Ole Miss remains defiant in the face of NCAA penalties

OXFORD, Miss. -- Players started arriving at 8:31 on Friday morning, exactly one minute after Ole Miss was set to receive its official punishment from the NCAA. A bleary-eyed offensive lineman swung his silver pickup truck into an open parking space near the front of the football offices, locked his doors and walked inside.

A couple of junior defensive backs showed up a few moments later. More and more players would trickle in over the course of the next hour and a half. They didn’t wear grim faces; they had been through this before. Rather, they were more focused on finding a place to park. One particular freshman didn’t care; he parked his car illegally and told his teammates, “We ain’t gonna be here too long.”

Twenty-five minutes later, players filed back out after getting the news. Coach Matt Luke, athletic director Ross Bjork and chancellor Jeffrey Vitter addressed what the NCAA Committee on Infraction’s report contained: a two-year bowl ban and a forfeiture of wins involving unnamed players, among other penalties.

Players were silent for the most part during the meeting.

“What do you say to something like that?” one veteran defensive player, who preferred to speak anonymously, asked. He simply shrugged his shoulders and said that while it certainly wasn’t good, it wasn’t as bad as they feared.

But given the two-year bowl ban, he was prepared for some of his teammates to transfer. He didn’t know how many.

“Phones are going to be blowing up,” he said, referring to other schools looking to cherry-pick players.

Star wideout A.J. Brown walked out of the meeting silent and straight-faced. An hour later, he tweeted an emoji, no text and a clip from the movie, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” in which the main character, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, gathers his fellow stock traders and loudly proclaims, “I’m not f---ing leaving!”

When Chauncey Mullins, a senior from Tupelo, Mississippi, learned of the tweet, he grinned and gestured with a little fist pump.

It was peak Ole Miss. From the moment former coach Hugh Freeze boldly tweeted out the contact information for the compliance office in 2013 until now, the university and its football program have been the face of defiance.

Mullins, a student, was bummed about the additional bowl ban and didn’t like the idea of his program cheating, of course. But was it the end of the world? No way. He would go back to his apartment later and the piece of the goal post he cut off with his buddy’s bolt cutters when Ole Miss beat Alabama in 2014 would still be there. The ticket from the game would still be there too.

No one at the NCAA could erase that memory. Mullins could still recall what that day was like, standing at the top of the student section when Ole Miss cornerback Senquez Golson’s interception in the end zone was confirmed on replay.

“There is nothing on this planet that could take away that 2014 win over Alabama,” Mullins said. “They can hammer us all they want to, but that emotion of storming the field and tearing down the goalpost is going to live in my mind forever.

“And not necessarily was it worth the cheating or the misconduct, but those victories just shows that we can do those things -- that we can make it to a Sugar Bowl, that we can beat Alabama.”

The goal in front of Vitter and Bjork is ensuring that it stays that way. And judging by their vigorous defense of the program on Friday afternoon, they’re not going down without a fight.

Vitter said he was “deeply disappointed” and “angered” by the additional penalty of a 2018 bowl ban.

Neither chancellor nor athletic director minced words when they met with the media to discuss the NCAA’s decision: They thought the investigation was unfair; they believed that the testimony of Mississippi State linebacker wasn’t credible; and they said that the NCAA kept them in the dark and didn’t allow them full access to the facts.

The press conference was tense. The very first question from a gentleman wearing an Ole Miss ball cap wasn’t half-cocked: Is the NCAA corrupt?

Vitter let out a laugh, grinned and didn’t say yes or no. What he would say, though, was that they didn’t appreciate the way the tenor of the investigation changed a year and a half ago. Being kept from the facts, specifically Leo Lewis’ testimony, was “grossly unfair,” he said.

There will be a “vigorous appeal,” according to Vitter.

Bjork said that they’ll file the paperwork for the appeal early next week and submit documents shortly after that. And in case anything gets misconstrued, they plan on making many of those documents available online for the world to see.

“There’s anger, there’s frustration, there’s sadness,” Bjork said. “But now we have to get back to work.”

Whether it will be enough to overturn the NCAA’s decision remains to be seen. Bjork estimated that it would be a three- to six-month month appeals process from start to finish. Which means more time and more money on a case that already has eaten up so much of it. But if we’ve learned anything during this process, it’s that Ole Miss isn’t going quietly into the night.

When Bjork addressed the players, he said his message was simple: “Look, we went through the same thing last year, and we have to do the same thing next year.”

But he told them, “We are going to appeal. We are going to fight for you.”

A bowl game might be off the table, recruiting might take a hit, but Ole Miss football is still holding on.

Looking on the bright side, Mullins said he was glad that the worst of it is over. Whether the appeal works or not, the cloud of an ongoing investigation has finally moved on.

Whatever happens, Mullins said, “We’ve still got The Grove.”

And there’s no one who can take that away.