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After initially restricting football transfers, Ole Miss changes its tune in face of backlash

When the paperwork arrived Monday, Marion Street was furious. Eight hundred miles away, so was Shawn Jefferson.

Their sons both play football at Mississippi. Jarrion Street is a true sophomore reserve linebacker; redshirt sophomore Van Jefferson was the Rebels’ second-leading receiver in 2017. And when the NCAA hit Ole Miss Friday with a second postseason ban, this one for 2018 after the self-imposed ban for this season, the players quickly requested permission to contact other schools in search of a transfer. Several other Rebels did the same.

Permission to contact was granted Monday — with limitations. No other Southeastern Conference school can contact Street or Jefferson, nor the eight non-conference opponents on the Ole Miss schedule in 2018 and ’19.

While limiting transfer options is shamefully common in college athletics, the circumstances here are quite uncommon. Despite major rule-breaking by the school and despite what the parents of those players describe as institutional dishonesty about the potential sanctions, Ole Miss was still refusing to permit players to transfer without restriction.

Until Tuesday. Faced with more negative headlines in a year full of them, the athletic department had an abrupt change of policy. After receiving a Yahoo Sports request for comment on the situation shortly after noon ET, the school released a statement at 1:20 p.m. saying that it is removing transfer restrictions.

Mississippi’s football program was handed a two-year postseason ban and other penalties by the NCAA. The NCAA came down hard on Ole Miss for its long-running rules violation case that included a charge of lack of institutional control. (AP)

“As far as the limitations initially placed on the permission to contact, the restrictions are common,” the athletic department statement to Yahoo Sports said. “Until we were notified [Tuesday] morning, none of the student-athletes had communicated they were unhappy with those restrictions. Frankly, if they had any objections and a legitimate reason to seek transfer to one of the limited schools, we would ordinarily work through those issues with the student-athlete and his family. The student-athlete’s best interest is always the priority. Coach [Matt] Luke and [athletic director] Ross Bjork discussed the matter this morning. To be consistent, they are removing any restrictions on their permission to contact for all those who have requested permission. Our compliance office has reached out to the student-athletes to let them know.”

Faced with even more negative publicity, the school wisely chose to do the right thing and do it quickly. That should satisfy some parents who were seething earlier in the day.

“The ethical thing to do would be to say, ‘We screwed up and we’re going to let your son go where he wants,’ ” said Shawn Jefferson, wide receivers coach of the Miami Dolphins. “Keep the kids first. When they recruited Van, Ole Miss came into our house and broke bread with us. They said, ‘We’re going to be an extension of his parents and take care of him and do things right.’ That was a bunch of bull—-. We expected them to be about the truth and honesty, and we got the exact opposite.”

“Right now I feel like my son has nowhere to go, and this is awful,” Marion Street said. “If Ole Miss had just been honest with us — but to just outright say there is nothing wrong [during the NCAA investigation]? Could you imagine if this is your child?”

Street and her fiancé, Nate Hope, gave a clear recounting of Jarrion’s official recruiting visit to Ole Miss, which happened to coincide with Yahoo Sports’ January 2016 reporting about the school having received the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations. The story broke while they were driving from their home in Trussville, Alabama, to Oxford, Mississippi, for the recruiting weekend.

Text messages began flooding into their phones, from various parties asking whether Jarrion might want to reconsider his commitment to Ole Miss. But they kept the car pointed toward Oxford and stuck with their plans.

Upon arrival, Marion Street said they asked assistant coach Derrick Nix about the allegations. She said Nix referred them to head coach Hugh Freeze. During the course of the weekend, Freeze addressed the situation in both group and private settings, they said.

During a recruiting dinner at The Inn at Ole Miss, both Marion Street and Hope said Freeze stood on a chair to address the recruits, and Marion specifically asked him about the NCAA situation. She said Freeze responded that it was nothing to worry about. At another point during the weekend, Jarrion, Marion, Nate and Jarrion’s sister all spoke privately with Freeze and asked him again about the situation.

Marion Street said Freeze referenced his faith, said he was a man of his word and reiterated that this would not significantly affect her son. He mentioned the possibility of the Rebels losing a couple of scholarships, she said, but that was “the worst thing that could happen.”

During that conversation, the family said Freeze asked Jarrion, “Do I have your word that you’re coming?” Raised to keep his promises, Jarrion said he would honor his commitment.

Driving home Sunday, the family received calls from Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. He had been recruiting Jarrion, and wanted him to make a last-minute trip to the school on the way home — the dead period before signing day started the following day. Malzahn pushed hard and Jarrion considered it.

But Hope, who had become Jarrion’s father figure after his real dad, Jarrion Sr., died of leukemia in 2010, counseled him against the visit. He stressed the importance of keeping a promise.

“He trusted us in our judgement as parents,” Hope said. “My stepson trusted me and I let him down. There’s nothing Ole Miss can say to me to make me feel better. I was an officer in the Army, and if I told my soldiers something, they trusted me. This is the same type of thing.

“The situation could have been totally different if someone had told the truth.”

Van Jefferson already was on campus at Ole Miss as a redshirt freshman when the news of the Notice of Allegations broke in January 2016. His father remembers similar assurances being given then to players about the nature of what the football program could be facing.

Today, his highly marketable son can now receive and appraise transfer offers from all over — including the SEC. Considered a four-star prospect coming out of high school in Tennessee, Jefferson had scholarship offers from at least eight SEC schools.

To be told initially that those schools were off-limits by a program that was found to have committed major violations elevated Shawn Jefferson’s blood pressure.

“I thought it was kind of bush-league for them to do this,” the elder Jefferson said. “It’s amazing that they can do wrong and still try to control kids’ futures. [Ole Miss coaches and administrators] probably knew all along this was going to be a whopper [of an NCAA case]. These kids were lied to, and I just think it’s wrong.”

Faced with trying to fight Ole Miss, the Jeffersons, Streets and others seeking to transfer did the smart thing — they retained the services of attorney Thomas Mars. His bloody civil battle with the school on behalf of former coach Houston Nutt became a major facet of this traumatic year for Mississippi, and he was eager to take up the cause of the Rebels seeking to play elsewhere.

On Monday, Mars took up the fight by emailing the school’s legal counsel. On Tuesday morning, the families were speaking out to Yahoo Sports. On Tuesday afternoon, Ole Miss was setting the players free.

“Let’s put these kids’ future first,” Mars said, “instead of treating them like they’re furniture that belongs to the University of Mississippi.”

Ole Miss’ letter to Van Jefferson on Monday via yahoosports