By David Brandt/The Associated Press
OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — Hugh Freeze’s resume shows that he’s a football coach. It also indicates he’s some sort of magician.
That would be one way to explain how the first-year Mississippi football coach has been so successful in his short-lived college career, despite circumstances that were not exactly conducive to winning. The 42-year-old has won football games — and quickly — at off-the-map programs such as Arkansas State at Lambuth.
Now for possibly his most daunting magic trick, he’s charged with resurrecting an Ole Miss program that has a 6-18 record over the past two seasons, including a 1-15 mark in the Southeastern Conference. The stage may be much different, but Freeze is confident his past experiences will translate to the Southeastern Conference.
“Kids are the same, whether it’s high school, Lambuth or Ole Miss,” Freeze said. “They deal with the same issues in life and on the field. The locker rooms may look different, but those kids want to win just as bad. They hurt to lose just as bad.”
Freeze was hired in December and has spent the spring and summer assembling his staff, tweaking his roster and preparing for a brutal schedule that will test his talent-challenged team.
He’s performed shocking turnarounds before. Now the challenge is whether he can do the same thing at Oxford with heavyweight opponents like Alabama, Auburn and LSU.
“That’s a good question,” Freeze said. “Only time will tell. I’m not going to change the way we do things. I do believe that if we have enough time to recruit and get this roster where we need it to be, we’ll be successful. But right now, we’re not playing with an equal deck.”
But one reason Ole Miss hired him was his reputation as a lightning-fast fix-it man and a recruiter. He has a heavy incentive to win quickly — his $1.5 million base salary will jump by $100,000 for each conference win this fall.
Freeze — who has an offensive background and will work heavily on that side of the ball — has assembled an eclectic assistant coaching staff that has wide ranges in pedigree and past experiences. Defensive coordinator Dave Wommack and co-offensive coordinator Dan Werner have been around the college game for decades. Defensive ends coach Chris Kiffin is the brother of USC coach Lane Kiffin, while others like linebackers coach Tom Allen have spent most of their career at the high school level.
Allen was with Freeze at the Lambuth and Arkansas State stops. He said Freeze has a knack for game-day decisions and offensive schemes, but his best skill is changing the way players think between the ears. It’s worked in the Sun Belt and in the NAIA. Now it’s almost time to take on the SEC.
“As a competitor, you always want to compete against the best,” Allen said. “And this is certainly going to be the best.”
Freeze led Arkansas State to a 10-victory season in 2011, winning the Sun Belt Conference title with an 8-0 record. It was the first time the Red Wolves had more than six wins as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Lambuth was an NAIA school so cash-strapped that Freeze said the coaching staff didn’t get paid during part of one summer. The tiny private school ceased operations shortly after Freeze left, citing financial difficulties. That didn’t stop Freeze from leading the program to a 20-5 record over two seasons in 2008 and 2009.
“You really stay humble,” Freeze said. “You learn to do more with less. You’re resourceful. You embrace the challenge.”
In some ways, the Ole Miss job is even harder. While Freeze called it the “Taj Mahal” compared to his previous stops, it is dwarfed in the SEC’s Western Division by mammoth programs like Alabama, Auburn and LSU. All have won national championships during the past five years.
Freeze knows what he’s getting into. He was raised in Independence, Miss., roughly 50 miles from Oxford, growing up on a dairy farm. He first gained fame for his 13-year tenure at Briarcrest High School in Memphis, where he was left tackle Michael Oher’s football coach. Oher’s life story has since been featured in ‘The Blind Side,’ a hugely-successful movie and book.
Freeze joined the Ole Miss football staff in 2005 under Ed Orgeron, following Oher’s path to Oxford. He then joined the on-field staff as the receivers coach and recruiting coordinator in 2006 and ’07. There weren’t many wins during those years, but he did help recruit future Ole Miss and NFL players like Greg Hardy, Dexter McCluster and Mike Wallace.
Once Orgeron was fired following the 2007 season, Freeze ended up at Lambuth. Since then, it’s been a meteoric rise. But he insists his relatively humble beginnings — in both life and coaching — have kept him grounded.
“I’m just a kid who grew up on a dairy farm that became a high school football coach,” Freeze said. “And I did that because I knew I didn’t want to milk cows.”
Offensive line coach Matt Luke, who played at Ole Miss in the 1990s, said Freeze’s connection to Mississippi should be a big advantage.
“I really do believe it helps, simply because the passion he has for the job and university is real,” Luke said. “Ole Miss is his dream job. Not just any big college — Ole Miss. And when you have that kind of passion for a place, I believe recruits recognize that and it’s contagious.”