'It's personal to him'

Around 4 p.m. Saturday, Hugh Freeze will step off a chartered bus onto hallowed ground. He's admitted that moment in time will be emotional.

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On at least one occasion publicly, he's said he might even shed a tear or two as he leads his Ole Miss Rebel football team down the Walk of Champions through the Grove and on to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium/Holllingsworth Field.

No statistic is available for how many on earth reach the pinnacle of their careers, at least the one they set as a goal for themselves, and are able to work at their dream jobs. Last December 5, Hugh Freeze made it to that point. At age 42, he was there.

He stood on the stage of the Ford Center on the Ole Miss campus and looked out at the crowd. Every seat was filled. Some were standing.

He began to speak to Rebel Nation, to preach to them in a sense, and ever since then he's gone about rebuilding a program that had experienced arguably its worst season ever.

Never had Ole Miss lost 10 games in any one football season. And not since 1946 had Ole Miss won as few as two games in a season.

In 2011, the Rebels were 2-10.

Enter Freeze.

But really, enter Hugh Freeze many years before that. As a kid he had attended many Ole Miss football games, spent time in the Grove with family and friends, watched Ole Miss play in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. And later he'd dreamed of one day coaching the Rebels.

He'd gotten the chance to do that as an assistant to Ed Orgeron during three seasons from 2005-07. There was a question in the Ford Center asked of him that day by a media member. Had he heard from his former Rebel boss? The 37th head coach of the football Rebels responded with his best Orgeron impression.

"Freeeeeeeze," said Hugh in a gravelly voice, sounding just like the 35th head coach of Rebel football.

Those in the facility loved it. The Freeze era was off to a roaring start. Literally.

Freeze's title his last two seasons with Orgeron was assistant coach/recruiting coordinator. And while Orgeron's teams had trouble winning games on the field, they recruited like mad. And it showed up in two areas – the success the following two Ole Miss seasons after they departed, and NFL rosters that still have Ole Miss players scattered from coast to coast.

For the past eight months, Freeze has enjoyed the honeymoon basically every new coach gets. Certainly with Ole Miss fans experiencing teams that combined for a 6-18 record the past two seasons, a change had to be made. And Hugh Freeze got the call.

A New Team

Freeze meets the media
Chuck Rounsaville

Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork arrived on the scene in March and went to work officially in April. He'd met Freeze before. Not long after Bjork's arrival was Rebel Road Trip 2012 and a chance for Freeze and Bjork to get to know each other.

"It's personal to him," said Bjork of what he believes Saturday will mean to Freeze. "He did grow up an Ole Miss Rebel fan. This is a charge for him and a dream come true. He has a personal obligation in that he feels that he owes it to this place to do everything in his power to be successful. But also to do it the right way with his character and his background."

Bjork said it ultimately goes back to the teamwork he and Freeze both have toward rebuilding Ole Miss football.

"I just feel his passion, his work ethic, every single day he wakes up knowing that he's responsible, we're responsible together, to get this program back on track," Bjork said. "It's going to take work. It's going to take attitude. He's talked about attitude and effort. We're on the same page. His energy level and his personal drive will get us through this rough patch but then get us to the pinnacle of where we want to go."

Bjork said they'll stand united, because it will take that to be successful.

"I said the other night on the radio show that there will be moments where we're probably going to have to put our arms around each other and say ‘Stay the course. We know it's going to work.' There's going to be some rough moments," he said. "That's athletics.

"But how we respond to that and how we overcome it will be the sign of the future," Bjork continued. "I just believe he's got a personal affinity for this program that's very deep. Now he's the head coach, and he can put that out for all to display and see what happens. He's been a winner everywhere he's gone."

A Bond Beyond

Ken Smith has known Hugh Freeze for a long time, back to the days when Freeze was a college student at Southern Mississippi. Their friendship runs deep; their respect for each other perhaps even deeper.

It started at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes conference. It extends to this day. Smith, who lives in Florida and is still affiliated with FCA, has been in Oxford this week, at practice, visiting with Freeze and his family, just wanting to be a part of the beginning of a new era for Ole Miss football.

Freeze before a fall intrasquad
Chuck Rounsaville

"I met him when he was at FCA when he was a college student," said Smith, who was team chaplain for Bobby Bowden at Florida State for 14 years, as well as other schools during his career.

"I've been around (Tony) Dungy. I've been around (Bobby) Bowden. Those would be the top names when you start talking about guys who've got class. I put Hugh there," Smith said. "I honestly believe Hugh Freeze as a young man has the qualities of Dungy and Bowden and one day will be in that category. He has a tremendous desire to see kids accomplish things. He has a personal drive in his own life to do it right. If I were a dad, and I am, he's the kind of guy I would want my kid to play for."

Smith will be there Saturday as Freeze walks through the Grove. He said it will be special, but he isn't surprised.

"The first time I ever talked to Hugh about coaching, he said 'One day I'd like to be head coach at Ole Miss.' When he was trying to get the job, I wanted to call so many people and say ‘Do y'all understand, there's one guy who the only job he ever wanted was to be at Ole Miss?' It really is a dream come true for him. He was almost in tears he was going to be interviewed."

Smith, who grew up in Starkville and got his undergraduate degree from Baylor, said he had to be here for Freeze's first game as head coach at Ole Miss.

"You'd better believe he's somebody special to me," he said. "Not many of us meet people who have a dream and get to live it. That excites me for him and that excites me for Ole Miss. With my wife having a degree from Mississippi State and with my graduate degree from Mississippi State, that's a pretty big deal for me to be excited about."

Not Blind-Sided By Success

Sean Tuohy, former Rebel basketball player, had to pause and think for a second or two just how long he's known Hugh Freeze.

"My daughter (Collins) was in seventh grade at Briarcrest, which seems like a century ago," said Tuohy, who plans to be in Oxford this weekend but was in Baltimore as one son, Michael, gets ready for another season with the Ravens and another son, S.J., gets ready for college and basketball at Loyola in Maryland. "I've gotten to know him really well through the years. The best thing I can say is if my kid was a D-I football prospect and he was coaching in Alaska, I'd tell him to go play for him."

Tuohy said Freeze is thorough in everything he does and can be demanding in all aspects of life.

Freeze at SEC Media Days
File Photo

"There's the coaching side. He's adaptable. He's innovative. He's very instinctive," Tuohy said. "He doesn't coach from a stat sheet. You watch film with him for five minutes and it amazes you that he sees 22 players, three people holding the chains, seven referees; he can see all the moving parts.

"Then you have the non-coaching side. He's tough. He's demanding. But he's fair. He loves his kids. He loves his football players. A dad who loves his (three) daughters is the perfect start for someone to send their kids to play for a coach. That's Hugh. He's fair and he's caring, and I don't know if that's really very common in D-I athletics."

Those three Freeze daughters: Ragan, Jordan, and Madison.

The Tuohy's association with Freeze obviously extends to The Blind Side and the story of Michael Oher. Tuohy said Freeze didn't get all caught up in the hype some people might have in the same situation.

"I'm sure he's proud of his part in it. But it's not really that important to him," he said. "I don't think that mattered in his career. Hugh was going to get hired by somebody in D-I football real soon. And the timing just happened to be right for that to happen at Ole Miss."

Not Your Normal Coach-Speak

Darry Marshall gave Freeze his first job as an assistant coach at Briarcrest in Memphis. Freeze had just gotten his degree from USM.

"Mark Carson, who was already on my staff at Briarcrest, told me a little bit about Hugh," said Marshall, at the time serving as head football coach at Briarcrest. "We got together and he took the job. It was an absolutely wonderful relationship."

When Marshall left for Munford High, Freeze took over at Briarcrest as the head football coach.

"The one thing that stands out in my mind about Hugh Freeze is that he's a genuine man of God who walks the walk and has really had an influence on my life. Great man. Great father. Great husband. That translates into a highly successful person. He's always true to his principles."

And a pretty good coach, too, according to Marshall.

"He's a wonderful offensive mind. He has a very creative mind," he said. "I'm from the old school of coaching. He sparked up our offense a lot. He offered a lot of great innovation that helped me grow as a coach. He just had a natural knack, a gift to know what would work against defenses."

Marshall said Freeze would try from time to time to get him to open things up and loosen the offense up a little. He remembers when he finally gave in.

"One of the first things I can remember we did like that was a double reverse pass. He was a trick-play artist," Marshall said. "I was the conservative guy and he would always be bugging me about trying to do this or that. I remember a game specifically when I gave in and we scored a touchdown. That was the last time he had to beg me to call a play."

Marshall said Freeze, whose record shows this wherever he's been, just has an edge to know what it takes for his teams to succeed.

"One thing you'll find out about Hugh Freeze is that he'll have his football team in the very best position to win ballgames," he said. "We can't ever guarantee wins, but I can guarantee you that his players will be coached up to the point that they will be in the right spot and have opportunities because of their preparation. He is fundamentally sound and I saw early on that the little things mattered. So he took care of those things."

Before Darry Marshall there was Jerry Barrett, who coached Hugh Freeze at Independence High. Barrett and Hugh's father, Danny, coached together.

"Hugh and his family have been a part of my life since Hugh was about five or six years old," Barrett said.

Freeze at his initial UM press conference in the Ford Center Dec. 5, 2011
Bruce Newman

Therefore, he knows him well.

"You never dream of things like this occurring," Barrett said of his former pupil now being a head coach at a Southeastern Conference school. "But at times it does occur for people who are very deserving. His family, his wife (Jill), they're all very supportive. I think Hugh will be very successful because of the foundation he has and the support he has."

Barrett said Freeze's path to The University of Mississippi seemed destined.

"Hugh's been around it all his life. He's always wanted to be the best he can be," Barrett said. "He's made the right decisions, the right moves, and he's been very successful wherever he's been. I think he's the perfect fit for Ole Miss. He's somebody from Mississippi who wants to be there at Ole Miss. I think he will exceed expectations of the people at Ole Miss. I really do. What you see with Hugh is what you get."

The Gathering Place

Before Jerry Barrett, there was mom and dad. Danny and Rita Freeze have made many trips to Ole Miss for football games. Saturday won't be just another game. Maybe Rita will even watch.

"When I was coaching at Independence," said Danny, "we were playing at Water Valley in the state playoffs one time. They said (Rita) left the stands and was down there behind one of those big oak trees in the end zone. She couldn't watch."

Rita agreed it did happen just that way at Water Valley that night long ago. She hopes she can make it through the Ole Miss games now that her son is head coach.

"We're having fun," she said. "But I get more anxious than anybody about it. I try to keep it all in perspective. You say it's just a ballgame, but...."

But even being the parents of a head coach in the SEC won't mean anything out of the ordinary for the Freeze family. Like their son, they'll just be who they always have been.

"Here in the community we're in," she said of Independence in northwest Mississippi, not all that far from Oxford, "everybody just knows us as who we are. It won't change us. We've got so many family going (to the games) and so many people that we'll see that we haven't seen in a while. It will be fun just to walk around and see who's there and who all we can see."

Rita said when the team walks through the Grove will likely be the most emotional time.

"The most special part to me I think will be the Walk of Champions," she said. "To see Hugh in the lead will be very special."

Danny coached Hugh through ninth grade. He said their home was a place that not only their kids loved to be but so did their friends.

"Our house was close to the school. We didn't have to worry about where the kids were, because they were always here," Danny said of Hugh and his older sister, Tammy, and younger brother, Carey. "Them and about 15 others. So it was just a gathering place. It was special to us and to him. They just seemed to always wind up here."

Hugh, a Senatobia High graduate, was actually born in Oxford when Danny was in graduate school at Ole Miss. Rita said when she took him back for his six-week checkup, the doctor may have had a premonition of his future with Ole Miss football.

"He was big, and the pediatrician said ‘My goodness, he looks like Bruiser Kinard.' I laughed at that," she said.

"He's part of my heart," Rita continued. "You're always a parent, I don't care how old they are. Our other two are just as special in their own way. Being the coach at Ole Miss is just Hugh's calling."

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