Competitor Within

Hugh Freeze can't help but laugh when he tells the story now, a mid-40s SEC head coach looking back on a hypercompetitive, overzealous kid always out to prove himself.

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One Christmas sticks out, if for no other reason than he received a new four-wheeler. There was a pond on the family farm in Independence, Miss., and a ditch ran alongside. His brother and sister issued a challenge.

"You can't jump that deal," Freeze recalls his siblings saying. "I did, and I went right in it with a brand new four-wheeler."

"I was quite mad at him, to be quite honest with you," Carey Freeze, his younger brother, said. "It was our first four-wheeler. He took off on it, and we told him about the ditch, challenged him on it. Long story short, it was upside down. Wrecked the thing on the first day."

Freeze has story after story like that. He's longed to be the best, to win at everything, as long as he can remember. Cards, horse or touch football - you name it - he was/is open to the challenge, no matter the cards stacked against him.

"Not as bad as I used to be," he says many years later, the week his team, Ole Miss, is set to open its season at Vanderbilt to kick off the 2013 football season.

"I used to do crazy things to my brother and cousins. We'd play touch football, I'd get mad. We're tackling then. I was the oldest, so it was quite unfair. I just remember having an edge to me. Probably a little too much."

An edge not lost on his younger brother.

"Me being younger, we'd play basketball or whatever, but he'd never let me win," Carey said. "Older brothers are supposed to let your younger brother win every now and then. He never let me win."

Hugh Freeze
Bruce Newman

News flash: All coaches are competitive. Shocking, right? Simple enough, sure, but a coach can't survive in the cutthroat world of SEC football, and the gauntlet of the SEC West, if the unremitting drive to outduel Nick Saban, Les Miles and others isn't there.

Freeze is no different from the rest. Still, Hugh Freeze the competitor differs greatly from Hugh Freeze the public speaker. Or Tweeter. Or father of three daughters. To learn how competitive he actually is, the other side of an otherwise easy-as-he-goes type, simply ask one of his players.

"He wears his emotion on his sleeve," junior quarterback Bo Wallace said. "Anytime he's walking around (the indoor practice facility), you can tell what kind of mood he's in and whether you need to get away from him or you need to talk to him. You see it all the time, just his competitiveness."

The Quarterback Critic:

Wallace and Freeze have a unique relationship. Freeze saves his harshest criticism for Wallace, the engine of his up-tempo offense that finished fifth in the conference in total offense last season, the first for Freeze as head coach and Wallace as quarterback.

Wallace, an aggressive sort, was turnover prone last season. Ole Miss had the fifth-best passing offense with Wallace at the helm. His 2,994 passing yards were better than Alabama's A.J. McCarron and Mississippi State's Tyler Russell, to name a few, and his 22 touchdowns were good for sixth.

But no quarterback threw for more than his 17 interceptions. The next-closest was Tyler Wilson of Arkansas, who was intercepted 13 times.

"I think he's toughest on the quarterbacks, because that's the position he coached," Wallace said. "So if you're a quarterback, you're getting the brunt of his competitiveness every time you go out there."

Case in point, August practices.

Wallace underwent surgery on his throwing shoulder in the off-season. He missed all of spring practices, and he wasn't himself in the first two weeks of camp. But the early throwing limitations due to his shoulder were of far less concern to Freeze than his decision-making.

"We're not good enough and deep enough to turn it over and expect to win," he said Aug. 7, not-so-subtly calling out Wallace. "I'm sure hoping at some point we can mature."

Freeze was attached to the hip of Wallace throughout August. On the practice fields, he could oftentimes be heard voicing his displeasure with his quarterback when a particular play went wrong. He'd yell, Wallace would respond with some frustration of his own. On and on it would go, each getting their say, the next day really no different than the last.

Hugh Freeze
Associated Press

Wallace closed camp with arguably his best two weeks of practice at Ole Miss. Funny how that works.

"I don't think anybody, any coach in this world, could coach me as hard as he does, stay on me the way he does," Wallace said. "I think sometimes we'll go back and forth a little bit, but at the same time, I know he's trying to make me a great player.

"I think he's a heckuva coach."

Winning at Everything:

If Freeze didn't coach football, he'd probably be a professional fisherman. Maybe even a golfer.

His summer, for the most part, was spent either on a golf course somewhere or on a boat with Ole Miss assistant athletic director for football operations John Miller. Trips began at 5:30 a.m., sometimes not ending until dark.

Even then, Hugh Freeze, competitor, reared his head.

"Hugh Freeze wants to win at everything he does," Miller said. "He turns everything into a competition. Me and him, we blend pretty well together. When we're fishing, he doesn't have any patience. If the fish aren't biting early, he's ready to move to another spot quick.

"And if he has two more than you, he'll let you know about it."

Ole Miss fans usually see a different side to Freeze. He's approachable and unassuming, always willing to stand for a photo or sign an autograph. His ‘aw shucks' public persona has served him well, too, especially on the heels of his 7-6 debut season, which included a trip to the postseason for the first time since 2009.

If he ran for mayor of Oxford, he'd almost assuredly win in a landslide.

"To me, he's almost as opposite of that as you can be, to be quite honest with you," Carey said. "He does a good job of playing to that."

When he speaks, be it at quarterback club meetings or Rebel Reunion stops, he seems more preacher than football coach, delivering a sermon to his congregation. His program mantra, ‘Win the Day,' has caught on like wildfire amongst the Ole Miss fanbase.

A year ago, he spoke of a program in "the wilderness" and of how "the journey" to relevance would take time. The Rebels were 2-10 in the season prior to his arrival.

These days, he cites the lack of depth at key positions, most notably in the secondary. He's guarding against a fervent fan base eager to win big. As he well knows, the schedule does Ole Miss no favors, with road trips to Vanderbilt, Texas, Alabama and Auburn in the first six weeks.

But while he might not show his hand publicly, Freeze, at his core, is a fiery showman motivated by an intense need to win, win, win. And make no mistake; he's confident, too.

Hugh Freeze
Twitter: @CoachHughFreeze

"In about anything that he does, if he's out there fishing or golfing or especially coaching football, certainly he wants to win," Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, who has been with Freeze at Arkansas State and now Ole Miss, said. "He's that way in recruiting and about every way I can think of with him. He's a great competitor."

"To be in this profession, you have to be competitive," offensive coordinator Dan Werner said. "All the way from when we go play golf in the summer against each other, we're at it pretty hard. Every day is competition going on. That's how you get better."

Balancing Act:

Freeze has always been this way. Had he not been, his meteoric rise from high school head coach as early as 2004 to head coach in the toughest league in college football likely would have never happened.

Competition is a founding principle of his program, from the practice fields to the recruiting trail. He led Arkansas State to 10 regular season wins in his only season as head coach, all the while going head-to-head against SEC foes for blue-chip recruits.

Because Freeze has never been one to back down. Take the ATV in the ditch on Christmas Day, for example.

"We really talk about nobody having an ego in our recruiting in our building," defensive line coach Chris Kiffin said. "But you go back to when he was the head coach at Arkansas State. We'd have recruiting meetings and we were going after players who already had SEC offers. That just carried over to our vision that we're not going to back down from anybody, and now that we're here at Ole Miss, I think it just carries over."

Freeze said he does a better job of not letting his emotions show, even if he's admittedly anxious for the season-opener at Vanderbilt. The Rebels face heightened expectations in his second season, picked as high as third in the SEC West by some college football prognosticators.

"I've gotten a lot better," Freeze said. "I hope you don't see it a lot in the games. I have to remind myself a lot that I need to be composed. The kids need to see me confident in them.

"But in practices, I do still get fired up."

Of course he does. It's the competitor in him.

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