said, “when their credibility with the NCAA would be next to ‘E’ if it were on a gas gauge.”
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