STARKVILLE, Miss. — The man who helped take down Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze is a lifelong Mississippi State fan who attended his first Bulldogs game 37 years ago and has the university’s logo tattooed on his left hand.
But he insists he never set out to bring down the Rebels and their coach.
It just kind of happened that way.
When Steve Robertson was sifting through Freeze’s phone records on July 5th as part of his research for an upcoming book he’s writing, he discovered phone calls he expected to see. There were mostly calls to recruits and assistant coaches.
But when Robertson saw a phone number with a 313 area code, he was stunned by what he discovered in a Google search. A call made on Jan. 19, 2016, lasting one minute, was made to a number connected with several advertisements for female escorts. Robertson then asked his wife to read him the telephone number again to make sure it was correct. The escort service ads came up again.
Robertson called Thomas Mars, an attorney who is representing former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt in his defamation lawsuit against Ole Miss. Mars had been introduced to Robertson through a third party he found while doing online research into Nutt’s case. They’ve since developed a close working relationship, talking on the phone several times a day and sharing what they found in their investigations.
“He asked me to fill in some blanks,” Robertson said.
When Robertson told Mars to enter the phone number in Google, Mars was silent for nearly a minute before yelling an expletive in excitement.
Ole Miss had unwittingly provided information that would lead to Freeze’s resignation.
To understand what’s transpired in the last couple of years in Oxford, Mississippi, it helps to know the nature of the rivalry between Ole Miss and Mississippi State. While this seems like the kind of scandal that could only happen in college football, it’s really the kind of scandal that could only happen in a state like Mississippi.
“It’s very Mississippi,” Bruse Loyd, a Houston-based attorney, told ESPN last month. “It’s very William Faulkner.”
Loyd, who represents former Ole Miss staffer Barney Farrar, and who said he played junior college football with Mississippi State president Mark Keenum, all but predicted Freeze’s ouster a month ago. “There’s just so much drama and it involves a lot of tragedy,” Loyd said. “It’s going to get worse and there’s going to be a lot more that’s coming.”
In 2014, Mississippi State was ranked No. 1 in the AP poll and Ole Miss was No. 3 after eight weeks of the season. Ever since, the usual high level of vitriol in the rivalry seems to have been taken to another level.
As one SEC power broker puts it: “It makes Ohio State-Michigan and Auburn-Alabama look like Sunday school.” Robertson puts it another way: “It’s the two runt puppies in the SEC West fighting for the hind teat. When you finally get locked on that hind teat, you do whatever you have to do to stay there, even if the other guy has to starve.”
Robertson would know. In fact, if you’re looking for answers as to how Ole Miss finds itself in its current predicament, he’s the best person to talk to. He explained how he became so intertwined with the case over lunch at a burger joint in Starkville on Sunday afternoon.
It’s a story of how what began as a run-of-the-mill college football scandal — bottom-dwelling team hires upstart coach, five-star recruits arrive, and ensuing success leads to whispers, then accusations, and eventually serious charges by the NCAA — mushroomed into much more.
It initially appeared that the Rebels might have been in the clear with only a slap on the wrist had it not been for a bizarre sequence of events with All-America offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil last year. On April 28, 2016, the first night of the NFL draft, someone hacked Tunsil’s social media accounts and published a video of him smoking a substance from a gas mask, as well as text messages in which he asked Ole Miss coaches for money to pay rent and his mother’s utility bills.
That set in motion the chain of events that brought Robertson and Mars together and culminated in Freeze’s hasty resignation last Thursday.
Once Mars was made aware of the phone number linked to the escort service, he alerted Ole Miss general counsel Lee Tyner via a July 13th email.
“For the benefit of everyone on your end, and particularly Coach Freeze, I’d suggest you and [assistant general counsel Rob Jolly] do a deeper dive on the last set of phone records you gave me,” Mars wrote. “If you examine them carefully enough, you’ll find a phone call Coach Freeze made that would be highly embarrassing for all of you and extremely difficult to explain. While that call is arguably relevant to the NCAA investigation, we decided to take the high road and not make reference to it in the complaint.”
Mars said Nutt didn’t want him to release the phone records to the media.
“Houston had no interest in this information being used to embarrass Hugh Freeze, and he made that very clear to me,” Mars said. “He wasn’t interested in taking a pound of flesh from Hugh Freeze. He only wanted to clear his name.”
After receiving Mars’ email, Ole Miss officials initially searched only for the phone number in question. They told Mars they didn’t find the number in any more of Freeze’s phone records. But Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork decided to do a more extensive search of Freeze’s phone records going back to shortly after he was hired in December 2011. A review was conducted by Freeze’s attorney, a university attorney and an athletic department staff member of more than 39,000 phone calls. Bjork told ESPN last week that they found a pattern of calls that was “troubling.”
Robertson, who has covered Mississippi State sports since 2001, said he and Mars stumbled upon the number when they were looking for another call — a conversation between Freeze and a sportswriter. The call with the sportswriter happened on Jan. 20, 2016, but Mars requested records for the day before and the day after, so the university didn’t know exactly what he was looking for.
The phone call to the escort service was one of 84 calls over a three-day period included in the records, after Freeze had redacted three personal calls. He failed to redact the call to the 313 area code.
Mars, based in Little Rock, Arkansas, was a former general counsel and chief administrator for Walmart, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is one of his clients. Mars lived in the same neighborhood as Nutt when he was coaching at Arkansas, and Bill Clinton’s pastor called him in February and asked him to help Nutt in his case against Ole Miss. At the start of his legal career, Mars worked under Hillary Clinton at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock.
Robertson had been butting heads with Ole Miss officials for the past several months, since they denied his open records request for an unredacted version of the notice of allegations the Rebels received from the NCAA in January 2016. Robertson wanted the names of the Ole Miss boosters who are accused of providing improper benefits to recruits, and university officials wouldn’t release them.
When Mars advised Tyner about the call Freeze made to the escort service, he told him that he’d shared the phone records with Robertson.
“Steve is obsessed,” Mars said Tyner told him.
“Had anybody in this state done their job, I wouldn’t have had to do it,” Robertson said. “It got to the point where I was sick and tired of being sick and tired of it. I was willing to pass the baton to someone, but no one was willing to take it.”
Robertson filed a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission, which ruled in his favor earlier this month. One of the unnamed boosters — identified in court records as John Doe — filed a lawsuit in state court in Jackson in an attempt to block the release of his name.
“I don’t care if it goes to the Mississippi Supreme Court,” Robertson said. “I’m in this all the way. The law is on my side.”
Mars was preparing to sue Ole Miss and the Ole Miss Athletics Foundation for violating the terms of Nutt’s severance agreement, which paid him a lump sum of $ 4.35 million when he was fired in 2011. Among other things, Ole Miss officials are “not to make any statement relative to Nutt’s tenure as an employee [of Ole Miss] that may damage or harm Nutt’s reputation as a football coach.”
Mars claims Ole Miss officials violated that agreement by allegedly defaming Nutt and blaming him for most of the Rebels’ NCAA troubles in off-the-record conversations with sports reporters, including from ESPN. Along with Robertson’s help, Mars also enlisted the services of Fred Burton, a longtime counterterrorism agent with the U.S. Department of State. Burton, whom Mars has known since the second grade, was involved in several high-profile investigations, including the capture of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. When asked about what Burton did to help in the Nutt case, Mars declined to provide specifics.
The fact that a self-described Mississippi State fan helped expose the wrongdoing of a popular Ole Miss coach will only add more bad blood to an in-state rivalry that has been boiling with venom for months.
“If it weren’t for Steve Robertson, I don’t believe this case would have transpired the way it did over the past week,” Mars said.
Robertson has already received multiple death threats. He shared one with ESPN in which someone wrote on a message board that “he will be lucky if he can ever speak again” and “he won’t be around much longer.”
Even before Robertson helped expose Freeze’s alleged misdeeds, Ole Miss and Mississippi State fans had been pointing fingers at each other. Many MSU fans accused the Rebels of cheating in recruiting during their rise to national prominence under Freeze, while some Ole Miss fans believe the Bulldogs helped orchestrate many of the more serious allegations of rules violations. And, of course, they’re battling for many of the same high school players in a sparsely populated state.
“It’s a family feud every day of every year,” said ESPN college football analyst Tommy Tuberville, a former Ole Miss coach. “Recruiting is so much more involved and there’s a lot more on the line. Auburn and Alabama is more of a rivalry game between the players, coaches and fans. But probably 80 percent of the guys signed by Ole Miss every year were recruited by Mississippi State. It’s that cutthroat.”
Two Mississippi State players — linebacker Leo Lewis and defensive lineman Kobe Jones — told NCAA investigators that the Rebels provided them with improper benefits. The players made the charges after they were granted partial immunity by the NCAA. Among other benefits, Jones and Lewis said they received free merchandise from Rebel Rags, a popular Ole Miss clothing and memorabilia store, according to legal filings.
Charles Merkel, a Clarksdale, Mississippi, attorney, who represents Rebel Rags, sued Jones, Lewis and Lindsey Miller, Tunsil’s ex-stepfather, who told the NCAA that he also received free merchandise from the store. Merkel sued the trio for making false statements and says he has hundreds of pages of sales records and credit card receipts that prove they’re lying. Merkel has requested to depose them under oath to prove it.
It doesn’t take long to figure out which side Robertson is rooting for. He grew up in Columbia, Mississippi, near the Louisiana border. (He boasts that he and Walter Payton are the only good things to come from there). Robertson attended his first Mississippi State game on Nov. 1, 1980, when he watched the Bulldogs upset No. 1 Alabama 6-3 in Jackson, Mississippi. (Bumper stickers were made to commemorate the win that read: “I Was There When We Beat the Bear.”)
A self-described recovering alcoholic and addict, Robertson said he has been sober for 25 years. In 1992, he was convicted of burglary and false pretense and was sentenced to probation. He said Ole Miss fans have publicized his past problems in an attempt to damage his credibility.
“I’ve got to serve a life sentence for something I did when I was 19,” Robertson said. “I wasn’t one of those people who saw the light; I had to feel the heat.”
A 45-year-old father of four kids, Robertson also hosts a popular podcast and wrote a book about the Ole Miss scandal, “Flim Flam,” which is scheduled to be published next month (the books are being handled by an out-of-state printer to avoid copies being leaked).
Robertson is not-so-affectionately known as “Rose Bowl” by Ole Miss fans. In 2001, Mississippi State was ranked in the preseason top 20 under coach Jackie Sherrill, and Robertson predicted it would win the SEC and play in the BCS championship game in Pasadena, California. The Bulldogs finished 3-8. He has been jokingly referring to himself as “Rose Bowl” ever since. When the Rebels self-imposed a one-year postseason ban in February, he started selling “Rose Bowl Was Right” T-shirts. He advertised them on Facebook again when Freeze resigned on Thursday.
Robertson will continue to keep a close eye on what’s transpiring in Oxford. The Rebels might appear before the NCAA Committee on Infractions later this summer in Indianapolis, where they’ll attempt to argue that the coach they just forced to resign followed the rules. Freeze is charged with failure to monitor his staff, and Ole Miss is charged with lack of institutional control, the most serious NCAA violation a member institution can face.
It’s unknown what kind of impact Freeze’s resignation will have on the case, but Robertson can’t believe it’s gotten this far.
“If they had just apologized to Houston Nutt, I don’t even know who Thomas Mars is and I never have the phone records,” Robertson said. “I never find that call.”