This week marked a special time in Hugh Freeze’s life.
And it had nothing to do with player evaluations, recruiting or clocking 40 times.
This was the first time Ole Miss’ new head coach actually got to see what organization looked like in his office. Gone were the boxes that littered his floors and the loose papers that cluttered his desk.
There is some sort of balance in his workspace, but there are still voice mails and emails that haven’t been returned. It’s not that he’s dismissed them; he just hasn’t had time to respond.
“I really don’t have everything in order yet,” Freeze said.
Yet, he’s happy to see some sort of sanity return. Since Freeze was announced as Ole Miss’ 37th head coach on Dec. 5, he’s had one team meeting and a whole lot of recruiting on his mind.
Freeze, who returns to Ole Miss after spending three years on Ed Orgeron’s staff, has barely moved into Danny Nutt’s (Houston Nutt’s brother) old house because he had to build relationships with committed and uncommitted prospects with less than two months until national signing day. And he had to do so at a program that had endured two straight seasons in the SEC’s cellar, winning just six games and dropping 14 straight league games, including three straight to archrival Mississippi State.
Ole Miss’ longer winter break also meant that he only had one official visit weekend in which students would be on campus -- the final one.
“As you know, Oxford is a different place when the kids are here,” Freeze said.
It is, and Freeze worried that prospects wouldn’t be able to really digest the Ole Miss experience without them.
But on national signing day, Freeze finished off his class of 18 with a pretty successful turnout. Freeze signed a solid defensive foundation in four-star defensive linemen Issac Gross, Channing Ward and safety Trae Elston.
Though Freeze suffered tough losses, including local star Jeremy Liggins, who signed with LSU, he saved six initial scholarships that can be counted back next year and he thinks he signed “quality kids who really want to be at Ole Miss.”
Now, he has to make sure he has those players on his current roster. Freeze isn’t pointing fingers, but he knows that discipline is an issue at Ole Miss. The mindset isn’t toxic, but it isn’t great.
Freeze is well aware of the off-field incidents and the questionable heart this team showed on the field last season. Therefore, he’s calling for an overhaul. Things will change mentally and physically for these players.
“It is requiring them to get out of their comfort zone and change what they’re used to,” Freeze said.
Freeze’s situation at Ole Miss is similar to the one he had at Arkansas State. During his one season as ASU’s head coach last year, he had players who had never had a winning season. Expunging the losing attitudes was step 1.
Step 2 was developing the talent at a faster, more efficient rate. Freeze created a well-disciplined team that won the Sun Belt after getting 10 wins for the first time since 1986. Freeze earned Sun Belt Coach of the Year, while 13 of his players earned all-league honors.
Can that overnight success be duplicated in Oxford? Freeze isn’t expecting such a dramatic turnaround, but he does anticipate immediate improvement. He won’t settle for mediocrity. He didn’t return just for Ajax Diner’s veggies smothered in bacon and grease or the flawlessly battered catfish at Taylor Grocery.
He came home to win ball games and change the culture of Ole Miss football. He knows the offensive line wasn’t recruited for a more “power-type offense” and that youth ran the 2011 team.
But he also knows that he has the pieces in place to run his high-octane, spread offense. There are dual-threat quarterbacks galore, including Bo Wallace, who at one time was an ASU signee, and the Rebels have quality speed at the skill positions.
Freeze doesn’t view Ole Miss’ program as bleak, and while the Rebels spent 2011 at the bottom of the SEC pile, with time, Freeze believes he can get this program to rebound.
“I do believe with all my heart that we’ll get back to being competitive and hopefully we’ll do it sooner rather than later, but I’ve got to preach to myself patience,” he said. “I’m not a very patient guy, but I’ve got to be patient with these guys. Hopefully, there’s a large percentage of the team that wants to change the way things are and we can get them to buy in. Hopefully, the ones who are on the fence can buy in with us.”
Still, inconsistency has thrived at Ole Miss. There’s the idea that Freeze isn’t experienced enough. There’s the fact that the Rebels haven’t been to the SEC championship game and have won 10 games just once since 1971.
The Rebels have ways to go before they'll really compete in the SEC, but Freeze hopes he can shake the stigma that winning at Ole Miss is preposterous.
“I embrace that. I don’t run from it and we acknowledge it,” he said. “I obviously think it can be done or I would have taken one of those other jobs that I had. I do think it’s going to take all of our efforts and us being of one mind, one accord on the same page with our fan base and our staff, and us changing the way we think of ourselves.
“It’ll take time.”