Forward From Here

OK, so she got me. Not that she was even trying to. I just wasn't tuned in quite enough. Conversations were flying all around me.

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"Jeff, you know in the summer it's burrrrrrning hot," said the older lady, who roots for Ole Miss, at the church I attended Christmas morning. "But in the winter it's freeeeeezing."

I was standing near the door to the front of the church. It was open. I glanced outside and it was cloudy, chilly, damp.

I was trying to process the voices around me, including hers.

"It is cold out there today," I said, still not clued into what she was referring to. Then it dawned on me.

Call me slow.

"Ah, you're talking about the new coach," I said.

She smiled and made another comment in the affirmative. She is ready for the Rebels to win again.

At the moment she made her original comment, I was talking to a young Ole Miss alum. He had already walked off and was down the stairs outside when I caught back up with him to finish our conversation.

He wasn't as excited about the future for Ole Miss. It wasn't any one thing. It was basically everything. He hadn't bought season tickets this fall. I don't know if he said he would next season or not. It didn't sound like he knew either.

Some of it is simply this. It's yet another holiday season Ole Miss isn't playing in a football bowl game, the sixth time in the last eight years Rebel fans have had to sit out the postseason due to the ineptness of their team.

Ole Miss is supposed to play in bowl games. It's still a top 20 program all-time as far as bowl appearances. It's what Ole Miss does.

But it hasn't lately. And the reasons are multi-faceted, which make young alums like the one I talked to Sunday uncertain of the passion they once had. And they admit it.

For Ole Miss to succeed into the future, that passion for fans has to return.

Back up a week. It's Southaven on a Wednesday night. Ole Miss is playing basketball, but it's the new head coach of football that's all the buzz.

A couple of thousand are gathered in a ballroom connected to the arena. Most want to hear anything that can make them feel like this time of year – if not next year then soon – they will again be heading to a bowl game somewhere.

"Huuuuuuuuuuuuugh!" came the call from hundreds as the Rebels' newest main man walked into the ballroom and headed toward the stage, shaking hands, high-fiving, speaking to as many as he could reach out and touch on his way to the podium.

Freeze greets the fans
Bruce Newman

Finally he made it and began doing what he will be doing until September and likely beyond.

Winning souls back to Ole Miss football.

"When we get a welcome like that, I'm so humbled," said Freeze, among his own, having grown up in northwest Mississippi. "I have to say Hotty Toddy!


"And how about getting Pierce Burton today!" Freeze said.

More cheers. Louder cheers.

"That was major for us. We needed a left tackle," Freeze said.

A left tackle and more. And so he and his not-quite-completed staff are going about the business of getting more talent to compete in what will be a growing and even tougher Southeastern Conference.

Every team in the SEC West is bowling this season. Except Ole Miss. Same thing last season.

Ultimately, that's why Freeze is in his first month as head football coach of the Ole Miss Rebels.

He told a story about the recruitment of Burton. Freeze was only in San Jose, Calif., a short time, but in that brief stint as offensive coordinator, he recruited Burton for San Jose State.

Freeze got a call Wednesday morning that Burton was going to sign with Florida. He then attributed a new staffer for changing the mind of one of his first significant signees at Ole Miss.

"Matt Luke," he said, to more cheers. "Everybody loves Matt Luke. We did the things I learned from the time I was here before (under Coach Ed Orgeron). One person went to see his dad in Phoenix, Ariz. That was Matt Luke. Dad really helped us turn that thing around lunchtime and on into the afternoon. We got his papers in right before I left (to go from Oxford to Southaven). So it was bigtime."

Freeze went on to talk about the other two signees that day. Players. The lifeblood of any program and the main reason a coach and staff turn a program around.

"D.J. Bailey," he said of the former Kentucky commitment. "We turned him this past weekend. That really wasn't that hard, and the reason why, I want you to know, is that kid loves Ole Miss and he wants to represent us in the Egg Bowl, and he wants to represent our state and our university. That was a big get for us, too.

"And to get (Dehendret) Collins, a DB out of Co-Lin was really big, because we're really thin in the secondary."

More from Freeze.

"We feel really good about what happened today with only five days to recruit. We're in the process of building relationships leading up to the February signing period. Hopefully we can pull a few surprises."

Players. It was the first thing Hugh Freeze talked about when he stepped up to the podium in Southaven last week.

And it's what will bring fans like the guy I ran into at church Sunday back into the fold with at least some semblance of passion for the Rebels again.

"Making it happen at Ole Miss," Freeze said. "That's what we've got to do."

The recovery process has begun.

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