Freeze Delivering on Promises, Vision Quickly Becoming Reality
By Seph Anderson
As published in the Nov/Dec 2014 Issue
Having survived what seemed like Armageddon at the time, also known as the final two years of the Houston Nutt regime, Rebel Nation was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief when the right reverend was relieved of his duties in late 2011. A collective sigh it may have been, the announcement of Nutt’s successor left some a bit uneasy about the future of the program.
Rebel Nation’s ray of hope in finding the right man to lead the Rebels back to prominence: Archie Manning and Mike Glenn. To many fans, the fact that two men who truly bleed red and blue would be leading the search provided a sense of calm in what had been two years of utter chaos.
So with Houston sent packing, an upstart, relative no-name, offensive-mind by the name of Hugh Freeze turned out to be “the guy.” However, it wasn’t the “splash” hire most Ole Miss fans expected, yet alone search committee chairs Manning and Glenn. When names like Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez, Kirby Smart, Kevin Sumlin and even Tony Dungy were bandied about as potential Nutt successors, the reality of hiring someone having spent the majority of his young coaching career in the high school ranks didn’t exactly breed confidence and create newfound unity amongst Rebel fans.
Fast forward to the present and you would be hard pressed to find an Ole Miss supporter with anything negative to say about Hugh or the program he has put on the literal fast track to success. How could they?
In his two-plus years at the helm in Oxford, Freeze has already led the program to back-to-back bowl wins, signed a consensus top-five recruiting class and inked the nation’s top high school prospect (2013), upset then-No. 6 LSU in Oxford despite having countless starters out with injury (2013), helped ignite Ole Miss supporters to give $112 million to the Forward Together Campaign, brought ESPN College Game Day to the Grove for the first time, led the ticket office to an all-time high in season ticket sales at 51,316 (2014), seen a club rack up more yards of total offense than any prior (6,153 in 2013), directed the Rebs to a Top-3 ranking (2014) and become a legit SEC West competitor.
Oh yeah. And knocked off then-No.1 Alabama on national television and in front of a plethora of highly-touted 2015 and 2016 prospects on hand at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
But before the attainment of accolades such as these, back in early December 2011, the majority of Rebel Nation wasn’t so sure this guy named Freeze would even be able to set the ship back on course. And they had half the right to think so, after seeing both how the Coach O experiment played out and how Nutt’s program went from success with O’s recruits to an SEC-had-been seemingly overnight.
Sure, Freeze won six-straight state titles at Briarcrest Christian School (Memphis, TN), served as an assistant coach at Ole Miss under Orgeron from 2005-2007, compiled a 20-5 record in two seasons at an NAIA school (Lambuth) and directed the Arkansas State offense for a season before leading the Red Wolves to a 10-2 mark and first bowl game in 25 years as head coach in 2011. But nowhere in his bio was head coaching experience in a “big-time” FBS conference. Instead, there was only the Sun Belt Conference. Now he was going to step into the bloodbath that is the SEC West and turn things around?
So let’s be honest, fellow Rebels, at the time who really thought that Freeze was ready to step in and turn Ole Miss into a winner in not only the nation’s toughest conference but also the nation’s toughest conference division? To most, the Freeze hire was simply the best of what was left. It was a shot in the dark and a Hail Mary to the Ole Miss Football Gods.
As it turned out, those Rebel legends like Johnny Vaught, Ed Walker, “Bruiser” Kinard, Charlie Conerly, Ray Poole and others answered that Hail Mary.
On December 5, 2011, the 37th head coach of the Ole Miss Rebels, Hugh Freeze, rallied the troops and created much-needed program buzz at his introductory press conference.
After taking a jab at a coach in Starkville by reassuring the crowd that he was coaching at THE flagship institution in the state of Mississippi, the Independence, MS native went on to share his vision:
Freeze stated that he had to know what “it” (the vision) was for the different program components. Further, his offense, defense, special teams, coaches and recruiters and fan base needed to understand the same. To get out of the “wilderness,” everyone had to be on the same page.
Offensively, “it” was to be a fundamentally efficient scoring machine. Defensively, “it” was to “relentlessly pursue the football and to knock the ever-loving stink out of opponents. On special teams, “it” was to provide a winning edge. As for recruiting, “it” was to create dynamic relationships with everyone involved in the decision making process. Finally, for a far-too-long divided fan base, “it” was to be united as one.
There it was. It sounded good, but then again, so did what Orgeron had to say when he was hired. Houston Nutt could sell ice to the eskimos, but that era of Ole Miss Football came to a screeching halt, too.
But wait, Freeze said something else that grabbed everyone’s attention. In a very matter of fact manner, he confidently said, “we will win a championship.”
Minus two Cotton Bowls in 2008 and 2009, the Rebels had largely played SEC doormat since Eli graduated in 2003 and Cut was let loose after refusing to shake up his staff following the 2004 season.
So, why did Freeze decide to proclaim that he would win a championship in Oxford on day one?
As far-fetched as the idea might have sounded to everyone else, Freeze was speaking from his heart and with conviction. He wasn’t just trying to “say the right things.” Instead, in much less detail, he was telling Rebel Nation the same types of things he had shared with the search committee when interviewing.
If we look back to other comments from Freeze and in particular, search committee co-chairs Archie Manning and Mike Glenn, there should be little surprise with the level of success Freeze has achieved in two-plus short seasons with the Rebels.
What’s the biggest selling point to prospects and most cherished characteristic of Ole Miss to those that have passed through her doors since the University first opened in 1848? Family. It’s that simple.
A Southern Miss grad he may have been. Freeze walked in knowing the language of the Ole Miss people. Not only could the devout Baptist preach the Word, he could also talk with folks like you and me, coaches and players, moms and dads and most importantly young men he wished to join his program.
One of the first things to come out of his mouth upon speaking to the crowd at the Ford Center that afternoon was the following, “Family will be a huge thing. I understand the Ole Miss people and the love you have for the University, each other and the love you have for family. I have that love. This is a destination place for me. This is where I want to live and retire. This is home to me.”
Family, Love and Ole Miss. Three nearly interchangeable and synonymous words to the Ole Miss brethren.
The husband and father of three wasn’t just saying that he’d run his program like a family. Most importantly, he was proclaiming to Rebel Nation that he shared the same love of Ole Miss and that he had arrived at his final destination. We had an “Ole Miss” guy. Not a member of the “good ole boy club” that had stayed in tact for far too long, but an up-and-coming head coach who loved Oxford and Ole Miss as much as even the most passionate Rebel fans. Now that was something that stuck with me.
An equally memorable mention that day was the “destination” comment.
How many coaches, young or old, experienced or not, state during their introductory press conferences that they’ve arrived at a “destination place and a place they want to retire?” Certainly not the likes of current and former SEC West coaches like Nick Saban and Bobby Petrino. I thought to myself, hell, maybe we just hired a loyal, honest guy who would be the next Frank Beamer, Mark Richt or Gary Patterson?
Really think about it for a minute. Here was Freeze, taking over a program with depleted talent and one that had gone 1-15 in the SEC over the previous two seasons, talking about wanting to retire in Oxford?
It’s not like he was taking over at a perennial power like Alabama or LSU.
So why would Freeze have talked about having arrived at his “destination place,” if he didn’t truly believe he had everything it took to turn the program into a year-in-year-out challenger for the SEC West title and that coveted shot to play in Atlanta for an SEC Championship?
To most with little to no real knowledge about Hugh as a person or coach, talk of staying at Ole Miss for the long haul likely didn’t mean very much. However, to the likes of Archie and Mike, both of whom had gotten to know the interview candidate incredibly well in recent weeks, they understood his plan.
Glenn said during the press conference, “I’ve never seen a candidate come into an interview more prepared and with greater passion and energy. Regardless of the topic, whether it was offensive or defensive philosophy, strength and conditioning, nutrition, academics, how to address an APR issue, or how to deal with other social issues that kids might have, it did not matter. I have never seen anything like that. At one point Archie asked him what he would do against a certain opponent in the SEC, and the way in which he dissected the opposing defense and what he would do to keep them off balance with lesser talent was amazing to me. I deferred to Archie on these football technicalities, of course, but I know leadership when I see it. I have had an opportunity to hire a lot of people in my career and have learned that success starts with tremendous leadership skills.”
A top executive at FedEx and steadfast Rebel, Glenn obviously felt quite positive about the impression Freeze imparted. As for Archie, his sentiments were similar. When questioned about the former Arkansas State head coach’s lack of head coaching experience, Manning said, “He made a great impression on us so I don’t think it was a concern. We just had people tell us two more years of him coaching where he is now what a hot commodity people fell like he would be in this profession. Like I said, he was someone just coming up doing it the right way and doing it with success so we think we’re kind of jumping the gun right here and getting an outstanding coach.”
You’d expect a candidate interviewing for an SEC gig to be well-prepared, so that was assumed. However, the “passion and energy” Glenn noted is exactly what this program had been in search of for years. Ever since Eli’s 2003 Rebels had made their SEC West run, minus Nutt’s first two seasons, the energy had been minimal at best surrounding the program. And that’s what we needed, a guy who could create energy.
Archie stated that he and Mike were told by numerous people that with, “Two more years of coaching, what a hot commodity he would be.” Well, two years later, now at the time when people said Hugh would be a hot commodity, his Ole Miss Rebels are ranked in the Top-10 (AP) and in the hunt for an SEC West Championship.
It’s a good thing Archie and Mike believed what they were told about Hugh. Had they not, could he have ended up at Auburn, Arkansas, Vanderbilt or elsewhere while the Rebels went with a non-Ole Miss guy like Leach or Rich Rod? It could have easily happened.
Also worth noting is the plan Freeze laid out for the program during his interview. Glenn recalled, “He came in with a very detailed plan. The plan was entitled “Ole Miss the Journey: SEC Championships.”
SEC Championships. To most around SEC parts, they’re something more important than even big-time bowl games. To be crowned “SEC Champion” means you were the best of the best in the best conference in all the land. And that’s precisely the destination and goal Freeze listed in his plan. For if you win an SEC title, most of the time you’re going to find yourselves in the national title hunt a few weeks later anyway.
As for Ole Miss, it hadn’t won the SEC crown since 1963 when Vaught roamed the sidelines.
Moreover, it’s important to remember that Hugh was jockeying to become head coach of a team that had arguably suffered through its’ worst back-to-back seasons in program history, laden with a grossly depleted cupboard of talent and depth. Yet this candidate walked into his interview and laid out a plan to win SEC titles as a part of his plan. That takes true conviction.
And what did he have to say about the importance of that annual late-November contest with the maroon and white (the same one his predecessor seemingly failed to recognize during his four years at the helm)?
Freeze stated, “It is not big, it is paramount. I have great respect of the job he has done there. I take nothing away from that job, but being raised here I have a quite good understanding of what that game means. The administration does not have to tell me that. I get it. It is about us regaining the momentum.”
And in his first Egg Bowl, on the heels of the opposing coach’s post-game locker room speech the year prior in which told his players they would “never lose” to that team again, Freeze and Co. smoked the Bulldogs 41-24 in front of a packed house at the Vaught to become bowl-eligible and seize momentum. No Rebels in attendance will ever forget the excitement, passion and energy that came alive that night.
Playing on the road in last year’s contest, things didn’t go as planned.
Now off to a 5-0 start (at press time), tied with Mississippi State at No. 3 in the Coaches Poll after the Alabama win, led by a senior quarterback looking to avenge his performance in last year’s game and fighting for not only an SEC Championship bid but also a spot in the National Championship Playoff field, there’s little reason to think Freeze and friends won’t come out guns a blazing in this year’s contest.
As for recruiting, the nation has now realized that Freeze and his staff are some of the best anywhere.
Having pulled the likes of OT Laremy Tunsil from the heart of Florida, WR Laquon Treadwell out of the Chicago, IL area and DE Robert Nkemdiche from literally every program in the nation, there are truly few prospects out there that Freeze’s staff feel they can’t ink. And given the way the 2014 season is playing out, expect many more to soon follow.
How’s the saying go? “If you build it, they will come?”
The Rebel recruiters shouldn’t have a problem convincing a few four and five-star national prospects to come be a part of what’s being built in God’s Country. I have every confidence that Freeze’s 2015 recruiting class will be ranked well inside the Top-15, if not higher, by the time National Signing Day rolls around in February.
After the accolades Oxford, Ole Miss and Freeze’s program received from College Game Day on October 4, Freeze should soon be very close to getting those final pieces of the puzzle he’s trying to put together.
Millions upon millions of college football fans, not to mention throngs of top high school and junior college prospects, tuned in to see a tailgating backdrop unlike anything that’s been on prior. The mass of red and blue humanity, the sea of tents, the smoke and aroma rising across those majestic Oaks in the Grove, the Ole Miss girls and most of all, a family atmosphere unlike any other on a college campus.
Make no mistake about it, 5-0 heading to College Station, Texas for a date with the Aggies, the sky really is the limit for the Ole Miss Rebels in 2014. Ahead of schedule they may be in “the journey,” the current Rebel squad may in fact be one of the most talented and capable since Vaught’s 1962 team which went undefeated and won a national championship.
A murderer’s row of conference games against Texas A&M, Tennessee, LSU and Auburn will ultimately determine whether or not this year’s club will find itself fighting for a trip to Atlanta and a spot in the college football playoff when the Egg Bowl rolls around.
If the Rebels can come out no worse than 2-2 against Texas A&M, Tennessee, LSU and Auburn, they should still be in position to challenge for the SEC West crown late this season. As talented as the West is top to bottom, a two-loss club may very well advance out of the West to play in Atlanta..
As for being a “fundamentally efficient scoring machine” and “relentlessly pursuing the football to knock the ever-loving stink out of opponents,” the Rebels have done just that to start the 2014 campaign. Having shaken off a rough first half against Boise State, “Good Bo” has carved up defenses behind a plethora of offensive weapons. As for the Rebel D, if it stays healthy, it may go down as one of the best to ever don the red and blue.
Regardless of how the second half of the season plays out for Freeze and the Rebels, the third-year head coach is delivering on the promises he made to Rebel Nation upon first being hired. Delivering in a much quicker time frame than even he likely expected.
And about that “plan” Freeze presented to the search committee. It’s unfolding before our very eyes.
So sit back and enjoy the journey, Rebel Nation. Half the fun is just getting there (and we’re close). – RN