Coach Freeze talks with media before upcoming Sugar Bowl
Coach Hugh Freeze met with the media Thursday morning prior to the Sugar Bowl matchup against Oklahoma State on Friday.
The Ole Miss head coach wasted no time before expressing what it means to him for the Rebels to be in the Sugar Bowl: “I guess you would say it was bred in my mind that taking Ole Miss to the Sugar Bowl was about as good as it could get,” he explained. “Obviously, some of the things have changed with the new formats and playoffs and things, but nonetheless the Sugar Bowl still in many Rebels’ minds, including mine, is one of the pinnacles of coaching in the Southeastern Conference, and to be able to represent our great university in the first ever champions bowl in the New Year’s Six is something that I will never forget.”
Freeze has enjoyed all the hospitality of the Sugar Bowl; however, he is ready for his team, which has been in town since Saturday, to get back to business on the field. “We’re anxiously awaiting kickoff,” he said. “It’s time for that. We have had a good time. But as the festivities continue to build with the Rebels coming into town, we’re hopeful we can keep our kids focused on the task at hand and that is winning the Sugar Bowl.”
Making good decisions
With football players traveling to fun-filled locales for bowl games, there is always the opportunity for trouble to arise during their off times. Coach Freeze explained the work he and his staff put in to try and help his players make good decisions:
Well, you guys, if you really knew the amount of time that coaching staffs put into begging your kids to make choices that are reflective of your core values and also that represent your teammates and prove that you’re being accountable to them, we never cease to try to educate them in regards to those decisions.
Freeze noted that his team has had very few issues during this week leading up to Friday’s game. “We have been fortunate this week. We have had very, very few incidents.” He went on to note: “I have a leadership council that is formed especially for this week to help me set the parameters, the expectations in regards to curfew and our different visits that we had to go on, who was going, and I think it’s worked really, really well.”
The only violations Freeze’s team committed this week were minor curfew violations that the Rebels’ head coach described as “just a few minutes late.” However, he also indicated the penalty was “very severe.”
Freeze on Oklahoma State’s offense
When Freeze was asked about Oklahoma’s lack of a traditional ground game, he responded that the Cowboys have been impressive this season with how they have created extra gaps and “created new things with motion” en route to being very consistent on the ground. He praised Coach Mike Gundy for the work he has done: “I don’t know Mike well, but the job they have done in being consistent, consistent over a course in time in this profession is very difficult to do and they managed to do that and I think this is just another example of how he took an area that many considered to be not a strength of the team and is doing well with it.”
Freeze proud of his team for overcoming obstacles
When the Rebels lost to Arkansas this season, following a 4th-and-25 conversion by the Hogs that can only be described as freakish, they could have folded up and merely walked through the following games on the schedule. However, they did not. They rallied around one another and came back stronger, defeating a motivated LSU team in Oxford.
Freeze explained what it took for his team to bounce back following the disappointing loss to Arkansas. “It’s kind of like life. Sometimes when you get the gut punches of life and the disappointments, you have some options to make and you can choose to stay the course,” he explained. He added how proud he is of his team for continuing to improve, adding: “I’m probably as proud of that as anything that has happened.”
I’m really proud of the job our staff did and the leadership of team did in remaining mentally tough and knowing that we have a lot to play for down the stretch, and you know, to finish the season, winning Magnolia Bowl and Egg Bowl and now playing in the Sugar Bowl speaks to that mental toughness and resolve our team showed.
Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze
The Rebels have had to be mentally tough to make it through a number of distractions this season, such as the numbers of season-ending injuries suffered, the suspension of Laremy Tunsil for seven games, the suspensions of Denzel and Robert Nkemdiche, and the talk surrounding which Ole Miss players might declare early for the draft. Freeze explained how daunting a task it is to try and remain focused with all the “outside noise,” as he calls it:
“You have got expectations that are set by people, and then you have other people already talking, is this the last ride? And I’m like, ‘God, it’s just my fourth year, give me chance to keep building.’ But you know, the disappointments in coaching are tough because we care about these kids. And to be quite candid, when you’re dealing with 120 kids, we have had, you know, three or four issues, but they were so public with who they were, obviously, that it carried so much attention.”
Coach Freeze noted that his wife Jill reminds him all the time to “celebrate the victories that we have,” because even though one or two kids may be struggling or making poor choices, there are many others who are doing well and making correct decisions:
“I need to look at the other hundred of them that are doing it right, that are progressing toward graduation and making good choices,” he added. “To end up here at the the Sugar Bowl is a tremendous reward.”
As for the Tunsil situation, it is clear it was tough on Freeze. “You know, Laremy’s deal was difficult to take, and that was hard on me because I didn’t know, I wasn’t privy to everything that was going on, so you couldn’t really answer when one of your team members would ask you, but fortunately, we got that wound up.”
However, it is also clear how much Freeze admires his left tackle. There were those who suggested, after having to sit out seven games, that Laremy Tunsil should forego the remainder of the season in order to avoid injury before the upcoming NFL draft—a draft where most experts believe he will be taken in the first round. But Tunsil would have none of that, and his return gave the Rebels quite a lift—both emotionally and in productivity. “And I really came to a new appreciation of him as a person when he said, ‘No, I owe it to my team to play,’” Freeze said of Tunsil.
Freeze discussed the role of the Leadership Council in helping the team stay focused this week. Members are C.J. Johnson, Mike Hilton, Evan Engram and Justin Bell. The four players helped set curfews for the team as well as helped determine which players would attend the different bowl-week functions.
“We have met daily since we have been here to go over the next day and to hear if anything is going on with our team that I need to know about,” Freeze said of the Council. “And I think that has been helpful to me as a coach to see things from their perspective, and then also for them to see it from my perspective, to be able to be a voice for me, you know, in those small circles that tend to happen in teams.”
At the bowl-related events and media press conferences thus far this week, Coach Freeze and his team seem quite focused on achieving their goal of winning the 2016 Sugar Bowl.
Evelyn Van Pelt
Evelyn has covered sports for over two decades, beginning her journalism career as a sports writer for a newspaper in Austin, Texas. She attended Texas A&M and majored in English. Evelyn’s love for Ole Miss began when her daughter Katie attended the university on a volleyball scholarship. Evelyn created the Rebel Walk in 2013 and has served as publisher and managing editor since its inception.