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The Future of Ole Miss and Hugh Freeze

Ole Miss football is a labor of love for so many of its fans. Not many of us choose to be fans of Ole Miss it is more like an inheritance.  We love the school because we are all deeply invested in Ole Miss both financially and emotionally.

Article originally printed in Rebel Nation Magazine

This is not an uncommon situation in the SEC. This deep rooted love for your home state and school is what makes this conference the best in college football.  We all care a great deal about our college football and it matters to us.

So, I won’t tell you to calm the hell down and just enjoy a five win season. I won’t tell you to let Freeze and Ross Bjork do their jobs and stop freaking out on social media.  I won’t tell you this because you, as fans, are the program.

Without you, there is no program. Coaches will come and go, even big money boosters will come and go.  What lasts are the season ticket holders and the tailgaters.  The folks that show up on Thanksgiving, in the rain, in 35 degree weather.  You guys are the program.

So feel free to write letters and argue and fight with other fans and get it out of your system.

In this article, I will try to address (from my perspective) some of the biggest questions Ole Miss fans have after a disappointing 2016 season.

Why are you not mad as Hell, like me?!

I am not that concerned, not because I know how Freeze’s tenure will work out. I have some insight into the program but I can’t predict what the NCAA will do.  We have all seen they are unpredictable in their rulings and enforcement of their own rules.

I am not concerned because Ole Miss is greater than one coach or athletic director.

Hugh Freeze was hired at Ole Miss in 2012 and promised to lead Ole Miss out of the wilderness. A football coach with only one year of head coaching experience at the Division One level was able to take one of the lowest funded programs in the most difficult college football conference (at one of the lowest points in our history) and he did what he said he would do.

He turned Ole Miss around. He took a team with only 60 scholarship players in 2012 and went to a bowl.  He took this downtrodden program that was decimated by Houston Nutt to the point of collapse and won the Sugar Bowl in just three years.  Something that hasn’t happened around Oxford in 50 years.

Perhaps winning 10 games a year so quickly is not sustainable. Coach Freeze may have outkicked his coverage and that’s ok.  He deserves a down year or even two.

But what has everyone most upset is that 2016 doesn’t feel like a down year. It feels like the end of a cycle.  It doesn’t even feel like we have hit bottom yet.  It’s easy to imagine that 2017 will be even worse with the loss of Chad Kelly and other key contributing seniors.

So I will be fine and will support the Rebs no matter what happens going forward.

What kind of coach do we need after Freeze?

If you are interested in looking for a new coach you have to think about who can be successful at a school like Ole Miss. This is a small school, with a small stadium and little national success.  It will always be a struggle to recruit at Ole Miss against the Alabama and LSU type programs.  You better find a coach that can take less talented kids and beat those top programs.

You need a innovative, exciting, high scoring offense in order to outscore the minor league NFL teams you will play every week. You also need a marketing genius and a motivator that can somehow focus teenagers and keep them out of trouble and in class every day.

The guy that would fit all these criteria is hard to find. Ole Miss has been looking for that coach since 1973 when Johnny Vaught walked off the field for the last time.  The closest thing we have found so far is Hugh Freeze.  He has proven he can win at a high level at Ole Miss.

Can Hugh Freeze survive 2016?

I think that answer will largely be answered by you, the fans with a little input from the NCAA. The NCAA is going on 5 years of looking at the books in Oxford and they have found a few violations like they would anywhere over 5 years.  Over the period in question that basically spans three coaching staffs and two athletic directors, the NCAA found 13 violations against the football program which amounted to monetary benefits of $15,608 total over eight years.

No matter your opinion on NCAA rules violations, $15,608 over 8 years is hilariously minor compared to violations with Albert Means at Alabama, Reggie Bush at USC or Cam Newton at Auburn. But just because Ole Miss didn’t commit egregious rules violations doesn’t mean the NCAA won’t penalize Ole Miss egregiously.  We just won’t know until the NCAA committee meets, makes a ruling and they go through the appeals process (Ole Miss most likely will and should appeal this ridiculous 5 year investigation).

If you as a fan can’t stomach any NCAA bad news then maybe Freeze should go and maybe we should prepare ourselves to be the Vanderbilt of the West. That’s just the reality of college football.

I believe Hugh Freeze can survive and win at Ole Miss going forward. Over the last 4 years comparing the other programs in the SEC west, Ole Miss has averaged 8 total wins and 4 SEC wins per year.  Good enough for 4th in the SEC over that period.  While that is not great it is better than Bielema and Mullen and very close statistically to the top of the SEC.

 

freeze-wilderness-1

Hugh Freeze is competing and holding his own, even with a down year.

Everyone wants their team to be successful losing games is very frustrating, but it’s important to have a little perspective on how Hugh Freeze stacks up against the rest of the league’s coaches, some of which have a lot more resources than Ole Miss.

I don’t know what the future holds but I know that Hugh Freeze is very capable of leading this team. And if it doesn’t work out for Freeze, the current SEC salaries are really nice and will attract a long line of qualified coaches putting Ole Miss in a better position for success than any time in the past.

So, let’s all pull the rope together, because it’s up to us, the fans, if this program sinks or swims.

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Dabo Swinney and Hugh Freeze: Christian College Coaches Under Fire

No matter your personal beliefs, America’s founding values allow us to worship and share our individual faith. It was so important to our founding fathers, it was the first amendment to the Constitution that makes up the Bill of Rights.

Our nation was founded in part due to the persecution and harassment of English people that refused to follow the “Church of England.” Catholics and other traditional protestants were labeled as traitors and criminal laws were enacted against Puritan worship services.

So, religious persecution is nothing new in the world and it continues even today. Even in the world of college football.

Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney will be facing off against the Alabama Crimson Tide on January 11th with the national title on the line.

While both Coach Swinney and Saban are obviously great football coaches, Clemson’s Swinney expresses a personal faith that has put a bullseye on his back.

The Freedom From Religon Foundation has threatned lawsuit against Clemson due to Swinney’s out spoken Christianity.

According to the “Foundation,” Swinney has promoted a culture in the program that promotes Christianity and violates constitutional guidelines of the separation of church and state as stipulated in the Establishment Clause of the first amendment.

The Foundation is essentially saying that Swinney’s personal views as a high profile employee of the University borders on the official views of the University.

This is not a new fight or discussion. While the concept of a separation of Church and State is not expressly written in those exact words that was the intent of founding father Thomas Jefferson as a way to more easily explain the first amendment.

The key argument on both sides of this age old battle is do the kids or staff under Swinney’s control have the freedom to worship or not worship in their own personal way? And does Swinney’s faith and his expression of that faith somehow infringe on those under his control?

While I won’t be able to settle that argument here in this article, I do want to make the point that Swinney does have the personal constitutional right to express his faith. His right to do so should be supported by all Americans who enjoy the same right.

In the Deep South, high school football coaches are notorious for preaching in the locker room and using bible verses and biblical narratives in their motivational speeches.

If you have ever played high school football you probably had at least one coach like that and certainly in Mississippi, that is the rule rather than the exception.

But for some reason the idea of a college coach using these same lessons and stories of faith and struggle and perservance is seen as heresy or even hypocritical.

Ole Miss’ Coach Hugh Freeze is one of those preacher type high school coaches that happened to make the quantum leap to become a SEC head coach.

Photo by Kevin Cox - Getty Images

Photo by Kevin Cox – Getty Images

Freeze coached at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis for 13 years and is the son of one of those preacher type head coaches as Danny Freeze coached at Independence and Senatobia High schools in Mississippi. The younger Freeze no doubt grew up in that environment, learning from his father and other coaches and continues that model.

For Freeze, his faith is more than a model, it is even more important than football itself. He has said that football is just the platform, the opportunity, to impact the lives of people in the program.  Freeze said in a Washington Post article in 2014 that, “When my life comes to an end, how much does that scoreboard really matter?”

Given the fact that Freeze hold many of the same thoughts we all do as football fans in the South, why does his words cause so much concern.

I am willing to bet if anyone else said that same sentence, you would absolutely agree. But because a college football coach says it, there is some hidden sinister agenda behind his words.

As you would expect, rival fan bases and blog posts highlight this minority opinion.

Sage writer “DawgSmack” posts this gem from Maroon and White Nation that says Hugh Freeze’s Gospel is actually a Gospel of Hate.

The manager of MSU fan blog 3rdand57 had some interesting twitter posts recently that I think really highlights this thought that somehow big time college football coaches are not allowed or are incapable of having “core values” without lying or fabricating their faith.

beastman freeze faith invert

I understand rival fans are irrational but wow, when you stand back from a distance, it is really disheartening that fellow Christians can stand by and toss accusations like this without recognizing that we all struggle with faith.

We all fall short of the ideal. We are all hypocrites in that way and saying someone else is not perfect is holding a football coach up to a weirdly high standard that they wouldn’t hold themselves to.

Will Hugh Freeze make mistakes in his life, of course. Will God help Dabo Swinney beat the “evil” Nick Saban Alabama empire?  I hope my God has more to do on that Monday.

We need to stand with other men who are brave enough to take a stand and in the heat of the national media spotlight make their beliefs known.  Why would anyone work for a boss that only cares about winning and winning only?

Because at the end of our days, the scoreboard and the color of our jacket wont matter.

You don’t have to be a fan of Ole Miss or Clemson to appreciate men like Hugh Freeze and Dabo Swinney.

Photo by Kevin Cox - Getty Images

Is Hugh Freeze the Best Coach in the SEC?

Hugh Freeze has started the 2015 season off on a hot streak at 3-0 and is currently the highest ranked SEC team in the nation at #3 in the latest Associated Press poll.

A lot of ink has been spent discussing the meteoric rise of Hugh Freeze from Briarcrest High School to a slumping SEC school to the Cover of Sport Issustrated, all within 10 years.

ole miss Sports-Illustrated

Hugh Freeze is seen as one of the new guard coaches in the SEC, along with Gus Malzhan, Kevin Sumlin and Dan Mullen.  As mentioned by Grantland there is a changing face in the SEC and a battle is on-going between the traditional SEC power teams and the more speed based teams.

Each of these new guard coaches have had a chance to sit on top of the SEC the last couple of years but no one has been able to sustain it for very long.

After Manziel left Texas A&M, the hype and the wins have reduced for Sumlin.  This year Auburn’s defense (and offense) looks very weak and Dan Mullen has fallen back in the pack just a bit while replacing 15 starters from last year’s team.

Currently, it is Hugh Freeze’s turn at bat to try his hand at “changing the face” of the SEC.

Freeze has the least amount of experience of the four coaches mentioned but has emerged as one of the best offensive minds in the game today.  But, what allows Freeze to stand above the crowd right now is his focus on defense.

With the nation’s top scoring defense last year and top NFL prospects like Robert Nkemdiche, they take a lot of pressure off the Ole Miss offense.

Nkemdiche Brothers - Photo via @olemisspix

Nkemdiche Brothers – Photo via @olemisspix

It seems like an obvious point to focus on winning with defense in the SEC, but Sumlin and Malzhan would rather sign an extra wide receiver than a third defensive lineman.

By developing an Elite defense, Freeze has been able to build momentum for his overall program rather than just one side of the football and as we have seen so far a one-sided program is just not sustainable.

It remains to be seen if Hugh Freeze can stay on top of the league throughout the year, but it seems the schedule is setting up to favor Ole Miss.

The best team’s on the remaining schedule are Texas A&M and LSU and both of those teams have to play in Oxford.

It’s a great story.  Everyone loves to see the “good ole’ boy do good,” but Freeze is on the verge of taking over as the King of College Football.

 

 

 

 

Spruce Derden, USA Today Sports, September 27, 2014

Ole Miss 2011: The Year That Would Change Everything

2011 was a rock-bottom year of disappointment and embarrassment for the Ole Miss program.

The 2010 Houston Nutt led Ole Miss Rebels had just finished 4-8 on the season. They lost to FCS foe Jacksonville St. and going into 2011, had no true identity on either side of the ball.

Rebel Nation morale was at an all-time low.  The “Forward Rebels” Campaign was splitting the fan base and no one knew where they wanted the program to go.

The 2011 season started off just as 2010 had ended, with inconsistent play, academically ineligible players, and fans calling for Houston Nutt’s job.

When Nutt was fired at the end of 2011 after a devastating 2-10 season, it gave the fans hope and excitement with some high profile coaches available, such as Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach. But the coach chosen for the job was a young coach from Arkansas State University by the name of Hugh Freeze. Everyone, admittedly even myself was like “Hugh who”?

Hugh Freeze, best known as a high school football and women’s basketball coach at Memphis’ Briarcrest Christian (94-30) had only been a D1 head football coach for only one season (10-2 Arkansas State 2011) before being named as the Ole Miss head coach.

A lot of Rebel fans were simply not yet sold on the guy. He would have to prove himself, against impossible odds. Ole Miss’ program was in shambles. As many as 25 players were in danger of academic probation and Ole Miss plays in the best division of the best conference in the nation.

Hugh began as very humble and honest, saying at the time that it would take him 3 years to put together a bowl team. Fast-forward to November 24, 2012 and the Rebels beat MSU for the first time since 2008, and Ole-Miss became bowl eligible for the first time since the 2009 season.

The program was immediately back on track, fans were happy and traveled in droves to Birmingham for the Compass Bowl. Top recruits were starting to inquire about Ole Miss. The downtrodden Ole Miss fans were happy with a 7 win season, but still had no idea of what was yet to come. From 2012 to now, Hugh Freeze has had 3 top 25 recruiting classes, (Consensus top 10 in 2013) two bowl wins, and has beaten every SEC west opponent at least once in his tenure, including the famous Alabama win in 2014.

At Tuscaloosa Alabama today, Ole Miss is again the underdog, but not quite as much as in years past. It’s nothing the Rebels should worry about, as the Independence, MS Native Freeze has been an underdog all of his life.  With great confidence, hard work, and the motto “Win the Day”; no matter the outcome Saturday night Ole Miss has arrived. They are not only a top 15 Football program but just as important; there is a unified fan base. Coach Freeze has proved he belongs here, he has proven he can win in the SEC.

Today, win or lose, Hugh Freeze has changed everything in Oxford and you better believe that the best is yet to come.

freeze nascar

OLE MISS SEC MEDIA DAYS: Hugh Freeze Embraces Celebrity Status

Story originally featured in Rebel Nation Magazine

In many ways, Ole Miss’ head coach Hugh Freeze is an unlikely success story.

Relatively few private school coaches break through to the college ranks, much less to be a head coach of an SEC school.

He doesn’t have the pedigree of a Lane Kiffin and he can’t fall back on the coaching tree of a famous head coach (He is in the Orgeron coaching tree for goodness sakes).

Freeze has had to force his way into the limelight in virtually every job. He begged Orgeron for a position at Ole Miss at a big pay cut to prove himself. The son of a high school football coach and dairy farmer he knew all about hard work and Orgeron taught him the recruiting game.

But something Orgeron never completely embraced was marketing yourself. Every good coach has a bit of a politician in them. While the press can be a double edged sword, the media can certainly be used to help your program just as easily as it can turn against you.

Eight years after his first SEC job, Hugh Freeze has embraced his celebrity status as a SEC head coach and it is one of the reasons he has been so successful in his first three years at Ole Miss.

2015, is a new age of college football.

While some old football junkies will tell you there is nothing new under the sun in college football, the “old school” days of hard-as-nails coaches do not have as much success today.

The 1950’s crew cuts and the Bear Bryant “Junction Boys” style of play and practice won’t get you as far today. The players and fans don’t respond to it. Today is a new age, a different time.

Today, a head coach’s every move is instantly broadcast by the media and/or by fans on social media. There is no hiding injuries, or style of play from the media or opposing teams.

You can’t hide anything about your program from potential recruits in today’s world. So, rather than fight the system, Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss has embraced it and are producing great multimedia work that helps to improve the national impression of the program and bring more recruits to the school.

It is genius because with the media’s help, there is a snowball effect that helps Ole Miss improve faster, over time.

Of course there are some things you can plan and some you cannot that have helped Freeze become a media darling.

For one, you can enter the SEC coach’s golf tournament but you can’t fake winning the long drive contest, or you can’t luck up and win the SEC spring meeting tournament.

You can only ride the attention from a Hollywood movie like The Blind Side for so long until you need some wins on the field. Freeze has backed it up by getting a #3 national ranking in only his third year.

Coach Freeze is also taking calculated steps to broaden his appeal. This year he served as the pace car driver at Talladega and has included large regional churches in his speaking circuit this offseason. You might see him at the opening of a Bass Pro Shop in Memphis, doing missionary work in Haiti or calling randomly to the Paul Finebaum radio show.

“Celebrity” is something of a given for the head coach of a major college program but what makes Hugh Freeze so appealing is he is not trying to be something he is not.

Over time, people can see through you if you are faking it. Hugh Freeze is a Mississippi boy and people here understand that and can easily relate to him.

This is a head coach that goes bass fishing barefoot and tweets his photos immediately for everyone to see. You feel like he is your next door neighbor. Freeze broke out a terrible celebratory break dance in the locker room after winning the Music City Bowl in 2013 but it was honest and fun.

He spends a certain amount of time on twitter to respond and converse with fans. Very few multi-million dollar coaches allow this type of personal access and it pays off.

In short order, Ole Miss under Hugh Freeze has transformed from the zero SEC-win season to a preseason top 15 team with high expectations. Ole Miss has historically had a hard time beating MSU for in-state recruiting battles, now they are pulling the top players out of Florida, Georgia and Texas.

Is Hugh Freeze a salesman?  In a way; yes. But the best salesman are just honest and they know their product and they know their market.

Coach Freeze adapts his play calling to his players. He adapts his rhetoric and his motivation to the situation at hand. So many coaches have a “my way or the highway” philosophy which doesn’t work in all situations.

Freeze has a “we work together” system and players and fans can trust that he will find a way to be successful.

Even old school coaches will tell you the best coaches can, “Take his and beat yours and take yours and beat his” (the immortal words of Bum Phillips). That is a perfect description for Hugh Freeze.  Some coaches might work harder but Freeze also works smarter and will find that edge to make his team better.

Players recognize that and trust him with their future.

Hugh Freeze is the perfect person to lead Ole Miss, he is from Mississippi and he knows how to sell Mississippi. He doesn’t fight with the media like some in the SEC. He won’t hide injuries or try to limit access to his program.

The celebrity aspect of Hugh Freeze is a big part of the success of his program and it appears the best is yet to come for Ole Miss.