2011 was a dark year for Ole Miss football. Two years removed from their second of back-to-back Cotton Bowl victories, the Rebels found themselves in an undeniable freefall. Defeating either No. 1 LSU or No. 2 Alabama would have been a tall task to request from any team last year as the two teams only lost to each other. Losing both games at home by a combined score of 104-10 is a different story.
Sadly enough, neither of those losses were the most embarrassing for the program and its fans. The Rebels lost their homecoming game against Louisiana Tech by a score of 27-7 in front of a crowd (the real one not the inflated announced one) that was roughly the size of a Chumbawamba concert. With a road game against archrival Mississippi State on the horizon, the Rebels were in danger of recording the worst season in program history with a loss. Ole Miss went on to lose that game by a score of 31-3, finishing the season at 2-10 and 0-8 in conference. The worst statistical season in the team’s 118-year history.
Off the field was not a pretty site to see either. Fights, arrests, and horrible academics plagued a lot of players on the team. While some responsible must be put on the individuals, a lot must fall on the shoulders of the coaches. There was no discipline in place, no organization of a single unit, and seemingly no true investment in the players from the coaches. If I was ignorant to college football and you showed me an Ole Miss game last year and said “Those players and coaches in red and blue all just met each other today. Those other guys have been practicing and playing together for a couple years”, I would have probably believed you.
A program that claims three National Championships, 11 consensus All-Americans, and the proudest gameday traditions in all of football was depleted. Eight years removed from Colonel Reb’s demise, two years from the tearing up the sheet music for “Dixie”, the University of Mississippi still had their football. After a 4-8 season in 2010, that appeared to be slipping, but the 2-10 season was a cave-in.
Something had to be done. It would not be as simple as firing the offensive coordinator. Nah ah. It would not be as easy as firing the head coach. Nah ah. The entire staff, athletic director, and repeat offending players had to go. The damsel that is Ole Miss had to be saved, had to be rescued from itself. The team did not just need a coach, they needed a direction.
Every fan with a Twitter account, blog membership, or Chevron booth to sit in had an opinion on who should be the next Rebel head coach. “How about we shoot for the moon and go after Jon Gruden, Herm Edwards, or Bill Cowher? I’m sure they’d have interest in coming to the great Ole Miss!” Some thought a little more realistically and delved into the wells of coordinators like Kirby Smart of Alabama, Gus Malzahn of Auburn, and Monte Kiffin of USC. Head coaching experience was a must for others, encouraging we go after Louisiana Tech’s Sonny Dykes, ULL’s Mark Hudspeth, or USM’s Larry Fedora. More names were thrown around the fanbase than a Natchez cake-walk. After tireless efforts, the search committee decided that they did not want any of those fine candidates. On December 5, 2011, they announced that they had found their man. Out of the mist came, Hugh Freeze.
There were mixed emotions around Oxford. “You mean the guy from the Blind Side?” Some people were underwhelmed and frankly, there would have been underwhelmed fans with any hire that wasn’t Nick Saban or the ghost of Johnny Vaught. The more research the fans did, the better the hire looked. Hesitation followed as Rebel fans were excited about the coach who took his last team to Atlanta three times and the one before that who was the deemed a recruiting deity. The wait for judgement on either side of the fence was still to come. After a five win turn around that saw a bowl victory in year one, the verdict is in: Hugh Freeze, is our guy.
“Spreading” the Excitement
Freeze brought a level of excitement that had been missing at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium since the graduation of one Dexter McCluster. It is a fast paced offense known as the spread. It is a balanced attack with a goal of running around a 50/50 run/pass split, getting off anywhere from 80-100 plays per game. It is an offense that utilizes speed and matchup problems to exploit the defense for big plays. It is a rising offense that won Auburn the 2010 National Championship and allowed their opponent Oregon to meet them there.
Fans like to see scoring. They like to see big plays. Freeze’s spread offense does just that. He was successful using it when he was at Lambuth, Arkansas State, and his first season at the helm at Ole Miss. Last year, Ole Miss averaged just over 16 ppg, this year they’re up over 31. Freeze is doing this with another coach’s players and with limited adjustment time for the team. The success will only increase as he gets his type of players in place, the players get more time to grow in the system, and he can utilize more of his playbook.
Bright Future: Succeeding With Young Talent
When you look down the Ole Miss stat sheets, you do not see many upperclassmen on there. The SEC is a conference that takes some getting used to. The speed of the game is faster, the players are bigger, and the schemes are complicated. Experience is traditionally vital to success in this league, giving Ole Miss little to no chance of survival this season, much less success.
How young is the Rebel football team exactly? They are losing just two starters on defense in Jason Jones and Uriah Grant. On offense they are also losing just two starters with the departures of Ferbia Allen and AJ Hawkins. The faces of the team are young, real young, and they are only going to get better.
Quarterback Bo Wallace passed for almost 3,000 yards and he is just a sophomore. Possible preseason All-SEC receiver Donte Moncrief is also a sophomore. Slash back and kick returner Jaylen Walton is a true freshman.
The typical starting defense consisted of two seniors (Jones and Grant), two juniors (Mike Marry and Charles Sawyer), three sophomores (Cody Prewitt, CJ Johnson, and Senquez Golson), and four freshmen (Denzel Nkemdiche, Issac Gross, Trae Elston, and Mike Hilton). Nkemdiche, Gross, and Elston all earned postseason accolades for the work they did as true freshmen in this conference. This defensive unit played together and swarmed to the football, just imagine how they are going to be when they have a couple years under their belt.
Mississippi is one of the cornerstones of the Deep South. The region believes in the importance of a few things: religion, family, and tradition. Ole Miss could not have hired a coach who exemplified those three dynamics any better than Freeze. If you follow him on Twitter or have ever heard him speak, it is impossible to miss the man’s strong Christian beliefs. Speaking engagements at churches, bible verse postings, relating his pregame speeches to stories from the “good book”. It’s everywhere. In a state where 59 percent of residents view categorized themselves as “very religious”, this speaks volumes to Rebel fans.
When it comes to family, Freeze puts them as high as any man can. In his introductory speech last season in the Gertrude Ford Center, he was brought to tears when he spoke of his family’s support of his career. His wife Jill and three daughters, Ragan, Jordan, and Madison all have a patriarch that they can count on who views them as the most important aspect of his mortal world. It may not translate on the football field, but you can not help but respect a man like that.
The Grove at Ole Miss is the most hollowed ground in college football. Every college football fan in America either has the Grove on their bucket list, or they have “go to the Grove again” on there. As a Mississippi man, Freeze gets that. A personal friend of mine is one of the owners of the “Warehouse Rebels” tent, in front of Barnard Observatory across from the Student Union. The tent is run by a group of former Rebel football players who have made it to that spot for every game for the last few decades.
When the Texas game rolled around, the Warehouse Rebel guys went to go set up their tent, but there was a problem. There was already a tent being set up there. One of the men walked up to a younger guy in an Ole Miss golf shirt and politely asked him if they could change spots. The guy, who is a graduate assistant, told him “Sorry, this is an official Ole Miss recruiting tent.” Dejected, the Warehouse Rebel pleaded, telling him that they had been at that exact spot for years. The assistant told him to wait a moment while he called Coach Freeze. After a few moments, he returned and told them, “I just talked to Hugh and he said ‘Any other coach in the country would tell them to find someplace else. But I don’t want to be the guy who breaks their tradition, tell them we are sorry and we will move our tent’.” The recruiting tent was then moved closer to the stadium, a long journey for anyone who knows the area. A coach who is willing to do that, is one who understands this University and its fans.
Recruiting football players to the University of Mississippi is a tricky thing. There is a lot to sell here: state-of-the-art facilities, storied tradition, current NFL pro bowl alumni, beautiful campus, respected education, and the list goes on. What could be so hard in getting players to come here then? There are two real problems when it comes to being an Ole Miss recruiter. First is fighting off the negative connotations that come with the University between the riots of 1962, the confederate flags in the stands, up to the Ku Klux Klan demonstration a few years ago. There is no doubt that other schools and outside influences are bringing these things to the attention of these recruits. As a coach, you have to face that head on and dispel any concerns that the prospect has.
The other problem is your recruiting competition. It is hard to argue against the fact that the southeastern United States has the best high school football talent. It’s true. The top two rushers in NFL history, Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton, are from Florida and Mississippi. The leading receiver in NFL history, Jerry Rice, is from Mississippi. The most prolific passer is Brett Favre, a native of Mississippi. The top two in all-time sacks, Bruce Smith and Reggie White, are from Virginia and Tennessee. I could go on, but I believe i have made my point. To get the best talent in the southeast, you have to go against the likes of LSU, Alabama, and Florida. In the SEC, we all fight amongst each other and convincing a kid not to lace up for the two-time defending National Champions is hard.
Freeze has embraced those challenges and has thrived on the recruiting front so far this season. If you are going by the ESPN rankings, which is a very slim minority, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that you are. Anyway, if you go by ESPN rankings, Ole Miss leads for the No. 1 player in the country, Robert Nkemdiche, the No. 19, Laquon Treadwell, and the No. 24, Antonio Conner. The Rebels have also been granted official visits for the numbers 2, 4, 5, 34, 39, and 47 players in the country just to name a few. Take that in for a moment. A team that was 2-10 last season has a real chance at signing 9 of the top 50 players in the country, including 4 of the top 5. That is truly amazing. Whether it is a happy birthday Skype call, attending a service at the home recruit’s church, or what have you, Freeze has a way with these kids.
From 2005-07, Freeze was an assistant coach under famed recruiter Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron. Once when he was asked if there was a better recruiter in the country than himself, Coach O responded with “That guy over there.” The man he was pointing to? Hugh Freeze.
Adulation for Ole Miss
Most of you probably remember Tommy Tuberville jumping ship at Ole Miss for what he deemed was a better job at Auburn. While many Ole Miss fans believe that Oxford and this University are the one-all-end-all, but not all coaches believe that. If we hired Smart, Malzahn, or Dykes, what do you think that would have done if Texas or Alabama came calling? Do you in your heart of hearts believe they would stay? If we somehow landed Gruden or Cowher and the NFL came calling, do you think they’d remain in red and blue? The answer to these questions is no, probably not. Freeze is a whole different story.
Born in Oxford and raised near Senatobia, he grew up an Ole Miss fan. His parents, his wife, his in-laws, are all Ole Miss grads. As a boy, he came down for every football game, tossing the pigskin in the Grove with the other kids. Oxford is not this man’s stepping stone, it’s his destination. These are his people, he fits in here, he belongs here.
Bear Bryant’s most famous quote came from his explanation of why he left Texas A&M for Alabama. He said “Mama called, and when Mama calls then you just have to come runnin’.” It certainly appears as though Mama called Freeze, and he came running home.