TBA Law Blog

Posted by: William Haltom on Sep 1, 2017

Journal Issue Date: Sep 2017

Journal Name: September 2017 - Vol. 531, No. 9

I’m a proud graduate of the University of Tennessee where I received my Bachelor of Conservative Arts degree in Football Appreciation.

We are now about to enter either my favorite or most miserable time of the year, depending upon how my Vols perform on the gridiron. Yes, it’s September, and in the words of UT Law School graduate John Ward, the legendary voice of the Vols, “Its football time in Tennessee!”

But it’s not just football time. It’s lawsuit time, as once again SEC football coaches and athletic department administrators field their teams of lawyers to do battle in courtrooms and depositions.

I’ve often wondered why SEC football coaches are flanked by state troopers at football games. I first noticed this coaches-and-smokies phenomenon nearly 50 years ago when the legendary Bear Bryant was coaching at Alabama. As the Crimson Tide raced onto the field, Coach Bear would amble slowly from the locker room, wearing his red blazer and black-and-white-checkered hat. As he prowled the sidelines, he was always accompanied by two Alabama state troopers — one to his left, and the other to his right — ready to protect him for a sudden assault by an Auburn fan.

I always thought this was an overreaction. Who in the world would attack Bear Bryant? Johnny Majors?

But I’ve now decided that SEC football coaches are accompanied on the field by state troopers to protect them from process servers. And actually, the more I think about it, those state troopers should be replaced by attorneys.

Butch Jones can lead the Vols through the “T” on to Shields-Watkins Field accompanied by a host of non-volunteer lawyers.

The latest in a long line of SEC football lawsuits is the case of Houston Nutt v. The University of Mississippi.

The lawsuit was filed back in July in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi by former Ole Miss Head Football Coach Houston Nutt. Coach Nutt claimed in the suit that the new coach, Hugh Freeze, who was hired to replace him; Athletic Director Ross Bjork; and Associate Athletic Director Kyle Campbell, conspired to blame him for alleged NCAA rules violations that have been the focus of an investigation as to whether Coach Freeze and his staff were cheating in the recruitment of fine student-athletes to attend the University of Mississippi.

According to Coach Nutt’s lawyer, Thomas Mars, before the lawsuit was filed, Coach Nutt asked for an apology from the University, much like Paula Corbin Jones once asked for an apology from noted Arkansas Razorback football fan Bill Clinton. Coach Freeze and Ole Miss declined to issue an apology, and similar to the case with Hog fan Bill Clinton, the rest is history.

Nutt’s lawsuit for breach of contract and breach of good faith and fair dealing sought compensation for lost wages, emotional distress, embarrassment, attorney’s fees, punitive damages, and a tailgate tent in The Grove.

Attorneys for Ole Miss immediately responded to the suit by filing a Motion to Dismiss on the basis that the University of Mississippi, as an arm of the State of Mississippi, is immune from suit under the 11th Amendment. But before the motion was heard, the other shoe, or in this case football cleat, dropped. Through a public records request, Coach Nutt’s attorneys obtained records of Coach Freeze’s phone calls on a University-issued phone. And one of the phone calls they discovered was a call Coach Freeze made to an escort service.

As previously noted, Coach Freeze has always been escorted onto the football field by Mississippi state troopers. However, Coach Freeze apparently decided he wanted to be escorted on other occasions by female non-law enforcement officials, and presumably to a place other than the field at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

This disclosure led to further investigation by University of Mississippi officials, which according to Ole Miss Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter, established “a pattern (by Coach Freeze) of personal misconduct inconsistent with the standards we expect from the leader of our football team.”

Coach Freeze’s situation was no doubt exacerbated by the fact that he has long worn his faith on the sleeve of his Ole Miss Coach’s shirt. He was known to frequently cite Scripture to his players and to University of Mississippi public gatherings, but as it turned out, the major passage of Scripture he should have been quoting was Romans 3:23. (“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”) And now the most frequently cited verse of Scripture among Ole Miss football fans is John 11:35 (“Jesus wept.”)

When news of the call to the escort service surfaced, Coach Freeze promptly resigned.

On Aug. 10, the Federal Court of Mississippi granted the University’s Motion to Dismiss. But it came too late for Coach Freeze, who had already experienced his own dismissal … as Ole Miss football coach.

Coach Nutt’s lawyers have vowed to refile the lawsuit in Mississippi State Court, and so apparently the legal battle is not over. In the meantime, Ole Miss Athletic Department administrators are searching for a new football coach. 

I have it on good authority that Lane Kiffin is ready to move from Boca Raton to Oxford, just as he moved quickly in the middle of the night from Knoxville to Los Angeles many years ago. But it might be a good idea for Ole Miss’s lawyers to make a public records request of his phone calls before offering him the job.

Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a shareholder with the firm of Lewis Thomason. He is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and a past president of the Memphis Bar Association. Read his blog at www.billhaltom.com.