By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
Nanci Gray and Nick Saban have won championships, but she’s got one career achievement the Alabama football coach can’t yet claim.
She’s beaten Hugh Freeze.
Many other coaches did not when Freeze was won six state championships at Briarcrest Christian School in the late 1990s and early 2000s, more of them in girls basketball than in football.
When Freeze was hired in December as the Ole Miss football coach committee co-chairs Archie Manning and Mike Glenn spoke at length about his organizational skills, ability to motivate, his love for the state, recruiting contacts and his potent offenses at previous jobs.
They didn’t say they were drawn to Hugh Freeze because of his success as the coach of Briarcrest’s Lady Saints.
Freeze won two football state championships at Briarcrest but also went 214-29 and won four state championships as coach of the Lady Saints, a portion of his resume that has drawn some ribbing – most of it good-natured – from opponent fans who say the Rebels have hired a girls basketball coach to lead the football program.
But there are certain characteristics of the sports that intersect. Obviously the pads are absent, the collisions of a lesser magnitude, but some traits that made the Lady Saints winners will be just as important in the rebuilding of the Rebels who went 2-10 last year and carry a 14-game SEC losing streak into the 2012 season.
“It’s attitude,” Freeze said. “It’s the way you go about working. Those two things, even though I was dealing with the opposite sex in women’s basketball, the thing I never changed was who I was and how I approached coaching.”
For Freeze that meant pushing the girls hard, demanding their best effort in all circumstances in practices and in games.
A football guy at heart, he admits to being under-educated on the technical aspects of basketball. He leaned heavily on friends, one for Xs and Os, another for guidance in dealing with the differences in the X and Y chromosomes.
“The girls worked as hard as the guys. When they weren’t treated right by their boyfriend that day or something else went wrong, it was a little more emotional than it was for a boy,” Freeze said.
Regardless of sex, the shared accomplishment of a championship is a memory that lasts.
“At the time I was playing for him I thought, ‘My gosh, he’s killing us,’ but when we played the games, I can’t say it came easy, but they were never as hard as our practices were,” said Laura Hoover, who was a part of Freeze’s state championship teams as a freshman and again as a senior in 2001.
“He taught us perseverance, to push through when you’re tired. Mental toughness was huge for him.”
It’s the message Hoover teaches now as a Briarcrest assistant coach.
“You see that as a coach, as you get older,” she says, “that the first thing to go when you get tired is your mind. Then you slack on defense, forget to talk, things like that, little things that add up.”
Gray, now the women’s coach at Itawamba Community College, and former Myrtle coach John Sherman, now at Water Valley, both claim wins against Freeze.
Tupelo and Myrtle on occasion would meet up with Briarcrest in the Robertson Sportswear Challenge, an area event showcasing top-level girls basketball teams.
Gray’s Tupelo team defeated Briarcrest in 2001 when both teams would go on to win state championships.
“His teams were always loaded with talent and were always well-prepared,” Gray said. “They were well-coached, and you knew they were going to execute.”
Gray has also coached both sexes, having spent time as a middle school boys coach in Houlka.
“In any sport you have to have people skills, teach kids to believe in themselves,” she said. “You have to walk a thin line between building their egos and being demanding. Hugh did a great job with that.”
As Freeze pushed the Lady Saints, Sherman pushed his girls at Myrtle. He’d been successful as boys coach at Oxford and had also seen the college side from a year as an assistant to Richard Williams at Mississippi State.
“The females like you more than the males do,” Sherman said. “You get more Christmas presents.”
Some things unchanged
Most other aspects of coaching are similar from female to male, from high school to college.
Sherman noted that he thought there was more parental involvement at the collegiate level – not all of it good – than at the high school level.
“When he was coach at Iowa State, Tim Floyd told me he had the same problems that I had at Myrtle. The only difference was the arena was bigger,” Sherman recalled.
At the end of the day most coaches believe the most important aspects of their job transcend their sport.
“A coach can coach,” Sherman said. “It’s about relationships.”
Subscribing to that belief it’s not surprising that Freeze’s girls basketball teams, from a philosophy standpoint, resembled the type of offense he’ll attempt to install at Ole Miss when spring drills begin in late March.
His girls pressed and played up-tempo, “ran and jumped” all over the court, as he describes it.
There were frequent substitutions to keep fresh legs in the game.
His football team at Arkansas State last year often passed on the chance to huddle. Execution is important, but it’s not enough. Execution with the right tempo can keep the other guys off balance.
Attitude and tempo were important to the Lady Saints and will be important to the Rebels, but the good they create can be undone quickly if discipline is not in place.
That’s another big challenge Freeze faces with the Rebels as he pushes his “#Wintheday” mantra through social media.
“It’s about coming to work everyday, attitude and discipline,” Freeze said. “No matter what sport you’re in, if you have those two things you create a sort of confident swagger about yourself.
“And when you do that, you’re halfway there.”