Despite all of his preaching, Hugh Freeze just another flawed football coach
Only one week after representing Ole Miss at SEC Media Days, coach Hugh Freeze resigned Thursday in a stunning turn of events.
What’s most ironic is the fact that his decision had absolutely nothing to do with the NCAA’s ongoing investigation of the Rebels program. We’re still yet to know what punishment, if any, is coming down the pike from the 21 charges that have been levied against Mississippi.
No, this is related to former Rebs coach Houston Nutt and the lawsuit he filed eight days ago against his one-time employer for defamation of character. His team of investigators made a records request on Freeze’s school-issued cell phone, and what they found — one thing, at least — was a curious call to an escort service.
Ole Miss administrators decided to do their own digging, and apparently they didn’t like what they found: “a pattern of personal misconduct.”
Upon being confronted, Freeze admitted to the error of his ways and offered to resign. During a short press conference Thursday night in Oxford, athletics director Ross Bjork made it clear that had Freeze not walked away, he would’ve been fired.
Needless to say, Freeze leaves the Rebels in shambles. Already dealing with scholarship reductions and a self-imposed bowl ban due to all the NCAA issues, new interim coach Matt Luke — thrust into the role after previously serving as offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator — has never been the top face on the totem pole at any level.
If Luke ever did aspire to be a head coach, this isn’t what he had in mind. He’s essentially been tossed a ticking time bomb.
Even before Freeze was thrown overboard with an anchor tied to his leg, Mississippi was picked to finish dead last in the West by print, radio and television types just six days ago in Hoover. The last thing this team needed was coaching upheaval.
Miraculously, no players had decided to leave town and seek greener pastures — most notably quarterback Shea Patterson — despite the buzzards circling above campus. Freeze’s QB-friendly offense was a big reason the former 5-star recruit chose the Rebs in the first place, but unfortunately the young man’s loyalty wasn’t rewarded.
This could lead to a mass exodus, though. Every commitment for the class of 2018 is no doubt thinking about opening up his recruitment again.
Freeze departs Ole Miss with a record of 39-25, which equates to a winning percentage of .609. That’s better than each of the eight coaches who preceded him, which is why the university initially built a wall around him when dealing with the NCAA.
Despite the fishy smell coming from The Grove, Freeze was winning bowl games and signing elite recruiting classes. His predecessors — Nutt being one of them, of course — never enjoyed near the same amount of success. Prior to his arrival, the Rebels hadn’t won 10 games since 2003. That Sugar Bowl victory was the first since 1969.
With Freeze on the sideline, Mississippi defeated almighty Alabama two years in a row. That hadn’t ever happened in these parts.
The higher-ups could seemingly handle the rumors of nefarious activity on the recruiting trail and payments being made to players. But when a supposed God-fearing man like Freeze got caught with his proverbial pants down, it was time to cut bait.
They say that football is religion in the SEC. Nowhere else in the country does pigskin on Saturday intersect so seamlessly with church on Sunday. There are plenty of Bible thumpers wearing headsets in this conference, but nobody thumped his louder than Freeze. Quite regularly when asked tough questions, he’s hidden behind his purported faith.
But he’s a fraud. A fake. A phony. The same fingers he used to flip through hymns dialed a hooker on his Hotty Toddy smartphone.
“Our core values that we talk about all of the time are faith, attitude, mental toughness, integrity and love,” Freeze said during his opening remarks last week at Media Days. “Faith doesn’t mean they have to believe as I believe in a higher being or God above, but they’ve got to have faith in something bigger than yourself to be a great team.”
His holier-than-thou message rings hollow in the end. Keep in mind that there are many people close to the Rebs unsurprised by all this. They say Freeze’s “what would Jesus do” bluster was just an act that worked well in the living room.
With the NCAA’s cloud growing ever darker, many have wondered why Ole Miss didn’t jettison Freeze before this behavior ever came to light. I didn’t see it that way, though. First of all, his on-the-field achievements were too celebrated. And secondly, I had very little belief that the sport’s governing body had what it took to take him down.
But the NCAA didn’t have to bring Freeze down. He did it by himself, with an assist from Nutt. That phone call cost him his job, maybe more. He’s married with three daughters.
Standing at the podium last week, Freeze filibustered for 17 minutes before finally running out of breath. The subsequent questions mostly focused on Nutt’s lawsuit and the NCAA case. He clearly didn’t like being forced to jump on the grenade.
“I’ll certainly be glad and rejoice and thank God when it’s over,” he said. “But in the meantime, I’ve been charged with leading us through this time. And so I’ve got to look at myself, our staff, our boosters, our people and our players and try the best I can to manage that while we go through it.”
With Freeze now out on the street, the Rebels appear to be as rudderless as ever. There are only 14 head-coaching jobs in the SEC, and all of them are attractive — some more than others, sure — for various reasons. But blue-chip recruits aren’t going anywhere near Mississippi for a while, and don’t expect a big-name coach to come to the rescue, either.
It doesn’t take a religious man to know that pride comes before the fall. Freeze has fallen. And it’s Nutt holding the axe.