Freeze Is Determined to Make It Happen
By Paul Myerberg // Dec 5, 2011
Hugh Freeze was determined to make it happen at Arkansas State. He was only in Jonesboro for two years, one as offensive coordinator, one as head coach, but it’s clear: Freeze made it happen. He set countless offensive records — points, yardage and the like — in 2009 as Steve Roberts’ coordinator. Freeze was named as Roberts’ successor following another 4-8 finish last fall, taking another substantial step up the coaching ladder. One year, one bowl trip and one Sun Belt title later, Freeze’s rapid climb continues to Oxford, where the Rebels, reeling from back-to-back failures, reeled in a coach who doesn’t fit the program’s recent history of coaching hires.
The marriage works. If works so well, in fact, and works on so many levels, that you wonder: Is there a catch? The catch, if it does in fact exist, is that to many Mississippi fans, Hugh Freeze is not a big enough name.
He’s not Houston Nutt, who won a pair of SEC titles over his decade at Arkansas. He’s not Ed Orgeron, who built a reputation as a recruiting machine as Pete Carroll’s right-hand man. He’s not even Tommy Tuberville, who was anointed the nation’s top assistant after leading defenses at Miami and Texas A&M. Hugh Freeze?
His coaching record doesn’t scream out in neon lights. And that may be why Freeze is such a nice fit, believe it or not; that he doesn’t resemble the parade of those coaches come and gone may reflect better on Freeze than any aspect of a career spent on college football’s lower tiers.
Most famously, Freeze was Michael Oher’s high school coach – though he didn’t play himself in the movie based on the book chronicling Oher’s turbulent path from Memphis to Oxford to the first round of the N.F.L. Draft. Freeze came to Oxford with Oher in 2005, spending a season as Mississippi’s assistant athletic director for external affairs before returning to the sidelines in 2006.
For the next two years, Freeze was Orgeron’s tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator. In the latter capacity, Freeze helped land a 2007 recruiting class that formed the nucleus of the Rebels’ Cotton Bowl runs in 2008 and 2009. His career hit a crossroads after the 2007 season, when Orgeron and his staff was relieved of their duties after an ugly Egg Bowl loss.
Falling flat hurts the head coach; sometimes, it hurts his crop of assistants. For Freeze, Orgeron’s flop in Oxford simply sent his career in a new direction. After a taste of the big time, there was no returning to the high school ranks. Instead, Freeze took a job at Lambuth University, an N.A.I.A. school, to fill the missing piece of his resume: a college head coaching job.
New school, new league, new level of play: similar results. As he did in Jonesboro, Freeze rejuvenated a program with a record-setting offense. He went 20-5 over two years at Lambuth, finishing No. 6 in the final N.A.I.A. poll in 2009 and parlaying that into his spot as Arkansas State’s offensive coordinator.
So what does a coach with two years of B.C.S. conference experience, one year of F.B.S. coordinator experience — though he continued to call plays in 2011 — and three years of college head coaching experience, two on the N.A.I.A. level, bring with him Oxford? Give me these four things:
He’s a gifted offensive mind. The argument that Freeze was setting records in the Sun Belt falls on deaf ears; he wasn’t setting Sun Belt records with SEC players, so it wasn’t as if he had any significant advantage in personnel over the rest of the conference. Mississippi hasn’t brought in a head coach with any offensive pedigree since David Cutcliffe, unless you count the season Houston Nutt pushed aside Gus Malzahn at Arkansas and ran his own meat-and-potatoes system.
He’s a motivator. Look at Vanderbilt in 2011: James Franklin brought fire to the Commodores, reversing in the span of months the sort of losing culture that had pervaded the program for generations. Freeze has the same sort of non-stop, glass-half-full, full-speed-ahead mentality, which should allow him to have the same impact on the Rebels as Franklin had in Nashville.
He’s a recruiter. If nothing else, Freeze’s first taste of college football came under Orgeron, one of the legendary recruiters in college football history. He wasn’t much of a head coach; you still couldn’t ask for a better example to follow when it comes to doing work on the recruiting trail, and that Freeze served under Orgeron in Oxford will help him the ground running against the rest of the SEC.
He wants to be here. Freeze doesn’t just want to be with the Rebels today — I think this is a destination job, meaning that for a Southern coach with ties to the university, Mississippi does not stand as one step forward on a road leading to a more prestigious program. Think Tuberville viewed Mississippi as his final stop on the coaching ladder? Think Orgeron or Nutt wanted to end their careers as the Rebels’ head coach?
I think that if it works, Freeze will become a fixture in Oxford. And that he is so different from the parade of coaches who have come and gone — like Tuberville — or come and failed — like everyone but Cutcliffe — is the most positive aspect of Freeze’s candidacy. At a point where the easy hires, those that couldn’t be nitpicked, have worked so terribly for the Rebels, taking a chance on a coach with an non-prototypical track to the SEC might be exactly what the program needs.
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