The Ole Miss Rebels need the NCAA investigation into their football program to end.
And at this point, frankly, it doesn’t even matter what's the conclusion. Anything is better than this current state of limbo.
Coach Hugh Freeze has described himself as “numb” to the never-ending reporting on the subject, and in a letter to Rebs’ supporters, athletic director Ross Bjork wrote that “no one wants to see the end more than I do.” It’s as if all of Oxford, Mississippi, is shouting for something -- anything -- to happen in an investigation that covers ground all the way back to 2012.
But there appears to be no end in sight, and each passing day without a resolution represents punishment unaccounted, which is crippling Ole Miss’ future.
One need only look at recruiting -- the lifeblood of any program -- to see its effects. Since Freeze’s first full season recruiting in 2012, he hasn’t signed a class that finished outside the top 20, according to ESPN, with classes in 2013 and 2016 cracking the top five. But if things hold from now until signing day this Wednesday, Freeze is looking at the 37th-ranked class, which would be 12th out of 14 teams in the SEC.
As part of self-imposed sanctions, Ole Miss docked itself four scholarships in this year’s class. But that hardly accounts for the 14 total commitments, which is well below the 25-player soft cap.
And, remember, this is before any potential further punishment from the NCAA has been handed down. While a lawyer might argue for time served, we’re not talking about a courtroom. One or two more mediocre recruiting classes like this will set back the program long term.
Pearl (Mississippi) High School coach John Perry, who hosted a Michigan satellite camp with Jim Harbaugh last summer, said recruits are intelligent and are aware the investigation is “hanging out there.”
“And you know other folks are using that against them,” Perry said. “But it can’t be productive. I know Coach Freeze and them do a great job of recruiting, but there’s no way in the world that it can help them with the cloud over them. … Everyone is in a quandary about what’s going to happen. You can’t blame the athletes for second-guessing. Look at Cam Akers. ‘Are we going to go to a bowl game or not?’ That’s a natural question they’re asking themselves.”
An SEC assistant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, singled out Akers as well, saying he was someone Ole Miss would have surely signed in years past. Instead, the five-star prospect and top-ranked recruit in the state of Mississippi went to Florida State.
The same assistant described Ole Miss’ current situation as “dark, cloudy and a lot of uncertainty.”
Making matters worse are the numerous assistant coaches who have been fired or left for other jobs, feeding conspiracy theories about the state of the program.
Real or imagined, there’s a sense of instability around Ole Miss, which trickles down to recruits and spreads.
Perry, who has lived in Mississippi for more than 20 years, said it feels as if the NCAA investigation has “been going on forever.”
Mississippi state Rep. Trey Lamar went as far as to propose a bill in the legislature that would threaten fines if the NCAA didn’t complete its investigation and render its final decision within nine months of the school’s response to a letter of inquiry. Lamar was a former walk-on running back at Ole Miss.
“I want them to do their job,” Lamar said to The Clarion-Ledger. “I just want them to do it in a reasonably timely manner. In my opinion, these four and five years, continuing to drag on is not a reasonable matter."
Until there’s a resolution, all that's left are rumors and a perception battle that can’t be won.
Ole Miss has already begun to pay the price on the recruiting trail.
It won’t be long before the result shows up on the football field as well.