By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – High school football coaches looking for a roadmap to the riches and prestige of SEC football will find no great clarity from the dual paths of Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn, just confusion.
With different degrees of focus and drive both have ended up in the same place.
A friendship began when Freeze and Malzahn were high school coaches in Tennessee and Arkansas. It grew when they were in SEC jobs, and it will be on hold Saturday night when they oppose one another as SEC head coaches for the first time.
Freeze’s Ole Miss team and Malzahn’s Auburn team are both 3-1, both 1-1 in conference play and both coming off road losses to more elite conference teams that weren’t particularly close.
“It’s difficult playing your friends. I don’t enjoy playing my friends,” Freeze said.
The similarities are plentiful. Both were highly successful high school coaches, Freeze for longer than he would have preferred.
Both have become synonymous with the fast-paced tempo offenses and defenders of a style that has come under attack by some SEC coaches.
College coaching, though, was almost an afterthought for Malzahn, while it was a passion for Freeze.
“I really didn’t start thinking about college until the last three or four years of coaching high school. I just got the opportunity and was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time,” said Malzahn, who won a combined three state championships in stints at Shiloh Christian and Springdale and earlier this year was inducted into the Arkansas High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
He broke into college coaching with Houston Nutt at Arkansas in 2006 and helped the Razorbacks to the SEC West title but remained in Fayetteville only one season before moving to Tulsa and then to Auburn as offensive coordinator in 2009. He replaced Freeze at Arkansas State for the 2012 season before returning to Auburn after Gene Chizik’s staff was released.
For Freeze, coaching at this level was intentional if not – by his timing – delayed.
“I actually told my wife on our honeymoon that one day I’d be the head coach of an SEC school,” he recalled. “That dream started to fade a bit after 13 years of high school coaching. She was willing for me to take a chance and take an off-field position to get my foot in the door.”
Freeze had twice won state championships at Briarcrest Christian in Memphis when he joined Ed Orgeron’s Ole Miss staff in 2005 as an administrative assistant. From there things sped up a bit.
He coached in an on-field position for the last two years of Orgeron’s staff. When that staff was let go Freeze had big success as the head coach at NAIA Lambuth.
He spent about a month as offensive coordinator at San Jose State before moving to Arkansas State as offensive coordinator in 2010.
A year and a half into his time as Ole Miss head coach he remains humbled by the job entrusted to him from the path he and Malzahn chose.
“It’s very unique. It doesn’t happen often. It makes me think how fortunate and blessed we are. I know many other high school coaches who could do the same thing.
“The opportunity does not come along that often, and that makes it very unique.”