By Staff and wire reports
By David Brandt
The Associated Press
HOOVER, Ala. — Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze says he’s a realist.
That’s a good thing considering his difficult situation at Ole Miss, a program with lots of work to do before becoming a consistent threat in the Southeastern Conference.
“Our program is in a spot that none of us are happy with,” Freeze said on Thursday at SEC media days. “I get that. I’m very, very anxious about starting the process and the journey to get us out of being where we are to back where we’ve been in the past.”
It doesn’t look like a quick fix, but the first-year coach has guided fast turnarounds before. He took a strange road to his first SEC head coaching job, working as a high school coach for more than a decade before rebuilding programs at NAIA-level Lambuth (Tenn.) and Arkansas State.
Now he’s in a conference that has won the last six national championships. Ole Miss has lost 15 of its last 16 SEC games and had a 2-10 overall record last season.
The depressing season took quite a toll on the Rebels.
Not only did former coach Houston Nutt lose his job, but several players fell behind with academics. Cornerback Nickolas Brassell has already left the team because of academic issues, and Freeze said there are four more players who have work to do this summer before they are assured eligibility this fall — though he didn’t name specific individuals.
“I really don’t know exactly all the reasons for the situations we inherited,” Freeze said. “But it’s well-documented that we did inherit a significant challenge there academically … I really think it comes back to personal accountability and that was lost for whatever reason within the program.”
Ole Miss junior cornerback Charles Sawyer said change in the program since Freeze has arrived is significant. Freeze estimated that about “60 percent” of the team was working at a level he deemed appropriate and the others would hopefully follow their lead.
“Attitudes have changed a lot on the team,” Sawyer said. “We have guys actually ready to practice. They are ready to go to weights, ready to go to 7 on 7. That changes a lot. This team has come together. It takes effort every morning to get up and go to workouts.”
Freeze isn’t totally void of SEC experience. He was an on-field assistant for two seasons under former Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron in 2006 and ’07, coaching receivers and serving as recruiting coordinator. Though the Rebels didn’t have much on-field success during those years, they did amass multiple NFL-caliber players that helped the program win back-to-back Cotton Bowls in 2008 and ’09.
He has employed a recruiting approach similar to his days with Orgeron, and expects to build talent quickly.
But that won’t help for the upcoming season, and the Rebels aren’t helped by a schedule that appears to be one of the hardest in the nation. Not only must they navigate a conference schedule that includes Alabama, Arkansas and LSU, but they also host Texas in a non-conference game.
Considering wins might be hard to find this fall, Freeze has other goals in mind during his first season.
“I think the reasonable expectation from our fans and our administration … is that we compete passionately for our university for 60 minutes. Whatever the scoreboard says at the end — we’ll have to live with that.”
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: (at)davidbrandtAP
A few highlights here from Daily Journal’s Parrish Alford:
Good showing by Freeze at media day. Just a few highlights here with more to come later.
– Four players remain at academic risk.
– He assured the room that his players would understand the importance of the Egg Bowl. Credited Mullen and MSU with capturing momentum in the series and reminded those in attendance that Ole Miss holds the edge in overall games played.
– He responded to Steve Spurrier’s Day 1 jab by saying he looks forward to playing South Carolina in 2013 and hopefully changing Spurrier’s opinion of Ole Miss football.
– Said his players at Ole Miss are no different than at Lambuth, Arkansas State from a desire and effort standpoint. Said they’re are bigger and faster and might “pull a few surprises.”
– Said his chemistry with Ross Bjork is unlike anything he’s experienced with a previous AD.
– Praised Dan Werner for his ability to work with quarterbacks, Dave Wommack for his wisdom and ability to work with young men.
– Said co-coordinators titles are designed to help certain staff members advance in their careers and that all coaches know who has the final say.
Some quick hits here from Charles Sawyer.
(How has it been with coach Freeze?)
When coach Freeze came we didn’t know what to expect. Then he came in and was very energetic and already knew what he wanted to do when he walked in the door. That makes you feel like we got someone to come in and smooth everything out. There’s still more, but we got that person.
(Does coach Freeze’s wilderness message cause you guys to think you can’t win this season?)
No, not at all. I honestly think he’s the one person that wants us to win games. What he means by that is we went through some hard times, but coming up to this, you have to make yourself strive out of all the negative, out of all the people don’t believe in you.I actually feel like we have a team. I feel like everybody is coming together for one goal and one goal only, and that’s to win games.
(How divided was the team last year?)
Very divided. You had one group here, one group there, one group there. We all played on Saturday, but at the end of the day, there were still groups. Now, you see the team, and it’s not groups. It’s the team. Even when you go out to eat. You would go out with a couple of people, but now it’s like all of us going out to eat. It’s coming together.