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Winning is all that matters, unfortunately

A disclaimer: I am a proud Mississippi State University graduate. And though I was programmed to hate all things Ole Miss, I no longer get bent out of shape when the Rebels win. As long as they aren’t playing State, I can even root for them. Blasphemy, I know.

In the end, we’re all Mississippians and any good news for the state (even if it comes from Ole Miss) is good for all of us. Conversely, any bad news (ahem, coming from Ole Miss) is bad for the state.

And there is plenty of bad news right now. Ignore, for the sake of this column, the ongoing NCAA case against Ole Miss. While those allegations are serious and will affect the university for years to come, my chief concern is the latest debacle — the resignation of coach Hugh Freeze.

Plenty of writers will tackle the ins and outs of his spectacular fall and the impact it will have on players, recruits and the university. My concern isn’t any of that.

I think a more pressing matter is what Freeze’s meteoric coaching rise and his plummet to earth says about college football and the near-worship of college football coaches.

Freeze was the golden boy of the college football world. He started as a high school coach at Briarcrest, then moved on to Lambuth, then Arkansas State and finally to Ole Miss in 2012 as a head coach.

And he immediately made an impact in Oxford. He got the Rebels to a bowl game in his first season, all the while preaching the forgiveness of Christ. In 2013, he hauled in the No. 5 recruiting class in the country. The success continued with a 9-3 record in his third season, and he even beat Alabama twice.

Through it all, he posted Bible verses on his Twitter account and proudly wore the hat of “Christian coach.” And maybe he was. But it wouldn’t be unheard of for someone to be outspoken about a faith that wasn’t genuine.

But Ole Miss didn’t care if his faith was genuine as long as he was winning football games. University officials weren’t concerned with his character as long as prized recruits kept coming. They were willing to stand by Freeze through the NCAA allegations too, as long as he said the right things at press conferences and kept Tweeting out scripture.

But surely they knew. Surely, they knew he wasn’t the man he convinced us all that he was.

I, for one, thought a lot of Freeze. Not because he won football games or because I knew him personally, but because he appeared to be willing to stand for Christ in a world that often ignores God. He was willing to be a Christian in a country that too often is hostile toward believers.

But it appears the man’s — and the university’s — first and only priority was winning. Everything else came second to that. Everything was done in service of that.

That’s how college football works. Integrity doesn’t matter. Character doesn’t matter. The law doesn’t matter. Basic human decency doesn’t matter. Only winning matters (yes, there are exceptions).

Freeze and Ole Miss aren’t the only example of this. Baylor University, the nation’s largest Baptist university, fired a head coach over allegations that he didn’t do enough to report sexual assault. “A report from Pepper Hamilton, an outside law firm hired by Baylor last fall, found the school ‘failed to take appropriate action to respond to reports of sexual assault and dating violence reportedly committed by football players. The choices made by football staff and athletics leadership, in some instances, posed a risk to campus safety and the integrity of the University,’” USA Today reported in 2016.

Baylor prioritized winning over the safety of other students. It put winning ahead of the law. There are other examples as well, and I doubt what Freeze has allegedly done is unique in the college football world.

What do we expect when we pay coaches million of dollars to win? What do we expect when we turn football programs into cash machines. I say “we” because we taxpayers have a say in this when it comes to public universities.

Universities incentivize winning with extravagant salaries and bonuses, and then act surprised when coaches will do whatever it takes to win. Tell a few lies? No problem. Bribe recruits with cash or maybe even an escort? Of course.  Turn a blind eye to sexual assault? Sure.

Like any business (and college football is a business), you get what you incentivize. And some people will do just about anything to make sure those incentives keep coming.

What would happen if universities paid more in bonuses for player graduation rates than wins? They would see higher graduation rates. What if universities paid more for higher GPAs than bowl wins? They would see higher GPAs.

But that will never happen. Winning brings fame. Winning increases enrollment. Winning means larger checks from boosters. Winning brings power. Winning will always be the altar universities — and their fans — worship at. And because of that, universities, coaches and football programs will continue to get burned.

Publisher Luke Horton can be reached at luke.horton@dailyleader.com.