- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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The man's a golden-haired, visor-wearing, smooth-talking machine -- don't let Hugh Freeze's rich tan and Southern charm fool you. Behind the endearing "shoots" and "shucks" is a coach with an agenda. There's nothing evil about him, mind you, but he's selling something. Everything he says and does is aimed at selling Mississippi to the nation's top recruits.
It took Freeze less than five minutes on Saturday to bring up recruiting. His team had just played an emotionally gut-wrenching game, upsetting sixth-ranked LSU at home to snap a three-game losing streak. His players celebrated in the locker room, not thinking about tomorrow. But when Freeze was asked what it meant moving forward to finally win a close one, he couldn't help himself.
"My immediate thought always goes to recruiting," Freeze said. "There were some really good recruits in that locker room -- and we had some really good ones here last weekend -- to see we’re really close and we could use a little help."
Freeze fessed up, adding, "My mind always goes to that." The previous week they hadn’t made plays, he said, but this week they did.
"But no question, no question I think it helps us in recruiting, which will help us ultimately get where we all want to go," he said.
Freeze, who made waves by pulling in the fifth-ranked class in the country his first year at Ole Miss, understands the simple fact that recruiting is the lifeblood of any good program. It's why he sells it so hard. There's a reason that when Alabama started wrangling top-three classes, it started winning championships.
The goal of every new coach is to recruit, recruit, recruit. Winning games early on is difficult when you're competing with someone else's players. You can't control the talent you inherit. But there's nothing that requires a team to be in position for a bowl game to grab the attention of prospects. All you need is personality and momentum.
Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee are a combined 8-13 this season. Bret Bielema, Mark Stoops and Butch Jones have all struggled on Saturdays. As first-year head coaches in the SEC, they're learning the hard way that building from the ground up isn't easy when you have to play the likes of Alabama every week.
But away from the football field, they're winning other battles. On the recruiting trail, they're holding their own against college football's traditional powers, and even beating them for some top recruits.
Stoops planted his flag at SEC media days. Kentucky has had trouble historically recruiting outside its immediate area, but Stoops said then that his staff must expand its base. "It's been my philosophy to branch out into Ohio," he said. From there, he'd work his way south.
This week, Dorian Baker became the 10th player from Ohio to commit to Kentucky. All but two of Kentucky's 25 commitments are from out of state, with four-star defensive end Denzel Ware of Florida leading the way. Kentucky, which has never finished in the top 25 of ESPN's class rankings, is ranked 16th.
"Being at Miami, being at Arizona, being at Florida State, he knew that recruiting, especially in this conference, is key to our chance of turning this thing around," UK recruiting coordinator Dan Berezowitz said, adding that there's not a day that goes by when the staff isn't trying to attract prospects, even if it's through social media.
No team, though, has made a bigger splash than Tennessee. Jones came to Knoxville and created immediate buzz, drawing interest from several top recruits. Although many ultimately wound up going elsewhere when signing day arrived, the momentum he established hasn't gone by the wayside. The Vols are currently third in the class rankings, with 11 commitments ranked in the ESPN 300.
"It gets back to, 'We’re Tennessee,'" Jones said. "It’s one of the most storied college football programs in America. Why would anybody not want to come here?"
But like his SEC brethren Kentucky and Arkansas, Jones can't lean too heavily on Tennessee's recent tradition; there's a reason he's the Vols' fourth coach since 2008.
No matter. Jones doesn't want someone who isn't up for a challenge.
"It’s easy for someone to go to a more established program," Jones said. "That’s the easy thing, but we want individuals who really want to be a part of something special."
Bielema is out to bring that same edge back to Arkansas, the kind of blue-collar attitude he established at Wisconsin before leaving for the SEC. He and his staff have cast a wide net to get the kind of players they need to make that happen, drawing on spots such as Florida and the Midwest. Bielema boarded a private jet Monday to visit four different states and see his top offensive line prospects.
"One of our donors gave us that opportunity before, and I told him he had a huge impact in recruiting," he said. "At times that's worth a lot of value. We could have as many as four true freshmen All-Americans this year. If we can do that again, it will be worth its weight in gold."
Adhering to the old attitude of staying in your state borders and within the hierarchy of the SEC won't cut it for coaches such as Bielema, Jones and Stoops.
"Our approach has been to go after the best players regardless of who has offered them and go after them until the end," Berezowitz said. "If we don't get them, let's lose out to someone that's significant. We're going after the best and not settling for getting guys and taking numbers."
Like Freeze, they're working every day, pushing the envelope with an eye on recruiting and building programs that can compete with traditional powers such as Alabama week in and week out. They see their holes and know the only way to fix them is by getting better talent on board.
Win or lose, that's where the focus has to be.
As Bielema said, "In the SEC, you can't skip a year in recruiting."