In 2018 when several SEC schools were interested in hiring Hugh Freeze, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey sent out a memorandum to conference presidents, chancellors and athletic directors to inform them of Freeze’s “status with respect to the conference.”
Freeze was hired Tuesday as Auburn‘s head football coach.
While Sankey’s 2018 memo, which was obtained by ESPN, did not prohibit schools from hiring Freeze, it was a stern reminder of the conditions and restrictions related to Freeze if an SEC school had chosen to hire him at that point. Per NCAA penalties, Freeze would have faced a suspension for the first two conference games of the 2018 season, but only as a head coach and not as an assistant coach.
Freeze was out of coaching for the 2017 and 2018 seasons after running afoul of NCAA rules while the head coach at Ole Miss from 2012 to 2016. He was the Liberty head coach for the previous four seasons before getting a second chance in the SEC at Auburn.
After rebuilding Ole Miss’ program to a Top-25 level, Freeze resigned in the weeks leading up to preseason practice in 2017. University officials discovered he made a series of calls on his university-issued cell phone to multiple numbers associated with a female escort service. Ole Miss was being investigated by the NCAA at the time. Ross Bjork, then the Ole Miss athletic director, said the two matters were separate, but said he would have fired Freeze for a “pattern of misconduct” had Freeze not resigned.
Later in 2017, Ole Miss was placed on NCAA probation for violations that occurred in part under Freeze, and the sanctions included a two-year bowl ban. Freeze was charged individually by the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions of a Level 1 violation and found guilty of failing to adequately monitor his football staff and its interaction with boosters.
“We had a number of institutions in 2018 with interest in considering Hugh which were inquiring about what had transpired at his previous institution [Ole Miss] and if there was any applicable conference accountability,” Sankey told ESPN on Friday. “The purpose of the letter was to put all of our institutions on the same page with consistent information.”
Sources told ESPN that Sankey never told anyone during that time that he was blocking SEC schools from hiring Freeze. However, Sankey did tell Freeze that it was his strong preference that Freeze leave the SEC and go coach elsewhere without anymore NCAA issues — especially with Ole Miss still on probation — and then come back to the SEC if he had opportunities.
Sankey said he and Freeze spoke on the phone earlier this week and that Sankey congratulated Freeze on his hiring at Auburn.
“I look from this point forward. We’re informed by people’s past,” said Sankey, adding that he and Freeze have had multiple phone conversations over the past five years. “I appreciated the way he responded during his press conference, and I respect the fact that he and I, over the succeeding years since his departure from Ole Miss, could have candid and honest conversation.”
Freeze said several times during his press conference Tuesday that he was thankful for second chances and added, “I’m not sure that’s accurate,” when asked about reports that Sankey had previously blocked him from being hired within the league.
“He’s never done anything but shoot me dead straight and tell me what he thought was best, not only for the conference, but for me,” Freeze said of Sankey. “I appreciate a man that treats you like that.”
In his Nov. 12, 2018 memo, Sankey noted that SEC schools make independent decisions on who they want to hire, but those decisions must meet the expectations of SEC Bylaw 220.127.116.11, which requires institutions to contact the NCAA and SEC offices regarding a potential hire’s compliance background prior to offering employment.
In addition, Sankey wrote in his memo that the Committee on Infractions described Ole Miss’ violations “as cutting against and undermining core principles of the collegiate model.” Sankey added that Freeze was “directly involved in some of the less serious violations.”
Under the authority granted to him as commissioner, Sankey outlined in 2018 some of the conditions and restrictions related to Freeze should he be hired by an SEC school.
Those conditions included:
• Because Freeze had been found guilty of committing a Level I violation, the president or chancellor would be expected to consult directly with Sankey prior to offering Freeze a job.
• Within 30 days of Freeze’s hiring, the school’s president, faculty athletics representative, athletic director, head coach and Freeze would have to meet with Sankey at the conference office in Birmingham. Prior to that meeting, the school would provide Sankey with a written plan explaining its complete compliance oversight of Freeze and that plan would have to be approved and signed by the school’s president or chancellor.
• Freeze would be required to attend an NCAA Regional Rules meeting in 2019 and 2020 and remain for at least two days.
• Freeze would be prohibited from off-campus recruiting activities until Aug. 1, 2019.
• Any future violation of NCAA rules or SEC bylaws involving Freeze would be subject to additional scrutiny.
On Nov. 27, 2020, Sankey sent out a revised version of Bylaw 18.104.22.168 to presidents, chancellors and athletic directors that did not mention Freeze by name, but it included stipulations about the hiring of any coaches in the SEC that had prior NCAA issues.
In that 2020 memo, Sankey pointed out that SEC institutions were required to “thoroughly evaluate every candidate’s rules compliance record prior to offering employment, including asking the candidate directly and communicating with the NCAA and SEC regarding the candidate’s compliance record.”
Also, Sankey said in that 2020 memo that a school’s president or chancellor was expected to contact him directly to discuss any coaching candidate being considered for employment that had “engaged in unethical conduct or participated in activity that resulted or may result in Level I, Level II or major infractions.”
Sankey added that over the past few years he had received several inquiries from SEC schools about the status of “several of these individuals [primarily assistant coaches] and expect these inquiries will continue.”