Giving thanks for Coach Hugh Freeze
Editor’s Note: This Thanksgiving article was written last year by The Rebel Walk’s Jason Scarborough and updated to reflect this season. We couldn’t help but find it relevant again this year and hope you enjoy it.
It was November 26, 2011. I remember that night well. I remember sitting in Section 24 in Davis Wade Stadium in the pouring rain, watching my Ole Miss Rebels take a 31-3 Egg Bowl whipping from Mississippi State under lame-duck Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt. Fitting, I thought to myself, that the weather matches the mood of most Rebel fans, either those at the stadium enduring the elements or the many witnessing this shell of an SEC football program on TV.
Despite the common sense notion to leave and beat traffic in the warm and dry confines of my car, I continued to talk with my high school chum and fellow Rebel Nation brother, Johnny Beck. Johnny now shared the otherwise empty row on which I stood. “Where in the world do we go from here, Johnny? How does it get better after THIS,” I asked, ringing water from my soaked Ole Miss baseball cap. Johnny, normally a wellspring of encouragement regarding Ole Miss Athletics, was as lost as I was in finding the answers.
We both stood the entire fourth quarter in Section 24 and watched a lifeless Ole Miss team beg a fired up Mississippi State team to mercilessly end its 2011 season. 2-10: the final record in 2011 for an Ole Miss football team that had also lost 14 straight SEC match-ups. The final three games of the Houston Nutt era were illuminating in many ways, as the Rebels were outscored 110-13 in that stretch and showed little interest in competing. Recruiting was a mess, and who would want to come to Oxford and play for an SEC team that just went 6-18 in its last two seasons? “Better yet, who would want to come and COACH that dumpster fire of a situation?” I asked Johnny. “It’d have to be someone pretty special to get us out of this mess.”
“We hired who?”
Nine days later, I had my answer to the question I posed to Johnny that night in Section 24. The problem was I didn’t know it yet. “We hired WHO?” That was my response when I found out Ole Miss hired Hugh Freeze.
I didn’t know a lot about Freeze. I knew he’d been at Ole Miss for a short time as recruiting coordinator and even interviewed for the offensive coordinator position under head coach Houston Nutt, but did not get the position.
I knew he’d spent some time at other schools and put up some gaudy numbers with his hurry-up, fast-tempo offenses at Arkansas State and Lambuth. I knew his claim to fame at that point was coaching former Ole Miss offensive lineman Michael Oher at Briarcrest High School in Memphis and being depicted in the book turned movie-gold film, “The Blind Side.”
“That changes EVERYTHING”
Then a seemingly small, yet HUGE detail emerged for me. “Wait, he’s from Mississippi? Like, he was born here? He was born in Oxford? Grew up in Independence? Well, that changes EVERYTHING.”
That’s what I told not only my Section 24 buddy Johnny, but any Ole Miss armchair-quarterback I knew. If you’re FROM this state, you get “it” so much more than if you are NOT from this state. You guys and gals know what I mean. If you’re from Mississippi, you get that “coke” means basically anything carbonated, that “fixin to do something” is a Southern way of saying I’ll get to it when I’m good and dang well ready, and the greeting “how ya’ll doing” to perfect strangers in the Piggly Wiggly or Kroger is totally normal.
Freeze was raised on a dairy farm in north Mississippi, played high school football and graduated college on Magnolia State soil, and wanted to be the next head coach of who he calls “the Flagship University of the State of Mississippi.” You can’t get more Mississippi than that.
I was sold on the want-to that Freeze burned with, and now I wanted to see what he could do on the field with a team that just finished 2-10 and had lost 14 straight in the toughest conference in America.
If the players play with the same enthusiasm I saw in Freeze’s first few media interviews, I thought, this could be fun. But we’ve seen before how enthusiasm and promises don’t always translate into wins, blue-chip recruits, and top 5 rankings. However, it was Freeze’s love for his home state that sold me, the fact that he wanted to deliver a winner to the state of Mississippi. Now, all he had to do was back it all up. Alright, Coach Freeze, you’re up.
2012: In Freeze’s 2012 debut, his Rebels scored as many points (49) in that one game as the 2011 Rebels scored in their final 5 contests. Freeze’s 2012 Rebels lost three games by a combined 10 points, and they ended the 2012 regular season with an Egg Bowl blowout of rival Mississippi State, 41-24.
The 2012 Rebels went on to easily defeat Pitt in the BBVA Compass Bowl, 38-17, to cap a 7-6 winning season, and the first year of the Hugh Freeze reign was a huge success by all accounts.
What will he do for an encore, I wondered? Well, that’s easy, you land a top-5 recruiting class that includes at least 3 surefire NFL 1st round picks. I thought to myself, “Man, this Hugh Freeze can apparently sell a ketchup Popsicle to an Eskimo in white gloves.”
2013: In 2013, Freeze’s second season delivered even more eyebrow-raising moments. A blowout win at Texas against Mack Brown’s Longhorns, an upset win over No. 6 LSU with five defensive starters out due to injury, a second-straight bowl win and a winning season at 8-5 were just a few of the highlights of that 2013 season.
The Rebels were picking up steam, and the rest of the SEC-and country-were taking notice. The heralded 2013 recruiting class was beginning to find its footing in the rugged SEC West, and the momentum of the resurrection of the Ole Miss Football program in 2012 and 2013 was pointing toward something special in 2014.
2014: The third year of “the journey,” as Freeze has consistently referred to his time at Ole Miss, catapulted Ole Miss from SEC contender to SEC favorite. The Rebels were ranked in just about every preseason poll known to mankind, and conversations of not just an SEC Championship but national title were being attached to Ole Miss. Wait, what? This same Ole Miss program that was only two full seasons removed from that debacle in 2011? The same Ole Miss program that had lost 14 straight SEC games prior to Freeze’s arrival? I, along with most Ole Miss fans, was just glad that we were keeping our collective heads above water and staying at least competitive in games after the damage inflicted by Nutt and his regime. It won’t get much better than what we’ve seen already for quite some time, will it?
But it did.
In 2014, the Rebels jumped out to a 4-0 record and top 15 ranking, setting up a colossal SEC battle with the Alabama Crimson Tide in Oxford. College GameDay picked the matchup for its first-ever trip to Oxford, and CBS picked it as their SEC Game of the Week-now all the Rebels had to do was win the game.
Down 14-3 at the half, the Rebels stormed back in the second half and won the game 23-17 over the No. 1 Crimson Tide, setting off a wild celebration that spilled into the next week.
Freeze, in all the chaos on the field after the game, was tracked down by ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi for a post-game interview. Rinaldi posed a question or two, and then Freeze said it, and when he did his voice cracked: “I wanted to bring a winner to the people of the state of Mississippi.” Yep, I knew it. I knew something was special about this guy. And the rainy night in Section 24 was beginning to fade from my memory.
Freeze: “We are relevant”
2015: On Saturday, November 28 when the 2015 edition of “The Battle for the Golden Egg” took place in Starkville, it was nearly four years to the day I sat in Section 24 with Johnny, raindrops slipping off of my soaked baseball cap into my eyes, watching a shell of what used to be my football team. And what a difference four years made. The Rebels defeated the Bulldogs, 38-27, in the 2015 version of the Egg Bowl. Chad Kelly threw for 236 yards and two touchdowns–and ran for another. Tony Bridges returned an interception 45 yards for a touchdown and Ole Miss never looked back as the Rebels soundly defeated State.
In his first four years, Freeze beat every single SEC West team. And how about leading an Ole Miss team to its first-ever back-to-back wins over Alabama following the Rebels’ win on Sept. 19, 2015 in Tuscaloosa? I never thought in 1988 when, as a kid, I watched the Rebels beat ‘Bama in ‘Loosa that I would be there on the field all those years later with the Rebels to celebrate and hear the echoes of “Hotty Toddy” reverberate off of the mostly empty Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Regardless of what has happened since that win at Alabama, I must say that I’d much rather be HERE than Section 24 at Davis-Wade Stadium in 2011.
2016: So, here we are in 2016. The Rebels have had an up-and-down season, thanks in part to season-ending injuries to key starters, a very tough schedule, and the high number of freshmen who are playing. In fact, Ole Miss currently has the second-most number of freshmen playing in the entire nation this season–which certainly bodes well for the future as the young players have certainly gained valuable experience.
Yes, tons of things have changed in college football since 2011, and the most important is Ole Miss football is not just competitive again, but, as Hugh Freeze likes to say: “We are relevant.” Regardless of the Rebels’ record this season, there is not an SEC team, Alabama included, who has faced a Hugh Freeze-coached team without being prepared for a heck of a battle. Just ask Texas A&M–as the bruised and battered Ole Miss team marched into Kyle Field two weeks ago with a true freshman quarterback at the helm and proceeded to defeat the No. 8 team in the nation in front of over 104,000 screaming Aggies. Again, that’s a far cry from where we were in 2011.
Toughness, perseverance, patience and class
What are the hallmarks of Freeze’s program?
One: he loves the state of Mississippi.
Two: He loves Ole Miss.
And three: he truly wants these young men to not only win on the field, but win off the field as well.
It’s easy for the casual observer to see the traits exhibited by Freeze’s teams on the field. Toughness. Perseverance. Patience. And most importantly, class.
These are traits that will carry over with these players far after they’ve played their last down at Ole Miss, as will the special bond between themselves and Freeze. The love Freeze and his players share for one another is never more evident than on Senior Day in Oxford. When you see pictures of Freeze shedding tears with his players, you cannot help but tear up yourself. A friend of mine who’s an LSU fan texted me during the Rebels’ Senior Day game last year and said, “I love my Tigers, but, man, how can you not love ya’ll’s coach? He acts like he really cares about these guys.”
It’s authentic, I told him. Trust me.
Platform for your purpose
One thing most of us love about Freeze is he’s very outspoken about his faith in God. He never apologizes for it, nor avoids it. As a man of faith, myself (although, I seriously fail at times), I appreciate how he wears his witness. He doesn’t preach; he doesn’t force it; and, he admits that he makes mistakes.
Coach Freeze has made several appearances to preach at several churches, including my home church at Pinelake in Flowood, Mississippi. During that sermon, he pointed out that we shouldn’t confuse our platform with our purpose. Freeze’s purpose, as he stated, is to impact others for the glory of God and to be used by God. His platform happens to be the head football coach at Ole Miss. Giving to the church is an age-old tradition supported by many throughout the world. Churches nowadays rely on their parishioners to help them during times of need, such as renovations and repairs, this is where online giving with apps like tithe.ly come in handy for those who want to support what their local church does.
You must use your PLATFORM for your PURPOSE, he says. I would say “mission accomplished,” thus far, for Freeze in that regard, and it’s paying huge dividends both on the field and off the field.
Freeze is a family man who loves his wife and daughters-and loves every football player as his own son. He’s respected by his peers, not just as a football coach but as a person. Freeze is close friends with several SEC coaches, and you won’t hear a single one with anything negative to say about him.
I hope after reading this-and hearing rumors of other elite SEC coaches possibly being fired-that Ole Miss fans and supporters will appreciate who and what we have in Hugh Freeze.
Yes, I get frustrated at times, and my passion occasionally overrules my brain. If you’ve followed me on Twitter or Facebook, you already know that. But would I trade any of this to go back to the feeling I had in Section 24 that night? Not a chance.
So, this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for you, Coach Freeze. I’m thankful that you’re our head coach, and that you’re a man who is using his platform for his purpose to impact and equip young men for this four-quarter battle we call life.
And regardless of the outcome Saturday night against Mississippi State, I’ll still be grateful for you coaching Ole Miss Football.
Happy Thanksgiving, and Hotty Toddy to Coach Freeze and Rebel fans everywhere!