Hugh Freeze's return to Oxford sparks an interesting question: Should Ole Miss fans be bitter?
I’d love to go back to May 2017. The announcement that Ole Miss scheduled a 2021 matchup with Liberty was essentially an afterthought. At the time, it was just another paycheck game ($1.5 million) for an SEC team to beat up on a then-FCS foe and carry on.
Little did we know at the time of that announcement that Hugh Freeze had already coached his last game at Ole Miss. An NCAA investigation that uncovered 15 Level-1 violations was about to conclude on Freeze, as well as a peak-SEC scandal involving Freeze’s university-issued cell phone and an escort service.
We might’ve known in May 2017 that Freeze wouldn’t be at Ole Miss by the time a random 2021 matchup rolled around, but you couldn’t have written a more ironic script for his reunion on Saturday in Oxford. Freeze will return in hopes of leading Liberty to an upset win against the program he led to 21st century heights.
This was one of those rare breakups in which both parties have figured things out for themselves. With the NCAA cloud no longer hanging over the program, Lane Kiffin’s squad enters November in the hunt for a New Year’s 6 bowl. With 3 years under his belt at Liberty, Freeze’s hand-picked quarterback, Auburn transfer Malik Willis, is now at the top of draft boards.
Still, it’s more likely on Saturday that Freeze will have to dodge a golf ball than a rose. Kiffin can give him tips on that.
Lane Kiffin after escaping Tennessee
“I don’t know if I’m more excited we found a way to win or I didn’t get hit by a golf ball they were throwing at me.”
Absolute gold. pic.twitter.com/7gcGe3AUtX
— George Balekji (@GeorgeBalekji) October 17, 2021
But should Freeze face the same type of hostility that Kiffin did when he made his epic return to Knoxville? And should Ole Miss fans still hold onto resentment toward Freeze?
(I asked Andraya Carter, who will be on the sidelines for the SEC Network broadcast on Saturday, if she’d be willing to capture all the things said by Ole Miss fans to Freeze and later air it on a pay-per-view service. She wasn’t necessarily against the idea, but something tells me that’ll be a hard sell for the SEC Network folks. Hey, I tried.)
A knee-jerk reaction would say, duh, of course there should be venom. Freeze brought embarrassment to the program. Even worse, he brought NCAA sanctions that made Ole Miss a bottom feeder in the toughest division in football for 3 years. Freeze’s hubris got the best of him. He literally dared people to email compliance if they had proof that Ole Miss was cheating (it was) and he tweeted out Bible verses only to get exposed for being unfaithful. In terms of setting yourself up for public mocking, yeah, that’s about as juicy as it gets for the world we live in.
They say that time heals all wounds. For some, those wounds might still be fresh. If you were a student at Ole Miss from 2016-20 and you never saw your team play in a bowl game, it’s fair to say you might have a different approach to Freeze than someone who has been consuming Ole Miss football since Archie Manning broke the Alabama defense half a century ago.
But dare I say, maybe there’s a group of Ole Miss fans who don’t want to totally skewer Freeze the second he steps out of the Vaught-Hemingway Stadium tunnel.
Part of that is because the program is back to being relevant. Matt Luke held things together long enough until Ole Miss was ready to go out and actually compete again, and with Kiffin, it’s now doing just that. It’s a lot easier to move past bitterness when you’re back to winning. If this is indeed the best version of Ole Miss, maybe it couldn’t have reached this point without Freeze’s role.
Of course, it was only half a decade ago in which we thought we were witnessing the best version of Ole Miss under Freeze. Katy Perry doesn’t happen without him, and neither does that second Alabama victory. Ole Miss was in the top 4 in the first Playoff poll. Think about 2014-15. For your average age Ole Miss fan, that was the peak of fandom. No, it didn’t include a Playoff berth, but think about a proud program like Tennessee. After a decade-plus of irrelevance, Vols fans would do anything for a 2-year stretch that included multiple wins against Nick Saban’s Alabama and a national title chance in November.
Because of the sanctions that followed, that era will always feel like Ole Miss sold its soul to the devil to land talent like Laremy Tunsil and Robert Nkemdiche.
That’s the other part of this that shouldn’t be forgotten. If Ole Miss’ post-Freeze era was like going to NCAA jail, at least Freeze’s recruiting meant guys like AJ Brown and DK Metcalf stuck around and provided weekly entertainment during those lean years. That’s like going to jail but getting the “Goodfellas” treatment. You’re still eating steak and pasta (don’t put too many onions in the sauce). You’re not supposed to eat like that in NCAA jail.
Does that mean all of Freeze’s Ole Miss sins should be forgiven? That’s in the eye of the beholder.
Fandom is a fickle thing, and even in the SEC, it’s a double-edged sword. Conventional wisdom would suggest it’s hypocritical to say “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying” and then turn your nose up when it hits the fan. Conventional wisdom would also suggest that not all scars last forever.
It’s easy to forget that Ole Miss still has key players on its current roster like Braylon Sanders and MoMo Sanogo who were recruited by Freeze. Surely they couldn’t have predicted that their college careers would’ve followed the path that they did. But that road — ever winding, ever unpredictable — led us to Saturday.
One could understand all the ways in which Ole Miss fans could feel about Freeze. Everyone is entitled to their own perspective. Surely those won’t be lacking this weekend.
One suggestion? Maybe leave the golf balls at home.