The NCAA banned the Ole Miss football team from playing in the postseason in 2018, the Rebels were hit with scholarship reductions and former coach Hugh Freeze was suspended as part of the penalties handed down by the NCAA committee on infractions Friday.
The University of Mississippi released a statement saying it would "vigorously appeal" the postseason ban, which it deemed "excessive" and "does not take into account the corrective actions that we have made in personnel, structure, policies and processes to address the issues."
Ole Miss (6-6) will not participate in the 2017 postseason because of a self-imposed one-year bowl ban announced in February.
In the NCAA's ruling, the Rebels, who were accused of 15 Level I violations, were admonished for lacking institutional control and fostering "an unconstrained culture of booster involvement in football recruiting."
"This is now the third case over three decades that has involved the boosters and football program," the panel stated in its decision. "Even the head coach acknowledged that upon coming to Mississippi, he was surprised by the 'craziness' of boosters trying to insert themselves into his program. At the hearing, Mississippi's chancellor acknowledged his institution's problem with boosters, characterizing one instance as 'disturbingly questionable.'"
Greg Christopher, the chief hearing officer for the NCAA and athletics director at Xavier, said during a conference call Friday that, while the committee thought the self-imposed infractions were sufficient elsewhere, the additional bowl ban was given because of "the seriousness of the case and the situation and what was appropriate."
"The case strikes at the heart of what college sports stands for," Christopher said.
Ole Miss will file its notice of appeal early next week, athletic director Ross Bjork said, and will submit materials that it will also make public on its website. He said that the process from appeal to completion should take 3-6 months.
"There's anger, there's frustration, there's sadness," Bjork said. "But now we have to get back to work."
According to the NCAA, six football staff members and 12 boosters were involved in the violations, which included the provision of approximately $37,000 to prospects through cash payments, the use of automobiles, lodging, transportation, meals and apparel. Two staff members also helped arrange fraudulent standardized test scores for three prospects.
Freeze, who resigned for off-field issues in July, received a two-game conference suspension from the NCAA for failure to monitor his staff. The suspension applies only for head-coaching positions; there would be no restrictions if Freeze takes a job as a coordinator or assistant.
"Off the field, [Freeze] promoted an atmosphere of compliance and expected his staff to abide by the rules," the ruling said. "However, throughout his tenure, the head coach also violated NCAA head coach responsibility legislation because he failed to monitor his program's activities surrounding the recruitment of prospects. Members of his staff knowingly committed recruiting violations, submitted false information on recruiting paperwork and failed to report known violations."
Freeze issued a statement saying he was "relieved" at the decision and would not appeal the suspension.
"While I appreciate the COI's recognition of my compliance efforts, I am disappointed that the COI found that, in some instances, I failed to monitor my staff appropriately," Freeze said in the statement. "I believe I made every effort to do so."
The Rebels were also penalized with scholarship reductions. The university, as part of self-imposed penalties, had already cut 11 scholarships over a four-year period from 2015 to 2018.
The school also has been put on probation for three years and must vacate records of all regular-season and postseason wins in which ineligible student-athletes competed. Ole Miss also must pay a financial penalty.
"The violations resulted from a culture of rules violations being acceptable in the Mississippi football program," the ruling said. "Members of the football staff were often in regular contact with the boosters who provided impermissible inducements and benefits. Further, the football staff at times did not report known violations and falsified recruiting paperwork."
NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osborne confirmed to ESPN that Ole Miss seniors will be allowed to transfer without penalty because of the postseason ban for 2018.
According to NCAA rules, "It is not necessary for an institution to obtain permission in writing to recruit a student-athlete at an institution that has been placed on probation with sanctions that preclude it from competing in postseason competition during the remaining seasons of the student-athlete's eligibility."
Bjork attempted to clear up confusion over the possibility of players transferring, saying anyone with multiple years of eligibility remaining would have to file a waiver with the NCAA to transfer and play immediately.
"The poaching is already happening," he said of other schools coming after Ole Miss players, adding that anyone contacting underclassmen at this time would be breaking the rules.
Nearly every coach named in the NCAA's notice of allegations received a show-cause penalty, which means any school that wants to hire them must appear before the NCAA committee on infractions to do so.
Former Rebels assistant coaches David Saunders (8-year show-cause penalty), Chris Vaughn (5 years) and Chris Kiffin (2 years) and staff member Barney Farrar (5 years) were among those disciplined by the NCAA, sources told ESPN.
Kiffin can remain in his role as an assistant at FAU, but he will not be allowed to recruit off campus during the two-year penalty.
Ole Miss had also agreed to forfeit its share of SEC postseason revenues for this coming season, which could be as much as $7.8 million.
The Rebels also were told by the NCAA to disassociate themselves from each of the boosters named in the notice of allegations.
"Mississippi lacked control over its boosters and oversight of football recruiting activities," the ruling said. "Although the institution is now attempting to manage its boosters, this case is symptomatic of an out-of-control culture that has existed for decades."
Ole Miss officials had hoped the NCAA would toss out the testimony of Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis, who told NCAA investigators that he received between $13,000 and $15,600 from an Ole Miss booster while the Rebels were recruiting him. Ole Miss also disputed charges that Lewis and Mississippi State defensive end Kobe Jones received free merchandise from Rebel Rags, a sporting goods store in Oxford, Mississippi.
Ole Miss chancellor Jeffery Vitter called the handling of the investigation over the last year and a half "grossly unfair." He said it was around that time that he felt that the school was being left in the dark, specifically regarding the testimony of Lewis.
Bjork said the university was "shocked" that the NCAA committee on infractions found Lewis "credible."
"We wanted access to the facts," Bjork said, "and we felt we were shut out to the facts."
ESPN's Chris Low and Alex Scarborough contributed to this report.