HOOVER, Ala. — “I’ll take some questions now.”
Unfortunately for Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, his attempt to filibuster his way through SEC Media Days didn’t quite work.
His opening comments Thursday after being introduced by commissioner Greg Sankey totaled 2,749 words, which is about three times the length of this column. For approximately 17 minutes, he made every attempt to ignore the elephant in the room.
Said elephant is former Rebels coach Houston Nutt filing a lawsuit in federal court Wednesday — his timing isn’t by happenstance, of course — against the Ole Miss Athletics Foundation. Mississippi, currently in the middle of an NCAA probe, reportedly tried to blame the majority of the wrongdoings on Nutt prior to Freeze’s arrival.
Nutt, who currently works as an analyst for CBS, is claiming defamation of character since he hasn’t been able to get another job in coaching.
But Freeze felt it was time to pat himself on the back about academics.
“We had the highest APR in the history of the school at 991,” he said, “second in this conference only to Vanderbilt. Coach (Derek) Mason does a great job there with that. Our overall APR is 971, which when I first arrived at Ole Miss was in the 920s.”
The dark cloud hanging over Oxford continues to get darker. Despite the fact that we have no idea when the NCAA will make some sort of ruling, the Rebs have already been punished on the recruiting trail.
We’re still in July — five months from the new early signing period and seven ahead of National Signing Day — but they’re currently projected to have the No. 48 class in America for 2018. This past February, Freeze only inked the No. 30 class in the country. Remember, in 2016 his haul was ranked sixth nationally.
There are 33 total 3- and 4-star kids in the Magnolia State for this cycle. Ole Miss has commitments from just two of them. Rival Mississippi State has seven.
But Freeze is tickled to death with the humanitarianism on his roster.
“We’re doing so many things to give back,” he said, “and that’s one thing I think our assistant coaches drive very well between their rooms, is we’ve got to have two community service projects a year so our kids understand what it’s like to have the platform that they have.”
Instead of pink-slipping Freeze in an effort to placate the NCAA, Ole Miss has built a wall around him. After all, his winning percentage of .609 tops each of the eight coaches who preceded him.
Five of the eight were under .500 — including Nutt, who went 24-26 in four years — and only David Cutcliffe ever won 10 games in a season, doing so in 2003. Freeze matched Cutcliffe with a 10-3 mark in 2015 that culminated in a Sugar Bowl victory. No Rebels coach had won the Sugar Bowl since the legendary John Vaught in 1969.
Freeze has been much too successful to cast aside. Also, no respectable coach would go anywhere near that job with heavy sanctions possibly on the horizon.
But Freeze referenced The Bible as he’s known to do and began thumping.
“Our core values that we talk about all of the time are faith, attitude, mental toughness, integrity and love,” he said. “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.”
This is becoming an annual rite of summer at the Wynfrey Hotel. It was 12 months ago when Freeze was answering questions about former stud offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil smoking weed from a bong made out of a gas mask.
That wasn’t the only incident involving Tunsil. The gas-mask episode was made public 10 minutes before the start of the NFL Draft — he was projected to be a Top 5 pick — on his very own Twitter account. Then on his Instagram, a screenshot of a text-message conversation was posted with him asking a Mississippi staffer for money.
Many organizations removed Tunsil from their board entirely. As a result, he ended up going 13th overall to the Miami Dolphins and lost millions of dollars.
But Freeze chose to wax poetic about his new offensive coordinator.
“And so going out and finding a guy that understood everything that I want to do and then adding to us, particularly in areas that we were deficient in, was the priority for me,” he said. “And I found that guy in Phil Longo. He put up crazy numbers everywhere he’s been.”
The sermon mercifiully came to an end, right after Freeze advertised the highly anticipated battle in fall camp between Chadwick Lamar and Jack Propst at long snapper. The one question on every media member’s mind was finally asked.
I’m sure you’re aware that the lawsuit Houston Nutt filed yesterday. He mentioned you and the administration creating a smear campaign. I wonder what your reaction to all that is.
“I would absolutely love to share my opinion on it,” Freeze said. “Unfortunately, it’s a legal case and I can’t comment.”
The rest of the Q&A was essentially a waste of time. Any writer who dropped quotes from Freeze talking about the state of his return game — that question followed a much more intelligent one about how all of this has affected his legacy, believe it or not — into a story should have his access revoked once and for all.
Talking to local reporters prior to making his way to the podium, Freeze said the timing of Nutt’s lawsuit was “ironic.”
Typically, irony gets confused with coincidence. But there was nothing ironic about Nutt tossing a grenade on the eve of Freeze’s day in Hoover, and there was nothing coincidental about it, either. It was intentional. It worked, too.