COLUMN: What It Means

When Florida came calling on Ole Miss Coach Hugh Freeze via his agent, Jimmy Sexton, it opened up a whole can of worms. The fact that he ultimately decided to stick at Ole Miss sealed that can and spoke volumes.

The simple recapping of Hugh Freeze agreeing to a new contract to remain the head coach of the Ole Miss football program after a few "tense" days is that it's done and everyone is happy, move on.

This process, however, wasn't simple. There were many "tests" that had to be passed for all of the principles, tests that will define all parties for years to come and I hope it makes us all, as Rebel supporters, think.

This whole deal was never about whether or not Freeze wanted to stay at Ole Miss or whether or not Ole Miss wanted him to stay. Those were givens.

And it wasn't exclusively about money, even though Freeze and his staff got nice, deserved raises in the process that make his pay very competitive in our league.

This was a business deal, for sure, and business is business, but it was also about mutual loyalty, something lost at times in this cutthroat world of college athletics, where dollars trump just about everything else in many cases.

It was good to see loyalty tested and come out on the other end unscathed.

But don't think the Florida offer to Freeze wasn't a threat. A strong threat.

Swallow your Ole Miss bias for a moment and put yourself in Freeze's shoes. Be honest.

While Ole Miss has a lot to offer any coach, that person has to have the right mettle to succeed here. There are issues to overcome here that are not relevant at other places and it seems like they pop up every year or so. You know what I am talking about.

The recruiting base in Mississippi, while good, is nowhere near the base of a Florida and with divided loyalties in our sparsely populated state, it can be difficult to fill out a roster with championship caliber talent, and nothing but championship caliber will work in the conference Ole Miss resides in.

And while the Ole Miss athletics budget has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade, it is still roughly $30 million short of the Floridas of the world - theirs has grown too. That is a lot of cheddar to work with and make no mistake, cheddar makes a difference.

As a person, Freeze was not interested in moving from his home state. As a professional, he was intrigued and, if you are objective, why wouldn't he be? Some may disagree with this next statement, but that's what makes the world go around. At Ole Miss, a coach has to throw 95 on the black every day. At some schools, and most think Florida falls under this umbrella, a coach can throw 88 down the middle of the plate sometimes and still get the out.

I realize that is not going to sit well with some of the Rebel faithful, but truth is truth, and after surveying this conference landscape for over three decades, that's mine.

Which brings us back to Freeze and his test.

Was his talk when he was hired here of Ole Miss being his dream job just talk? Was his talk of Ole Miss being a family just a ploy? Was he sincere when he said three years ago he'd like to end his career at Ole Miss?

The answer is in his agreeing to a new contract and telling Florida he wasn't interested.

If there was any doubt previously, there is none now, because he had a viable, lucrative and attractive option. This is his dream job, he does consider Ole Miss/Mississippi/Rebel football family and it's now clear he does want to stay here as long as he is in coaching.

Loyalty does mean something to Hugh. There can be no questioning that and if you don't appreciate loyalty, then you probably weren't raised right. I know you do value it.

The Ole Miss athletics administration, led by AD Ross Bjork, was also tested and passed with flying colors.

In years past, Ole Miss would not have been able to fend off this kind of threat or just wouldn't have tried to. We would have rolled over with the standard line of "we can't afford it" or some such nonsense. It has happened before.

The fans would respond with "he's a traitor" rhetoric while ignoring the real problem - we weren't doing what it took to compete.

All of that started to change - slowly but surely - with facilities upgrades a decade or so ago and that ball has been picked up and carried further by Chancellor Dan Jones and Bjork.

Sure, they got an influx of money from being in the SEC, but the wise usage of that cash has been their charge and they have handled it beautifully, it says here.

But just as it is with Freeze and it being about more than money, there was a test for the administration, to send a message to the college athletics world. We are here, we are going to compete and there will be no midnight raid on our personnel just because you think you can and have deeper pockets.

Do not think for one instant that this was not an important moment in our athletics history and you can thank Bjork for making sure it got done. In my mind, Freeze is not the only player in this deal that needed a raise, so to speak. For my two cents, I say stack the dough high for Bjork and his staff too, but that's a story for another day.

The third test is how we, as Rebel Nation, are going to respond to all of this.

Sure, we're all happy now. Ole Miss just beat MSU. Ole Miss held off Florida from getting our coach. Our coach showed he really does want to be here. Everything's rosy, right?

But what happens if Freeze has an off year? What happens if the team has one of those seasons where it gets no bounces and four or five key players get injured?

You'll be tested.

You will need to draw on this day - the day we kept our coach, the day Ole Miss made a statement to the rest of the college athletics world, the day we asked for, and got, loyalty.

If that day comes, remember this: Loyalty is like respect, a two-way street. You won't get any unless you give some in return.

That, in a nutshell, is what all of this means.


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