Return Engagement

Welcome back, Hugh. You left Ole Miss four years ago as an assistant coach, and now you're back as head coach to pick up the pieces from a fallen program.

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But it's in worse shape now. There's not as much talent, not as much depth. Little discipline. Ole Miss football became irrelevant the past couple of years.

Nationally it wasn't on the radar screen. It was almost as if few knew there was even an opening for head football coach here.

Examples. During the Southern Mississippi-Houston Conference USA title game Saturday, Mike Patrick and Craig James talked about how Kevin Sumlin and Larry Fedora could be candidates at other schools which had openings. They named a few of those schools. But no Ole Miss.

During the telecast of the Big Ten title game on Fox, with Wisconsin playing Michigan State, the announcers mentioned schools that had coaching vacancies this time around. They mentioned Texas A&M, Kansas, Washington State, Arizona, Ohio State, Penn State. Even Memphis, Hugh. But no Ole Miss.

Irrelevant, even with a job opening. That's what it's become here the past couple of years. But it's more than just the team. There's the fanbase. It's kind of a mess and has been for months.

It's fractured into factions but not beyond repair. But you'll have to fix it. It's what head football coaches always have to do in situations like this. Fans always listen to the football coach.

I don't know what will be suggested that you say if questions arise about songs and mascots and such. The less said the better would be my advice. You've got a football program to resurrect.

The Rebels were 2-10 this season to go along with their 0-8 SEC slate while you were coaching Arkansas State to a 10-2 record and a Sun Belt championship. Congratulations on that. Ole Miss people hope you can do the same here. Nobody is expecting anything remotely close to that in your first year.

Hugh Freeze
US Presswire

Good thing, too. Even during the probation years, the program never sunk this far. That's why there was change. Much needed change.

The football coaching position here has become a revolving door for the Rebel program. Since the probation of the mid-1990s after the Billy Brewer era ended with an interim year under Joe Lee Dunn in 1994, you now make the fifth head football coach at Ole Miss.

Tommy Tuberville. David Cutcliffe. Ed Orgeron. Houston Nutt.

The last three were shown the door. Tuberville, earlier, had found it on his own and fled.

There is hope among the Rebel Nation that you can provide some stability. Some longevity. This program hasn't had either for a long time.

You may have to do your best selling job within the state's borders – to Ole Miss fans, to recruits, and to potential new fans of the program.

Your alma mater, USM, just won the Conference USA championship at 11-2 and is headed for the Hawaii Bowl. Mississippi State thinks it owns the Golden Egg trophy, thinks the whole state is theirs, and will be bowling in Nashville later this month.

I wrote a column after Nutt was fired a few weeks ago. I said there are two main problems at Ole Miss, and maybe this isn't only dealing with football.

One, not enough people believe here anymore. Not enough truly believe.

Two, Ole Miss has seen its clout in Mississippi slip athletically, politically, in in-state enrollment and in growing the fan base. Overall, Ole Miss is the largest university in Mississippi this school year, but its in-state percentages are less than USM or MSU.

Ole Miss fans need to believe again. And Ole Miss needs to recapture Mississippi to be able to lead again. Right now it is just one of the players.

I take you back to Sept. 6, 1989, before Ole Miss played at Florida, and a column in the Orlando Sentinel by Larry Guest. He once covered Ole Miss football for the Clarion-Ledger.

He was writing, much like this column I am writing, to one individual – the president of the University of Florida at the time. The Gator program was in some turmoil at that moment. Ole Miss, he wrote, provides a chilling blueprint.

He recalled in the column when John Vaught retired – the first time – and was replaced by Billy Kinard. Billy's brother, Bruiser, replaced Tad Smith as athletic director.

For those Ole Miss fans still alive who lived back then, they can recall the tension and turmoil that surrounded the dramatic changing of the guard. In some ways, Ole Miss still suffers from decisions made that far back.

Hugh Freeze
US Presswire

Here's what Guest said in a portion of his column about a large meeting of influential Ole Miss people in Jackson:


"I know many of you are on the fence," Billy Kinard darkly challenged from the podium. "Well get on the bandwagon or get off."

Ole Miss football, as it had been feared and revered for two decades, passed away at that moment. The sound of checkbooks snapping shut was deafening. The surging river of influence was gelded into a passive brook.

Heavyweight boosters tend not to come back once they've been affronted. It becomes a matter of pride and ego. Men I knew who once lived for three and four day Ole Miss football weekends now casually drive up and back for a game or two each season, even after all this time for wounds to heal. They found pleasing and more economical alternatives for their autumn Saturdays.

In the SEC and in a state where your football program has fallen behind the neighbors, you need all the proper help you can get. Being a Gator has required an extra measure of perseverance and loyalty of late. The gloating of high-flying FSU and Miami zealots has been an infernal annoyance to them.

Like at any school, your followers include that blustery minority armed with more venom than virtue. But the vast majority are fair-minded, responsible loyalists who only want what is best and honorable for the university that has become an integral part of their lives. They're family, and they want to feel needed.

Granted boosters – like doting grandparents – are often tough to live with.

But, as the Ole Miss Rebels can attest, even harder to live without.


Ole Miss beat Florida in Gainesville 24-19 that weekend in 1989. What did the Gators do following that season? They hired someone young and energetic with drive and passion, with an us-against-the-world mentality.

They hired Steve Spurrier, and Gator Nation was united.

You won't be able to fix all that needs fixing around here, Hugh. But if you can fix the football program, you might even be surprised how that changes all the other aspects for the good.

Because football arguably drives just about everything else people in Mississippi do. They live it every day. It's who they are.

So welcome back. You know the place. You know what it takes.

Ole Miss, by choosing you as its head football coach, believes you are the person to make a difference here and make Saturdays in the fall fun again.

It all starts today.

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