Ole Miss Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze speaks to media during SEC Media Days at the Hyatt Regency Birmingham-The Winfrey Hotel.

Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Pride Goes Before the Fall

In the end the Hugh Freeze's detractors didn't bring him to the end. Hugh Freeze did.

Producer Jeffrey Wright
July 21, 2017 - 2:19 pm

Hugh Freeze quietly, and occasionally publicly, enjoyed pointing the finger at any and every one that he deemed to be detrimental to his program.

He frequently would mention that he imagines that other coaches in America probably wouldn’t want to go through the examination and scrutiny that his program experienced.

However, the irony of Freeze’s resignation due to a phone call to an escort service is that in the end, none of his perceived “enemies” or detractors brought him down.

Hugh Freeze ended Hugh Freeze.

He had the opportunity to redact the one phone call that began a deeper investigation into his phone records of his university-issued phone, yet he did not.

College football coaches have egos. You don’t get to the peak of that profession without one, and I completely accept that. However, ultimately what led to Freeze’s downfall wasn’t specifically his ego; it was the fact that he wasn’t smart enough to overcome his ego.

Often in sports, we believe that because someone has a job that we as sports fans covet dearly, that inherently that person is smarter or better than we are. Occasionally, that’s true. I believe that the best coaches in the profession are smarter and/or better than the average person in the field and would probably win at just about any job in the country within reason.

However, the lion share of coaches in the field are pretty pedestrian individuals who simply love football and made it their lives.

Hugh Freeze beat Alabama, and therefore Nick Saban, twice. That fact cannot be taken from him. He went to back-to-back New Year’s Six bowl games. That fact cannot be taken from him. Within three years of taking the Ole Miss job, he had taken a team that went 1-17 in its previous 18 SEC games prior to his arrival to multiple weeks inside the first-ever College Football Playoff rankings.

To many Southerners, especially middle-aged to elder boosters, the Sugar Bowl was the epitome of college football, and Hugh Freeze not only guided the Rebels back to New Orleans on the night of New Year’s Day but also won the game in dominating and exciting fashion.  

On paper, Ole Miss believed that they had finally found its coach that was destined to return the program to a standing that it had not experienced since integration of college football.

One can see that it wasn’t unreasonable for the school and its supporters to believe that Freeze was a coach worth keeping. I firmly believe that if a school has a coach like Saban or Urban Meyer, one who is truly exceptional, that it is in the best interest of the school to do whatever it takes to keep that coach.

However, in the heat of the moment, amidst a whirlwind return to national relevancy for a program that had largely been a perennial bottom feeder and joke punchline, Ole Miss and its supporters lost perspective.

I take nothing away from what Freeze’s teams accomplished on the field. The second half comeback against Alabama during 2014 was well-earned. The Rebels simply beat the Crimson Tide that day.

However, the 2015 win against Alabama is often given too much credence. Alabama committed five turnovers while Ole Miss committed none and had what appeared to be a likely interception that could have been returned for a touchdown, turn into a 66-yard touchdown after a ridiculous bounce.

Not many teams, even Alabama, can overcome a 5-0 turnover margin, yet the Tide still had the ball with time on the clock to win the game.

However, those events happen in football, and Ole Miss forced turnovers that day with relentless pressure and an attacking defense.

The larger point is that Ole Miss put too much stock into two wins and ignored the red flags that surrounded Freeze because of them.

 Mississippi Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze reacts with his defense after they intercepted a pass late in the game and went on to defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Rebels defeated the Tide 43-37.
Marvin Gentry -- USA TODAY Sports

Freeze’s nature is boom or bust. That mentality works against Saban because you have to take risks to beat Alabama because they have the better roster.

However, that mentality also lends itself to bad losses, and Ole Miss had its share of bad losses under Freeze.

Freeze liked to have fancy and trick plays in his game plan so that he could point to something that he did to affect the outcome of the game.

To this day, I’m still convinced that after initially sending Gary Wunderlich, one of the nation’s best kickers, to attempt a game tying 46-yard attempt against LSU in 2014 in Baton Rouge, he elected to send his offense back on the field following an LSU timeout that was designed to ice the young kicker.

He was going to steal a touchdown by having LaQuon Treadwell run a decoy route to pick up some quick yards and make the kick easier and sneak his fastest receiver, Cody Core, deep to secure a quick touchdown and end the game. He would have had his brilliant coaching move to which he could point won the game.

The plan backfired as the safety didn’t take the bait and made an easy interception of a Bo Wallace pass that fluttered into the night sky.

I don’t doubt for a second that Freeze instructed Wallace to throw the ball away if the play wasn’t there, but when you send a weak-armed quarterback back onto the field and try to hit a home run, you inherently risk an interception.

Routinely, Freeze’s ego would get the better of him, and he simply wasn’t smart enough to overcome it.

After signing Laremy Tunsil in 2013, Freeze insisted upon keeping the biggest reason why he signed Tunsil – scholarship offers to Tunsil’s half-brother, Alex Webber, a non-prospect and Zedrick Woods, a family friend – a national secret. Had he simply trotted out Webber and Woods and had them publicly commit to Ole Miss for the 2014 class, most of the questions surrounding Tunsil’s commitment would have ceased.

Instead, Freeze wanted to demonstrate that he had beaten Nick Saban, Jimbo Fisher, and every other elite program for Tunsil’s signature.

Further, after being questioned by the NCAA investigators about his 2013 signing class, Freeze became defensive and allegedly an altercation occurred between Freeze and the NCAA investigator that became extremely personal and gave the investigative arm of the NCAA reason to target Freeze.

Then, later that day, Freeze would fire off a tweet that he admitted to regretting about the legitimacy of his signing class.

Any other coach would have known that you have to handle the incident with the investigative arm more professionally at best and savvier at best.

When Alabama was questioned about the recruiting practices of former defensive line coach, Bo Davis, Saban fired Davis nearly immediately (albeit with a generous severance package), and the issue went away.  

In contrast, when Freeze was questioned about the recruiting practices of Barney Farrar, he again got defensive, ignored the questions, and insisted that Farrar continue recruiting.   

Then in the summer of 2015, Tunsil got into an altercation with his step father (Lindsey Miller), Freeze hastily released a statement in support of his player that implied that Miller was a domestic abuser, an event that gave Miller reason to spill everything he knew about Tunsil’s recruitment and more to the NCAA.

Those comments would cost Freeze not only his left tackle for seven games during the 2015 season and a chance at perhaps an SEC title and more but also much of his credibility as a recruiter because the perception became that Ole Miss cheats when the reality is that Tunsil was given nothing more than what any other elite player in the SEC would get on any other campus.

Don’t believe me? Visit the parking lot of the Alabama football facility.

 

Nov 21, 2015; Oxford, MS, USA; Mississippi Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze reacts after a play during the third quarter of the game against the LSU Tigers at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mississippi won 38-17.
Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

However, Freeze’s problems wouldn’t end with Tunsil. Freeze steered Tunsil to sign with Jimmy Sexton upon turning professional despite the fact that Tunsil was pledged to another agent, who unknown to Freeze had possession of an old cell phone of Tunsil that contained the contents of what became the viral, cyber-attack on the 2016 NFL Draft Night.      

Time and time again, Freeze’s ego would get the better of him.

In addition to Freeze’s ego, he had an obsession with his public image, one of a deeply-devout man who believed that he had a purpose higher than coaching football. He would regularly search his name on Twitter to see what was said about him.

Rumors about infidelity ran rampant in Oxford during 2015 and 16, rumors that often met dead ends or weren’t substantial enough for printing.

Inevitably, Freeze’s character or legitimacy of it came into question.

I don’t feel equipped or qualified to comment on those rumors because the truth is beyond intuition, I have no proof.

I do have proof, however, that he went to extreme lengths to shape his public persona.

Madison Manning was a patient at Batson's Children Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi during the summer of 2016. Manning was suffering from Cystic Fibrosis, a horrific genetic condition that greatly shortens life.

Manning was invited by Freeze to be the coach for a day on August 13, 2016, an event that Freeze turned into a glorified photo opportunity.

“We had Madison Manning here the other night,” Freeze told reporters after a practice unsolicitedly. “He’s a cancer patient. He’s been sent home, and they can do no more for him.”

Freeze didn’t even know what condition afflicted Manning, but that fact didn’t stop him from using a horrific tragedy for his own gain.

Then, during the same week, following a tragic plane crash that killed Oxford natives Dr. Jason Farese and his wife, Dr. Lea Farese, Dr. Michael Perry and his wife, Kim, and Dr. Austin Poole and his wife, Angie and left eight children orphans, Freeze invited the kids to practice and invited media to the entire practice to document the event, a practice that was completely out of the normal for local media during that preseason.

While the ends justified the means in this case as those kids were given a day of escape from the harsh reality of the tragedy they were experiencing, Freeze chose to make the event a spectacle to further his persona.

Ole Miss basketball coach Andy Kennedy and baseball coach Mike Bianco both held similar events for the kids, but neither coach allowed cameras to document the event and even forbade media from attending the practices.

Do all of these events make Freeze some type of fraud or hypocrite? That conclusion isn’t for me to reach.

However, I do believe that all of these events demonstrate a man that was obsessed with ego and his persona, an obsession that created a lot of problems for him.

His persona led antagonists with an agenda to a place where they felt obligated to bring him down.

Pride goes before the fall, and the greatest irony of all is that Hugh Freeze’s enemies didn’t inevitably bring him down. He did that on his own.

 

 

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