Houston Nutt savors bittersweet taste of vindication in Ole Miss probe

Nov 26, 2011; Starkville, MS, USA; Mississippi Rebels head coach Houston Nutt reacts during the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 26, 2011; Starkville, MS, USA; Mississippi Rebels head coach Houston Nutt reacts during the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Houston Nutt answered the call on the first ring Friday.

The former college coach is enjoying life in Texas these days and is getting ready for a trip to Canada to see a couple of his old assistants who now coach with the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats. I called Nutt after reading the response of his former school, Ole Miss, to the NCAA's notice of allegations that was released earler in the day. [Full disclosure: I worked with Nutt for two seasons at CBS.] In that release, it was alleged by the NCAA -- and agreed upon by Ole Miss -- that "serious violations have occurred." The response also pointed out that the majority of the 13 violations involving the Rebels football program occurred on coach Hugh Freeze's watch. Not on Nutt's, which is what sources inside Ole Miss had intimated to several reporters, including myself, months ago.

Those sources said in late January that the majority of the allegations stemmed from women's basketball, track and field and the Nutt regime, which technically is accurate since nine of the 28 total violations against the Rebels athletic program were on Freeze. But I can see why Nutt felt a measure of vindication after seeing how he was getting the blame despite the fact that nine of those 13 violations happened under his successor.

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Yes, there were some violations that did stem from Nutt's staff as well. Two of his former staffers, David Saunders and Chris Vaughn, are alleged to have facilitated academic fraud for three football recruits taking the ACT at a Mississippi Community College in 2010. Vaughn also violated the NCAA's principles of ethical conduct when he knowingly provided false and misleading information to the institution and the NCAA enforcement staff. The ACT fraud charge is the worst violation of the entire bunch. Still, the bulk of this report had little to do with the Nutt regime in Oxford.

"It's the most frustrating thing there is," Nutt told FOX Sports, "to be on the sidelines and hear your name keep getting mentioned and mentioned. It's hurtful. It makes you mad.

"I don't have a major violation in 30 years of coaching."

A three-time SEC Coach of the Year, Nutt said he wonders whether the perception by some that his staff broke NCAA rules has hurt in trying to get another head coaching job.

"I'm going on five years without a team," he said. "There were a few opportunities I went after. I'd love to coach again. I feel like I've got 10 more seasons in me."

The 58-year-old Nutt said he didn't know much of the specifics about the fraudulent ACT tests. Back then Nutt wasn't counting on those recruits to be on his 105-man roster.

"We usually know about who is going to make it in by May," he said. "We were gonna place them in junior college."

Instead, they did get in. Nutt still has a hard time believing his assistants cheated, he says.

"There's not a better person to have around your son than (Chris Vaughn)," he said. "I recruited him out of Tallahassee. He played for me at Murray State. Coached for me all those years at Arkansas and Ole Miss. I mean did he feed 'em? But outright cheating? I don't think that's in his DNA."

In February, Vaughn was dismissed from his job as Texas' defensive backs coach due to the allegations at Ole Miss.

Saunders now is the head coach at Pearl River Community College in Mississippi after losing his job as an assistant coach at Louisiana-Lafayette. The NCAA hit Saunders with an eight-year show-cause order due to serious NCAA rules violations, including his arranging fraudulent entrance exam scores for five prospects.

Nutt said he'd known Saunders for years and hired him because the coach had been working for Cellular South on an academic program.

"I thought it would be a good fit," Nutt said. "I think he's a quality, quality guy. I always thought he was on the up and up. I didn't know anything about Wayne County.

"But if David truly did wrong, he needs to be punished."

What the NCAA will do to Nutt's old school remains to be seen. Freeze has been very outspoken in the face of rumors and innuendos levied against his program's rise in the past four years, especially as it landed one blue-chip recruit after another.

RT @CoachHughFreeze: If you have facts about a violation, email If not, please don't slander the young men

— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) February 1, 2013

Do those boasts now seem dubious? So far, Ole Miss has self-imposed football penalties that include docking itself 11 scholarships over four years, suspending two assistants from recruiting and a fine of $159,326, but it's a stretch to think that'll be enough for the NCAA and that there might not be more allegations for the school to deal with. Keep in mind, the NCAA is still trying to sort out the draft night posting of an exchange between star left tackle Laremy Tunsil and two of Freeze's staffers.


Twenty minutes after I hang up with Nutt, my phone rings.

It's him.

"You know, it's ironic," he says. "I'm going up to Canada and I'm gonna go see Jeremiah Masoli (the Tiger-Cats backup QB). A while back, Stewart Mandel (who?) wrote a column that I was the dirtiest coach in the South because we took Masoli. I'd like to ask him if he still thinks I'm the dirtiest."

[Technically, it wasn't "the dirtiest coach in the South."]