By David Brandt/The Associated Press
OXFORD – Hugh Freeze choked up less than a minute after being introduced as Mississippi’s new football coach, acknowledging his wife and three daughters sitting on the stage behind him.
“I’ve taken them all around the country to bring them back to one place,” an emotional Freeze said. “And that’s the University of Mississippi.”
Freeze, 42, was named Ole Miss’ 37th football coach on Monday afternoon at a press conference on the university campus. He takes over for Houston Nutt, who was fired following one of the worst seasons in Ole Miss history. The Rebels finished with a 2-10 record, including a 0-8 mark in the Southeastern Conference.
Freeze could be a considered a risky hire considering his relative lack of experience. When Ole Miss started its search, names like Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach were on the market, but the Rebels went with someone who’s coached on the college level for less than a decade.
Freeze, however, has capitalized on that short window of opportunity.
He comes to the Rebels from Arkansas State, where he led the Red Wolves to the 2011 Sun Belt Conference championship and 10-2 record in his first season as a coach at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. It was Arkansas State’s first 10-win season since 1986.
Freeze will not coach Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl game Jan. 8 against Northern Illinois in Alabama.
Ole Miss Chancellor Dan Jones said Freeze has a four-year contract that pays a base salary of about $1.5 million per season. Jones said incentives could raise that salary to as much as $2.5 million per year. The Rebels already owe Nutt a $6 million buyout on top of the $2.7 million he was paid last season.
Freeze made just $202,160 last season, according to USA Today, which made him the lowest paid coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Freeze attacked his opening press conference like a Baptist preacher, galvanizing the packed Ford Center with an emotional address peppered with jokes and jabs that included the occasional remark about dominating the state of Mississippi — a not-so-subtle jab at Mississippi State and coach Dan Mullen.
While Nutt never completely seemed to grasp the state’s culture — especially the Egg Bowl rivalry — Freeze jumped into the fray unabashedly. He went to high school less than 45 miles away in Senatobia, Miss.
“This is home to me,” Freeze said. “This is a destination job.”
He’s known for a high-powered offensive philosophy, that he called a “fundamentally efficient scoring machine” when it’s going well.
Freeze is a Southern Mississippi graduate, but has Ole Miss ties, serving as an assistant under then-Rebels’ coach Ed Orgeron from 2005-’07. During that time, he coached receivers, tight ends and also served as the program’s recruiting coordinator. He had a 20-5 record as head coach at NAIA-level Lambuth (Tenn.) in 2008 and ’09.
After his successful two-year stint at Lambuth, he joined Arkansas State’s staff as the offensive coordinator in 2010. The Red Wolves broke nine offensive records that season and ranked second in the Sun Belt in total offense, but head coach Steve Roberts was fired after a 4-8 season.
Freeze was promoted and the Red Wolves took a dramatic step forward this fall, finishing undefeated in the Sun Belt. They finished first in the league in scoring offense, scoring defense, total offense and total defense. His high-powered, spread offense has worked everywhere it’s been, though it’s never been tested against SEC competition.
The Ole Miss coaching search was led by a five-person committee, including former Rebel quarterback Archie Manning and FedEx executive Mike Glenn.
Glenn said Freeze’s combination of innovative offensive thinking, recruiting ability and communicating skills made him the obvious choice.
“Once we completed our interviews, our No. 1 choice was crystal clear,” Glenn said. “Our No. 1 choice was Hugh Freeze.”
Manning said Freeze’s lack of experience wasn’t a huge factor: “He’s someone coming up, doing it the right way and doing it with success. We think we’re jumping the gun and getting an outstanding coach.”
Freeze has enjoyed a meteoric rise through the coaching ranks over the last decade from a high school coach to the Southeastern Conference.
He worked at Briarcrest High School in Memphis, Tenn., for 13 years, including as the head football coach from 1995 to 2004. He amassed a 99-23 record and won two state championships, but was mostly known as the high school coach for left tackle Michael Oher, who was later featured in the best-selling book and popular movie “The Blind Side.”
Just seven years later, he’s in a conference that is guaranteed to win its sixth straight national championship in January. Ole Miss hasn’t shared that success, with a 1-15 in the SEC over the past two seasons, but that didn’t deter Freeze from expecting immediate success.
“These men are tired of being in the wilderness and they want to get out,” Freeze said.
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More in Tuesday’s NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.