Vitter’s legacy as Chancellor will be affected by Ole Miss’ NCAA case

Posted on Nov 12 2018 - 5:50am by Justin Dial

On Jan. 3, 2019, Jeffrey Vitter will step down as chancellor of the University of Mississippi, marking the end of his three-year tenure as the leader of Ole Miss. For many, he will be remembered as Ole Miss’ chancellor during the school’s long-fought battle with the NCAA and its Committee on Infractions.

Vitter’s tenure as chancellor could easily be defined by the NCAA’s case against Ole Miss. The Committee on Infractions issued its first Notice of Allegations against the university just 20 days after he took office, with the final verdict in the case coming only days before the announcement of his resignation.

Vitter officially took office as the University of Mississippi’s chancellor on Jan. 1, 2016, almost four years after the NCAA investigation into Ole Miss Athletics began. However, just three weeks into his tenure on Jan. 22, the university received the first Notice of Allegations from the NCAA Committee on Infractions, alleging violations in women’s basketball, track & field and football.

Athletic director Ross Bjork and Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter express their grievences with additional sanctions laid out by the COI last year. File photo by Billy Schuerman

Following a 30-day extension to Ole Miss’ original 90-day response window, Chancellor Vitter and athletics director Ross Bjork released the university’s response to the COI’s Notice of Allegations, along with a statement addressed to the “Ole Miss Family.”

In the statement, Vitter and Bjork admit to violations within the athletic department, but contend the severity of those violations.

“Serious violations have occurred,” the statement read. “For 27 of the 28 allegations, we agree that a violation of the NCAA rules occurred; however, for several of those allegations we do not agree on all of the facts.”

In addition to contending the severity of select violations, Vitter and Bjork’s statement announced that the university would be self-imposing sanctions in line with the usual punishment for such violations.

“In response to these violations, we have taken several corrective actions and we have self-imposed significant penalties,” the statement read. “We based our self-imposed penalties on the COI’s decisions in other cases and the NCAA penalty matrix released in 2012.”

In October 2016, the NCAA’s case against Ole Miss women’s basketball and track & field came to a close with no additional action being taken against either program.

“We regret the violations of NCAA bylaws in both programs and have taken several steps to prevent future violations,” Vitter said.

Following the conclusion of the women’s basketball and track & field case, the Committee on Infractions sent Ole Miss an updated Notice of Allegations focusing solely on the football program. The updated notice outlined eight new violations, in addition to the 13 in the first notice.

On Feb. 22, 2017, Vitter, Bjork and then-head football coach Hugh Freeze appeared in a prerecorded video addressing the Committee on Infractions’ updated Notice of Allegations.

“We announce today that the NCAA enforcement staff’s investigation of football has now concluded, and that earlier today, our outside legal counsel received the university’s Notice of Allegations dealing with the football program,” Vitter said. “Throughout the more than four-year investigation, the University of Mississippi has been committed to seeking the truth.”

During the video, Bjork announced that the university would be imposing more sanctions on itself, in hopes that it would ultimately soften the COI’s final verdict.

“The university is self-imposing a one-year postseason ban on the football program for the 2017 season in addition to our previously announced self-imposed penalties,” Bjork said. “The decision to add the postseason ban was a joint decision by Chancellor Vitter and myself and supported by Coach Freeze.”

A short time later, on July 20, Vitter and Bjork held a press conference to announce Hugh Freeze’s resignation as the head coach of Ole Miss Football. The administrators stressed that Freeze’s resignation did not tie-in with the NCAA’s allegations against the football program, but rather with concerns of his personal conduct.

“In our analysis, we discovered a pattern of conduct that is not consistent with our expectations as the leader of our football program,” Bjork said. “Chancellor Vitter and I spoke with coach Freeze last night. We discussed the entire situation. Coach Freeze was very transparent and admitted the conduct. Earlier this afternoon Chancellor Vitter and I met with coach Freeze again. He offered his resignation, and we accepted.”

With Freeze’s resignation, Matt Luke was named the interim head coach for the 2017 season.

In December 2017, the Committee on Infractions issued its final report on the Ole Miss case. The COI disagreed with Ole Miss’ stance on the allegations, adding an additional year to the university’s self-imposed 2017 postseason ban.

“We are deeply disappointed and angered by the additional penalty of a 2018 postseason ban,” a university statement said. “It is simply not warranted and is based on fundamental flaws in the NCAA case and how the investigation was conducted. We will vigorously appeal the additional postseason ban. It is clearly an excessive punishment, and we are outraged at the unfair characterization of our football program and the university culture involving athletics.”

Two weeks later, Ole Miss submitted a notice to appeal the 2018 postseason ban and other penalties highlighted in the COI’s final report to the NCAA’s Infractions Appeals Committee.

“We have the best legal team in the country to handle our NCAA appeal,” Vitter said. “We believe the additional penalties imposed by the COI are unwarranted, which we will make very clear at the appropriate time in our written submissions on the merits of our appeal.”

November saw the final episode of Ole Miss’ NCAA saga, when Ole Miss received the appeals committee’s response to the university’s appeal. The appeal upheld the 2018 postseason ban, but overturned other sanctions related to recruiting.

“While we are pleased by the (committees) finding that the COI abused its discretion with respect to the unofficial visit penalty, we remain disappointed by the remainder of the ruling, which upheld a 2018 postseason ban and findings of lack of institutional control and recruiting inducements,” a university statement read, effectively ending the NCAA’s case against Ole Miss.

Vitter’s arrival in 2016 and the announcement of his resignation late in 2018 closely align with the timeline of the NCAA’s case against Ole Miss’ football program. The university has yet to release an official explanation of Vitter’s departure, but the timing of his resignation and the timing of the conclusion of the case are eerily similar.

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