Arkansas attorney Thomas Mars has a simple explanation for why he has gone after the University of Mississippi like a bare-knuckles brawler in a back alley:
“We’re in federal court,” Mars said. “This isn’t junior high school.”
Mars used that rationale with his client, former Rebels football coach Houston Nutt, in explaining his bruising attack on Ole Miss – including leaking to media a salacious phone call that was not relevant to their lawsuit. Nutt sued the school earlier this month, claiming breach of a 2011 separation agreement via defamation of character, but the old coach needed some assurance from his attorney that it needed to go down this way – this fierce, this ferocious, this relentless. It has only gotten uglier since that suit was filed in the middle of Southeastern Conference media days.
Mars’ dogged pursuit of the school, coupled with Ole Miss’ intransigence, created a chain-reaction of events that culminated in the stunning resignation of current Rebels football coach Hugh Freeze last Thursday. That came with an only-in-the-SEC plot twist: Mars got investigative help from a reporter for a Mississippi State fan site with a fearless streak and a checkered past, Steve Robertson. His role in defrocking the publicly pious Freeze has helped elevate the Egg Bowl rivalry between Ole Miss and State to a level of ferocity that should make even Auburn and Alabama fans cringe.
And the brawl still isn’t over.
“I’ve been working 15-hour days, seven days a week,” Mars said. “I’ll keep doing that until December if need be.”
Nutt has declined comment since the suit was filed. His attorney has not.
What Mars wants on behalf of Nutt is a public apology from Ole Miss; a public acknowledgement that the school (specifically Freeze and athletic director Ross Bjork) misled the public by portraying a 2016 NCAA Notice of Allegations as primarily a Nutt problem and not a Freeze problem; and a pile of compensatory cash for damages. The school thus far has been unwilling to do any of the above, which has spurred the attorney to live up to his surname (Mars is the god of war in Roman mythology).
In an attempt to prove that Freeze and others falsely portrayed the undisclosed contents of that January 2016 Notice of Allegations as predominantly dating back to Nutt’s 2008-11 tenure, Mars acquired phone records from Ole Miss. Of specific importance, he asked for Freeze’s cell phone records between Jan. 19-21, 2016.
Mars believed the NOA had been delivered to Ole Miss on Jan. 20th. But to keep his request general enough to not disclose exactly what he was looking for, he also asked for Freeze’s calls from the day before and day after.
Among those calls was The Call: the one-minute dial by Freeze at 8:34 p.m. on Jan. 21st, to a number with a 313 area code that was linked to an escort. The revelation of that call began the series of events that culminated in Freeze’s resignation under pressure last Thursday.
“If we didn’t arbitrarily ask for those extra dates, this may not have come to light,” Mars said.
And if Mars hadn’t discovered and enlisted Robertson as a researcher, that call likely would never have popped up on anyone’s radar screen. Robertson writes for Genespage.com, a Mississippi State fan site within the Scout network, with a side specialty in constantly scouring for dirt on the rival Rebels.
Robertson entered the fray years ago with considerable scar tissue – an admitted recovering alcoholic and drug addict, he was convicted of burglary and false pretense 25 years ago. It’s a past he does not hide from, which is smart – it would futile in the savage Internet battles between fans of the two schools. Perhaps because of that, his zeal for the fight has been unshakable.
Roberton has written a yet-to-be-published book on Ole Miss entitled “Flim Flam,” and his pursuit of Freeze and the Ole Miss program as a whole has been unrelenting. This month, Mississippi State’s Ahab finally harpooned his white whale.
“Ole Miss people told me he’s obsessed,” Mars said. “My response was, ‘I think he’s the most underestimated investigative journalist in Mississippi. You’re right that he’s obsessed, and you guys should be worried about it.’ ”
Robertson’s obsession led to his painstakingly poring through the phone records that Mars obtained, finally alighting on Freeze’s bombshell call to the escort. He notified Mars, telling him to plug the number into a Google search. The result was an exclaimed profanity from the lawyer, followed by silence.
“For at least 90 seconds I didn’t say anything,” Mars said. “I was speechless.”
Mars informed Nutt, who the attorney said “made it absolutely clear he was not interested in going after this information publicly.” That’s when Mars told him this isn’t junior high, and explained why the escort call was pertinent to their case against Ole Miss.
“It has to do with establishing exactly what we alleged in the complaint,” Mars said. “[Freeze] has portrayed himself as a virtuous role model for young men. If people had believed that, they might disbelieve that he would launch a very deliberate smear campaign … that was very hurtful to Houston’s reputation.
“When you learn that image is a complete fraud … you’re more likely to believe he was fully capable of launching that smear campaign.”
Thus Mars passed along that information to media outlets, including Yahoo Sports. He also notified the school of the number’s existence on Freeze’s records in an email.
It was the only call of that nature on Freeze’s phone records, both from the Jan. 19-21 batch and a three-day collection of calls later that month. In a July 14 interview with Yahoo Sports, Freeze explained it as a misdial, even though there was no subsequent call to a similar number. The Ole Miss administration backed Freeze on that, saying it plowed through 39,000 calls during his five-year tenure and never found the same number.
Mars and Robertson remained dubious.
“We looked at his calls from two percent of the entire year,” Mars said. “What are the chances we [find] this and it’s the only call [to an escort]? Years of experience and common sense tells me this is no misdial.”
Sure enough, Ole Miss’ internal review of Freeze’s phone records led to discovery of other information the school has only alluded to in vague terms. But it was enough to force the resignation of a winning coach who is the only active SEC coach to have beaten kingpin Alabama twice.
But bringing down Freeze wasn’t the endgame for Thomas Mars and Houston Nutt. That remains in play, and their bare-knuckles efforts to win that game continue.
“Every day they don’t admit Freeze orchestrated this smear campaign,” Mars said, “they look more like they’re complicit with Hugh Freeze.”