How the NCAA’s investigation into Ole Miss trapped a Mississippi State player – SB Nation
Every time Leo Lewis spoke to the NCAA, the conversation started the same way.
There was always a statement for the record, a reminder from college sports’ governing body that Lewis would be safe … so long as he told the truth.
“Leo, do you understand that the limited immunity offer is contingent on you doing that, providing complete and truthful information?” NCAA investigator Mike Sheridan asked Lewis, reading from a prepared document.
“Yes sir,” Lewis replied.
That first time, they were in a Hilton Garden Inn off the highway in Starkville, Miss., early on a humid Wednesday morning in August of 2016. Sheridan went through a series of formal statements for the record; Lewis was immune from losing his NCAA eligibility for anything he might have done as a college football player or as a recruit “… so long as you provide complete, truthful, and accurate information,” Sheridan said.
If the NCAA is its own justice system for players and member institutions, Sheridan and members of the enforcement staff acts as the police and prosecuting attorney. The NCAA’s Committee On Infractions (COI), which orchestrated that meeting in Starkville, is the judge and jury.
Lewis, currently a redshirt sophomore linebacker at Mississippi State, had received that grant of “limited immunity” by the COI at the request of the enforcement staff.
In the NCAA’s investigation into Ole Miss, which began in 2012 — years before Lewis was old enough to play college ball — Lewis is the enforcement staff’s prize witness. The Brookhaven, Miss., linebacker had a checkered recruitment by multiple SEC programs, including Ole Miss, the target of an investigation with allegations dating back six years from the first time Lewis sat across from the NCAA.
Of course, it would not be prudent for Lewis to have talked to the NCAA on his own and risk his current eligibility at MSU, his path to a future NFL paycheck. The NCAA likely knew Lewis wouldn’t speak without protection from his own statements about potentially improper benefits he’d received as a prized recruit. So in the summer of 2016, the enforcement staff requested an immunity grant from the committee. The COI granted it. Per NCAA literature:
Limited immunity is an investigative tool that allows information to be elicited from an individual concerning his or her potential involvement in or knowledge of NCAA violations, with the understanding that the NCAA will not put the individual at-risk in the infractions process by bringing identified allegations against him or her.
Now officially on the record that August, Sheridan asked if Lewis understood that immunity would only cover past events, not any potential future violations, and that if he was found to have provided false or misleading information, he could still lose his grant.
“Yes sir,” Lewis replied.
Finally, Lewis’ lawyer, John Brady, stepped in to clarify how far his client could go.
“I just want to make sure we’re clear that the immunity extends to everything that you may ask Leo today, is that correct?” Brady asked.
“That is correct,” Sheridan replied.
Then Lewis started talking. About money. About free hotels, free rides to visit college campuses, hundred-dollar handshakes, free apparel, and even more money, bags of cash he says he received from multiple SEC programs totaling over $21,000 during the final week before National Signing Day in February 2015.
Over the next five months, Lewis would be called twice more to meet with NCAA enforcement. One year and three interviews later, Lewis’ statements have helped build a massive case against Ole Miss, just as the enforcement staff hoped. But talking to the NCAA has put Lewis in a difficult position, as he is now a co-defendant in a pending civil trial, one that could stretch years beyond Lewis’ time as a player, as well as cost him substantial future earnings, if he’s found liable.
Additionally, new documentation submitted to the Committee on Infractions by attorneys for Ole Miss claims Lewis told NCAA enforcement he took $11,000 in benefits from his current school, Mississippi State. Unlike Lewis, Mississippi State cannot receive conditional immunity for any former, current, or future statements its current player makes.
And it’s not over yet. Lewis has been requested by the COI to appear at Ole Miss’ Committee on Infractions (COI) hearing on September 11. If Lewis ends up attending, his comments will shape not just the future of two SEC programs, but possibly Lewis’ entire football career.
If Lewis doesn’t attend, he could lose immunity and his college career. If he does, he could further implicate his current program. And even if Lewis speaks to the COI, he could still lose his conditional immunity — and his eligibility — if the committee decides he hasn’t been truthful or cooperative.
How did Lewis get here, and more importantly, how does he get out?
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Ole Miss’ battle with the NCAA started with a 2012 inquiry, well before Lewis was a gleam in college football’s eye. The NCAA was on campus, looking into allegations against Ole Miss’ women’s basketball program and track teams, and also into allegations of ACT fraud, disallowed contact, and lying to NCAA investigators by staff members alleged to have occurred under former football head coach Houston Nutt in 2010.
Lewis, a Brookhaven, Miss., native and four-star rated linebacker, signed with MSU in February of 2015. With both MSU and Ole Miss coming off New Year’s Six bowl games, Lewis was a huge get for the Bulldogs — 247Sports rated him as the top inside linebacker prospect in the nation.
Ole Miss was served with a notice of allegations on Jan. 22, 2016, including claims of four Level I violations (Level I is the strongest classification for an allegation) against Nutt’s staff, as well as nine allegations (four were Level I) against assistants under Hugh Freeze, who took over the program after Nutt was fired in 2011. These included allegations that players received free loaner cars, that recruits received free lodging and benefits, and that Ole Miss made impermissible off-campus contact with recruits. Investigators presented an allegation that the school gave a cash payment of $800 to Miami Dolphins offensive lineman and former Ole Miss Rebel Laremy Tunsil.
On February 10 Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork told the Jackson, Miss. Clarion Ledger the NCAA’s investigation was done, and that rumors of a second notice of allegations against the football program were false.
He was wrong. In February of 2016 MSU signees Kobe Jones and Jeffery Simmons talked to the NCAA about the Ole Miss case. Both Jones and Simmons were interviewed a week after signing with MSU.
Among other topics, Simmons and Jones were interviewed about Rebel Rags, an Ole Miss apparel shop in Oxford, Miss. which is suing Lewis as a result of his testimony to the NCAA. Rebel Rags owner Terry Warren is alleging defamation, commercial disparagement, and civil conspiracy by Lewis, MSU teammate Kobe Jones, and Lindsey Miller, former stepfather of Tunsil. All three individuals spoke to NCAA enforcement about recruits allegedly receiving free merchandise at the store.
Neither Simmons nor Jones was interviewed by Sheridan or any NCAA staffer working directly on the Ole Miss case, but by Aaron Hernandez, a member of the NCAA’s Enforcement Development staff.
The Development staff works as an open tip line for schools, athletes, or anyone else to contact the NCAA about potential violations. In other words, it’s possible that Jones and Simmons’ statements were volunteered to the NCAA, not requested.
Simmons was a five-star recruit and the consensus top 2016 prospect in Mississippi. He denied receiving free merchandise from Rebel Rags. Jones told the NCAA’s development team he himself had received free merchandise while visiting Oxford with his high school coach.
On April 28, 2016, Tunsil’s NFL draft night imploded on national television. A photo of Tunsil smoking through a gas mask was published on his apparently hacked social media just moments before the draft began. Moments later, the same account shared text messages that appeared to show Tunsil requesting money for his mother’s utility bills from Ole Miss staffers John Miller and Barney Farrar.
Per multiple sources, the NCAA enforcement staff sent a request to the COI that April to separate its investigation into Ole Miss football from the other two sports. However, when the NCAA delivered its amended notice of allegations (NOA) in February of this year, Lewis — not Tunsil — was at the center.
Suddenly an active, high-profile Mississippi State player was at the center of the Ole Miss investigation.
The amended NOA contains nine new allegations; seven involve Lewis. His statements to the NCAA are the sole basis for five of the violations, four of which are Level I, in the NCAA’s amended notice in February of 2017. Information from Lewis is also cited by the NCAA in two more Level I violations, one alleging lack of institutional control and a violation of the head coach responsibility legislation by Freeze.
Upon receipt of the amended NOA, Ole Miss self-imposed a one-year bowl ban and scholarship reductions, stating it would contest the allegations that involved Lewis, classified “Student Athlete 39” in public documents. Shortly after the announcement, Lewis drew the ire of Ole Miss fans when he tweeted a GIF of Heath Ledger as an applauding Joker.
Through today, Ole Miss officials have publicly touted their own “exemplary cooperation” in reference to working with the NCAA.
Privately, key players inside Ole Miss were furious that Lewis, whom multiple SEC coaching staffs believed to have received money from multiple programs during his recruitment, would serve as the anchor of a case against them.
“The tone of the case changed immediately here,” a source inside Ole Miss football told SB Nation. “I think the whole ‘exemplary cooperation’ tactic blew up on us right then. It went from us arguing what we were actually guilty of to then arguing the word of Lindsey Miller [former stepfather to Tunsil] … to now we’ve got current Mississippi State players being interviewed? I think that’s when everyone here realized it was a fight, not a process or a review.”
The final chapter of the NCAA’s case vs. Ole Miss is being monitored across coaching circles today, especially among SEC staffs concerned with what kind of impact disputed comments by a rival program’s player will have on Ole Miss.
“No one shed a tear about Hugh Freeze. It’s an unfortunate situation for his players, but it wasn’t a shock to anyone in our community that they were investigated,” one SEC assistant said. “What is scary is how an active rival team’s player is being used in the investigation. This is something that we’d like to see some transparency and detail on the NCAA’s part after it’s over.”
An SEC head coach agreed, telling SB Nation:
“I think everyone is watching right now. What’s interesting, and potentially very dangerous, is the concept of weaponizing a school’s wins or losses in recruiting. That if we go toe-to-toe with a rival school and lose out on the kid clean, that school can then have them talk to the NCAA about his recruitment from us and make statements without support.”
And there’s the matter of what happens to the weapon.
THE THREE MEETINGS
SB Nation has obtained transcripts of the three times the NCAA interviewed Lewis regarding the Ole Miss case. The first time was to tell his story, the second to tell it in the presence of lawyers for Ole Miss, and a third was in a teleconference with NCAA enforcement in the wake of new information that he may have been paid by more than one school.
On August 10, 2016, Lewis and his lawyer, John Brady, met with Mike Sheridan of the NCAA enforcement staff in the Hilton Garden Inn in Starkville. According to documents obtained by SB Nation, Lewis spoke about the four schools he was primarily recruited by and the coaches and staffers he met: Ole Miss (Farrar and Tom Allen, now head coach of Indiana), LSU (Frank Wilson, now head coach of UTSA), Mississippi State (Tony Hughes, now head coach of Jackson State) and Alabama (Burton Burns).
He then dove into his recruitment at Ole Miss, saying he and his family received free hotels, meals, and sometimes transportation during unofficial visits. Lewis could not recall specific dates or remember the number of times he visited Oxford, and on multiple occasions could not remember where he spent his nights or whom he traveled with to Oxford and back home to Brookhaven.
But even without specific dates and a hazy memory, he told the NCAA about what appears to be a clear pattern of violations: Lewis claims he never paid for a meal or a motel when he made an unofficial visit. (While a university is allowed to pay for transportation and lodging during a recruit’s official visit, the recruit has to pay his own way on an unofficial one.)
He told Sheridan he received free food and drinks and payments of $100 to $200 “two or three times” from Lee Harris, owner of an Oxford bar named Funky’s, after meeting him in the Rebels’ practice facility on campus. Lewis detailed cash payments of $500 to $800 on multiple occasions between 2014-’15 from a woman named Phyllis, who Lewis said worked for an Ole Miss booster in Jackson, Miss. Lewis said the payments began in 2014, after his father was sent to prison and Lewis became a parent to a baby girl.
Lewis said that on one occasion he received $400 worth of merchandise at Rebel Rags, where he went after he told Farrar that he wanted some Ole Miss apparel. Farrar was fired from his position as the Rebels’ assistant A.D. for high school & junior college relations in December, and he’s featured heavily in Lewis’ comments to the NCAA. Lewis said that Farrar arranged everything Lewis wanted or asked for: lodging, food and, via third parties, cash. Lewis told the NCAA he and Farrar were “very tight” and spoke at least five times a week on the phone during his junior and senior years of high school.
Regarding his trip to Rebel Rags, Lewis told the NCAA on one occasion there he gathered $400 worth of merchandise, and then a cashier swiped “like, this gift card,” as Lewis describes it and bagged the items up. Lewis told enforcement he never took photos of the merchandise or kept it, gave some away to friends, and can’t locate it now. In their filing against Lewis, lawyers for Rebels Rags say that a system that uses gift cards like Lewis described doesn’t exist.
Lewis claimed to have received a $10,000 cash payment from an Ole Miss booster named “Allen” (Lewis wasn’t sure if it was his first or last name) in the parking lot of a Hampton Inn in Brookhaven on Feb. 3, 2015, one day before National Signing Day.
“We arranged it … because I needed it. Well, I didn’t need it, I take that back. I asked for it. It was getting — it was getting close to Signing Day and so I just — I just asked for the 10 grand,” Lewis told the NCAA.
Lewis told the NCAA that he spent $5,000 as a down payment on a car, some on clothes and shoes, and either $2,000 or $3,000 went to his mother, to help put a down payment on a new house in Brookhaven.
After an extensive recap, Sheridan asked Lewis if he could recall any other benefits.
“Is there anything else that you remember getting or any other payments or things that kind of ring out to you about all this?” Sheridan asked.
“From Ole Miss, I assume?” Lewis said.
“Yup, that’s what we’re talking about,” Sheridan said.
“No, sir,” Lewis said.
Sheridan also asks Lewis if he was ever “fixed up with a lady” while visiting Ole Miss.
“Never,” Lewis said.
For the second meeting with NCAA officials, held on November 18 in Starkville, Lewis was joined by Brady and Sheridan, along with two lawyers representing Ole Miss, Mike Glazier and Henry Gimenez (via phone). With Ole Miss counsel present, Sheridan and Lewis went back over the rides to and from Oxford on unofficial visits, the hotels, Funky’s, and the money from Phyllis.
Again, Lewis struggled to recall specific details of events two-plus years prior. He conflated a trip he thinks he took in April with one that outside evidence showed he took in August. He couldn’t remember which cars he rode in to and from Oxford on specific dates. He couldn’t recall exactly who among his friends, high school teammates, or family came with him on each trip.
He was asked to recall specific items he received at Rebel Rags; he said he gave away an Ole Miss baseball jersey to a high school friend, and he said the cashier at Rags “removed all the clips” off the merchandise, referring to anti-theft ink cartridges. In their filing against Lewis, lawyers for Rebels Rags claim the store doesn’t use these devices.
Regarding the $10,000 he claimed he received from Allen, Sheridan provided his paperwork on the car, showing a down payment of $6,885. Lewis agreed that’s how much of the Ole Miss money he used, and that he gave his mother $1,000 for a down payment on a house.
Lewis detailed the meeting with Allen at the Hampton Inn for the $10,000, and said it definitely happened “in the noon.” Lewis told Sheridan that Allen had mentioned apprehension about Lewis signing with LSU or Mississippi State and that he believed Barney was in touch with Phyllis and Allen throughout his recruitment.
Sheridan showed Lewis a text message, forwarded to Farrar, from Allen to Leo. Allen is panicked because he read on an LSU message board that Lewis was headed to the Tigers, per a former coach of Lewis’.
“You swore to me on your daughter Please call me. [sic] You owe me that,” the message ends.
Lewis told the room that he didn’t respond to the text or return subsequent calls from Allen.
“I just didn’t want to,” Lewis said.
He told the group he had never intended on signing with Ole Miss and that as he took the payment, he was still deciding between LSU and Mississippi State. Lewis was then pressed by a lawyer for Ole Miss as to why he took the money.
“I just wanted the money. ‘Cause I needed it … We was moving to a house, and I actually had my daughter. My dad had just went to prison. Uh yeah, so needed it, so I took it. [I] asked for it, and I took it,” Lewis said.
Throughout, Ole Miss’ lawyers were only allowed to ask questions that supplemented Sheridan’s line of questioning. At the end, Sheridan turned it over to Glazier. Glazier began asking questions, each rebuked by Brady, who stated Lewis only had to answer Sheridan, in keeping with terms of the immunity agreement.
Glazier asked where Lewis kept the cash he received.
“At home,” Lewis said.
Glazier tried one more question.
“Okay. There was this video …”
“Yes sir,” Lewis said.
“Tell me about this video.”
“We’re gonna end it right now,” Brady said.
In his next meeting with the NCAA, Lewis would discuss the video. On December 13 Lewis was asked to interview with the NCAA — again under immunity — a third and final time on the Ole Miss case. In the meeting, a teleconference with Lewis, Brady, Sheridan and Stephanie Hannah, Sheridan’s boss at the NCAA, Lewis discussed the video, which was a Snapchat Lewis created in late February of 2015 and has since been shared countless times online by SEC fans.