In recent months, the Ole Miss football program, and Coach Hugh Freeze, have been subjected to harsh criticism regarding the ongoing NCAA investigation.
In fact, that's putting it mildly.
Ole Miss has been vilified, in some instances, and used as the easy whipping boy of the day.
Never mind that Alabama has fired a coach and has had players caught with stolen guns and drugs. Never mind that Tennessee tried to cover up a rape and has paid out over $2 million in hush money. Never mind that Baylor had sexual predators on their campus leading to the firing of their coach. Never mind that Mississippi State has a freshman player seen on video beating a prone woman nearly senseless with little subsequent penalty by MSU. Never mind. . . well, you get the picture. Despite all these things, Ole Miss is the school that has been "piled on" by many members of the supposedly responsible media.
But the players representing Ole Miss at SEC Media Days here - TE Evan Engram, QB Chad Kelly and DT D.J. Jones - have a remedy for shutting the outside noise out - living inside out. In short, they don't let it bother them because they know about the Ole Miss program, the real Ole Miss program, intimately.
"We believe in our coaches and we believe in each other. Coach (Hugh) Freeze always tells us to control what we can control and not worry about the outside chatter and that's what we do," said Engram, a preseason All-SEC selection. "Every one of our coaches is a father figure to us. That's the thing I love about Ole Miss - there are more important things than football. How you act, how you develop as a man, how you accomplish as a student - all of those things are critical under this staff and it's not lip service.
"We want to win. We want to bring home championships, but in the end, in the long haul, we know our coaches are more concerned about us after football than they are now. That is what sold me on Coach Freeze. The first thing he told me was that his success will be defined on how we turn out as men, not with how many games we win or lose. I knew I had to be a Rebel and it's the best decision I ever made. If I was a high school senior right now and had offers from everyone in the country, I would still come to Ole Miss under Coach Freeze and this staff."
Evan has loving, caring, attentive parents and he was looking for an extension of that in the college of his choice. He got what he wanted, he says.
"We start each day, if we want it, with a devotional and we talk about our core values. It's daily, not every now and then. We talk about being a brother, a son, a friend, a boyfriend, a husband and one day a father and how to handle those things with character and dignity," he continued. "My parents did a great job of teaching me values and respect and how to carry myself, but our coaches have done those same things. I am blessed to have a wonderful father at home and all the coaches at Ole Miss as father figures.
"I came to Ole Miss as a boy and I am leaving as a man.We know what is important. We know how success is defined. It is defined with what we are learning at Ole Miss under Coach Freeze and these coaches."
Evan said he does not concern himself with the NCAA talk, and the turmoil surrounding the program.
"We live inside out. We love inside out. We work for each other. We strive for each other. We play out of love for each other, not hate of our opponent," he closed. "Those are the things I have learned at Ole Miss. These are the things I will take with me the rest of my life. We are not worried about what anybody is saying about anything outside of our building. We are just going to work hard, be good citizens and put the ball down and play as hard as we humanly can for each other, for our coaches and for our school."
Jones has only been at Ole Miss a year, but already his life has been impacted by Freeze and company.
"Coach Freeze and Coach (Chris) Kiffin have been a blessing to me in my life," he said. "They treat us with respect, as men. They push us as men. You have to give respect to get respect and they do that. This is a coaching staff I will go to war for because they will go to war for us.
"I will leave here a much better man than when I came here. I really have no other choice than to be better because I would not disrespect Coach Freeze by being anything but a good person. His efforts will not be wasted on me, I promise that. I will be a better man because of him and Coach Kiff."
Academically, D.J.was made a promise and it has been fulfilled.
"Coach Freeze told me if I worked hard I could graduate in December. He gave me a plan, he gave me the desire and the motivation and I supplied the hard work. I will graduate in December," he beamed. 'Every word Coach Freeze has ever told me has been true - every word.
"I could not have chosen a better school for me and I will spread the word of Ole Miss and Coach Freeze for the rest of my life."
Kelly came to Ole Miss with a troubled reputation.
Nothing criminal,but with the tag of having an attitude issue. Even after he signed, there was an altercation in his hometown of Buffalo, NY, that added more baggage, but since his arrival at Ole Miss, Chad has shed the tag of troubled young man and has mushroomed into a team leader and model citizen. A gym rat who the whole team looks up to.
He defined what Freeze has meant to him in one word.
"Everything," Kelly said thoughtfully with a long pause. "Everything and a lot more. Coach Freeze gave me a second chance and has helped me grow in my faith. I am so thankful he took a chance on me and I am so grateful I have turned the corner and am proving him right for wanting me. Coach Freeze is a great man, a great father and a great coach. I am so glad to be able to call him my coach."
Freeze and others gets the credit, Chad said, for showing him the right path.
"My father, my uncle and others have helped me a lot, but Coach Freeze has taken the lead since I have been at Ole Miss. He helped me realize I am looked up to by little kids and everything I do is magnified. He made me remember that I had heroes growing up and that I wanted them to be good role models. I wanted my role models doing great things in the community and being good citizens, so I get the lesson he was teaching me," he stated. "I thank Coach Freeze and Coach (Dan) Werner for showing me that path."
Freeze was asked a lot of questions about the NCAA investigation during Media Days. He did his best to answer them within the boundaries of what the school "allows" during the investigation, but the media, for all intents and purposes, would not let it go.
But the players have.
They have faith in their leader(s), in Ole Miss and in the athletic program.
Consequently, they are "living inside out."
A lesson for all Rebels. . . . .