HOOVER, Ala. – Former football coach Houston Nutt filed a civil lawsuit against the University of Mississippi and the Ole Miss Athletic Foundation on Wednesday, alleging breach of contract via defamation of character, in relation to the school’s handling of an NCAA investigation.
Nutt, who coached at Ole Miss from 2008-11 and currently is a CBS television analyst, signed a separation agreement in November 2011 that he alleges the school violated. He is suing the school for punitive damages related to what the suit says was a “long-running … smear campaign” aimed at Nutt.
The suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Oxford, Miss., hammers current Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze and athletic director Ross Bjork for creating and perpetuating a “false narrative” regarding the nature of the NCAA’s long-running investigation – particularly the contents of the January 2016 Notice of Allegations. Citing phone records obtained from the school, the suit details numerous “off the record” communications in January ’16 from Freeze and Bjork to media members that allegedly influenced reporting on the NOA, resulting in stories and social media posts that portrayed the violations as having primarily occurred during Nutt’s tenure.
When the NOA was made public more than four months later, that characterization was proven inaccurate. Of the 13 football violations alleged by the NCAA, nine of them happened during Freeze’s tenure.
“Coach Freeze had knowingly lied to the journalists and recruiting prospects by saying that the NCAA’s investigation had little, if anything, to do with him or his coaching staff and was instead focused on alleged rules violations by Coach Nutt’s staff,” the complaint says. “Coach Freeze falsely stated that most, if not all, of the NCAA’s allegations involved ‘Houston Nutt’ and his staff. At the time Coach Freeze made these statements, he was fully aware that they were patently false, yet he continued to make such statements, severely damaging Coach Nutt’s reputation. … The protection of Coach Freeze became the University’s Number One priority in dealing with the NCAA investigation.”
In 2017, the NCAA filed an updated Notice of Allegations that charges Mississippi with 21 football violations, 17 of which pertain to Freeze’s tenure at the school. That includes an allegation that Freeze failed in his responsibility to adequately control and monitor the program. Ole Miss is disputing that charge, among others.
Nutt’s name does not appear in either NOA.
University of Mississippi general counsel Lee Tyner gave the following response when asked for comment by Yahoo Sports on Wednesday.
“We have not yet been served with the lawsuit, but we are aware it has been filed. We were provided a copy a short time ago. We will carefully review Coach Nutt’s claims and respond in due course.”
Nutt issued a brief statement through his Arkansas-based attorney, Thomas Mars: “The lawsuit filed today speaks for itself. I’m going to let the federal court in Mississippi take it from here. I won’t be making any comments about the lawsuit. Please direct any questions you have to my lawyers.”
Freeze is scheduled to appear here at Southeastern Conference media days Thursday. The line of questioning he was expecting already included the NCAA case, but now he likely will have to address the Nutt lawsuit as well.
“Standing on their own, each false, misleading and defamatory statement made by Coach Freeze and other members of the Athletics Department from 2014 through 2017 harmed Coach Nutt’s reputation as a football coach and is a clear and deliberate breach of Section 8 of the Severance Agreement,” the complaint says. “Collectively, the Defendants’ deliberately false and misleading statements also constitute a blatant violation of SEC Bylaw 10.2 (prohibiting recruiting using false statements or false pretenses), and an equally egregious violation of the Ole Miss Code of Ethics …”
SEC spokesman Herb Vincent declined comment on the suit on Wednesday.
In May, Nutt and Mars sought an apology from Ole Miss for its handling of the NCAA issue as it pertained to the former coach. “It devastates you,” Nutt said to Yahoo Sports at the time.
No apology was forthcoming, setting the lawsuit in motion.