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An inside look at how Hugh Freeze and the Rebels spent signing day

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OXFORD, Miss. -- It's 6:52 on Wednesday morning when Hugh Freeze sits down at the giant circular conference table softly humming a tune to himself.

He's an old pro at this by now, although National Signing Day has a way of making the most contented of souls uncharacteristically jumpy.

"I would have been bouncing off the walls three years ago," Freeze admits.

The Ole Miss coaches' meeting room, which has been transformed into the Rebels' recruiting war room, is already buzzing with energy. Red-eyed assistant coaches, the grind of recruiting obvious in their faces, pop in and out of the room with cell phones glued to their ears and occasionally greet recruits on the other end of the phone with a hearty "Hotty Toddy."

"Until you have the papers and they're signed by everybody, you never feel good," Barney Farrar warns in his best Mississippi twang.

Farrar, Ole Miss' assistant athletic director for high school and junior college relations, is in his second stint on the Rebels' staff. He has spent much of his life in the Magnolia State, both as a player and a coach, and learned a long time ago that recruiting can turn without the slightest of warnings.

"It's what makes these last few days so nerve-racking," Farrar says. "Sometimes you have kids pee down your back and swear to you that it's raining."

As fate would have it, Farrar would go from experiencing ecstasy to agony later in the day on a couple of in-state kids he had been feverishly recruiting for two years. Receiver A.J. Brown of Starkville lit up the room when he announced for Ole Miss that morning. Defensive end Jeffery Simmons of Macon cleared out the room a few hours later when he slipped on a Mississippi State cap while announcing his decision.

There are inherent highs and lows in recruiting, and perhaps the best indicator of the massive strides Ole Miss has made under Freeze is that the coach found himself giving the staff a pep talk later in the day despite the Rebels finishing with the nation's No. 4 class, their second top-five haul in the past four years.

It's a credit to the way Freeze has raised expectations. The Rebels expect to get everybody on their board, and when they don't, they're genuinely miffed. Some key targets slipped away right at the very end, including cornerback Shyheim Carter (Alabama), outside linebacker Mique Juarez (UCLA), defensive end Jonathan Kongbo (Tennessee) and Simmons (Mississippi State).

This is easily the most complete class the Rebels have signed under Freeze, a class with 13 ESPN 300 prospects and the only class in the country to include two 5-star prospects in ESPN's rankings -- offensive tackle Greg Little of Allen, Texas, and defensive tackle Benito Jones of Waynesboro, Mississippi. It's an important class, too, because the crown jewels of the 2013 class that was ranked No. 5 nationally -- Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche -- are all gone.

"It's a crazy world and a crazy business," a smiling Freeze told his staff as the four big-screen televisions in the room continued with non-stop recruiting coverage. "We signed the highest-rated class in the history of the school, and there's some dejection. I feel the sting, too. But it's a great class. We're not going to mope. That's not who we are.

"Let's go get the top guys in this state next year and continue to beat Bama and Mississippi State on the field and put ourselves in these positions every year."

"Let's go get the top guys in this state next year and continue to beat Bama and Mississippi State on the field and put ourselves in these positions every year."

Hugh Freeze

The fact Ole Miss is even swimming in these waters is still hard for some to believe, leading to constant chatter that the Rebels have cheated their way into national relevance. Between last week's news of an NCAA notice of allegations, Laremy Tunsil's seven-game suspension last year and Bret Bielema's cryptic comments on Wednesday (which he apologized for and clarified later in the day), there's a perception -- fair or not -- that Ole Miss' transformation into a recruiting heavyweight under Freeze is a sure sign the Rebels must be breaking NCAA rules..

Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork vehemently rejects that notion, and says it's a slap in the face to how diligently Freeze and his staff have worked on the recruiting trail.

"We're not going to run away from anything," Bjork says. "I know what we stand for, what we do and the integrity in this room."

Freeze has grown weary of the entire narrative and adds, "It's gotten to the point now that you hear it every time we sign somebody, but as you see, it's not like we're getting everybody. We'll keep doing things the right way, and we're not going away."

The Rebels finished in the top 10 in the polls this past season and have beaten eight nationally ranked teams over the last two seasons, second only to Alabama in the SEC in that span, and have also beaten the Tide on the field each of the last two seasons.

There's a sense among some in the college football world that Ole Miss still doesn't belong. But Freeze, who inherited an Ole Miss program in 2012 that had lost 14 straight SEC games, has built a program and recruiting machine to last.

"It's the new normal," Freeze says.

There's an air of defiance in his voice. Some frustration, too, especially since news broke last Friday that Ole Miss had received a notice of allegations from the NCAA charging the school with violations in football, women's basketball and track and field, part of an investigation that has dragged on for more than three years.

Ole Miss wasn't surprised by anything in the NCAA report, according to Bjork, and in several cases, has already self-imposed penalties. But the timing, on the eve of signing day, was brutal, especially with 21 prospects on campus last weekend.

The Rebels didn't have anybody who was already committed change his mind after Friday's report surfaced, which is a testament to the relationships Ole Miss has been able to form with recruits and their parents. Still, the NCAA cloud that has hovered for more than three years now -- even though the current football staff is named in just a handful of charges -- has required its share of damage control.

"There's an onslaught of crazy stuff out there that people are telling our kids," Freeze says with a shrug.

The chemistry on Ole Miss' staff is obvious. On Tuesday, they're dining and talking shop at the Grillehouse on The Square in Oxford, where running backs coach Derrick Nix -- with some help from his fellow coaches -- entertains with his version of "Walking in Memphis" with a country twist.

But by early Wednesday morning, it's back to all business.

Freeze opens his staff meeting at 7 a.m. with a prayer. He asks for guidance for all of the players out there to make the choices that are right for them.

"Let us rejoice in what the day brings us," Freeze prays.

The guy with the hardest job on the planet this particular day is Chris Buttgen, Ole Miss' director of football media. His chief job is to find any live streaming he can, be it Periscope on somebody's Twitter account or a high school feed, and get it up on one of the televisions in the room in time for everybody to watch recruits make their live announcements.

Buttgen was the first Ole Miss staffer in the building. His day started at 4:45 a.m., and even with some of the coaches barking at him playfully if some of the streaming starts buffering, he's usually wearing a smile.


7:09 am CT: 'Greg Little is a Rebel'

The first raucous cheer of the day comes when co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Matt Luke walks into the room and tells Freeze, "Greg Little is a Rebel."

A few minutes later, Ole Miss receives word that four-star Deontay Anderson has also signed. The coaches call him "D-Train," and fittingly, the Rebels have the momentum of a locomotive, getting the nation's top tackle and top safety within a matter of minutes. Ole Miss signed all five offensive linemen it targeted and also landed five players from the state of Texas rated as four-stars or higher.

"We've all been together and work so well together. It makes a difference," Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack says, noting that only two guys have left the staff during Freeze's tenure. "I've worked on staffs where that hasn't been the case."

Throughout the day, different people make appearances in the Ole Miss war room. Freeze's father, Danny, is there along with his brother, Cary, who admits he's probably the most nervous of the bunch. Later in the day, Freeze's three daughters show up, and they aren't the only kids in the room.

It's important to Freeze to have family around because he views the Ole Miss program as a family.

And speaking of which, one of Freeze's best friends in the profession is Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. The Tigers made a late push for running back Jarrion Street of Trussville, Alabama, but Street stuck with Ole Miss.

"My good friend Gus Malzahn might not have been as good a friend had we lost that one," Freeze says jokingly.

Even though Anderson has already sent in his papers, Ole Miss waits to announce it. He actually reveals his choice on a video of him flashing an Ole Miss cap while skydiving.

Freeze nods slowly when asked if he knew Anderson was jumping out of a plane. But don't expect Freeze to participate in any similar recruiting stunts down the road, a la Michigan's Jim Harbaugh.

"If you ever hear of me spending the night with a kid, I want you to call me and ask if I'm losing it," Freeze announces to anybody who will listen. "I might ride horses with a kid, go four-wheeling, hunting or fishing, any of that stuff. But I'm not going to spend the night at their house."


8:05 a.m.: 'What colors is he wearing?'

The room is getting crowded just past 8 a.m. as the anticipation builds for Brown's announcement. A few minutes earlier, receivers coach Grant Heard hands Freeze his cell phone to watch Carter's announcement on Periscope.

"What colors is he wearing?" Freeze asks nervously.

A hush falls over the room, and the staff receives its first bad news of the day when Freeze says softly, "It's Alabama."

There was concern about Carter because nobody could reach him on Tuesday. Heard jumps up and leaves the room but is back a few minutes later.

8:57 a.m.: 'Let's get him up on the board'

The mood is about to change as Buttgen works his magic to find a Periscope of Brown's announcement. Bjork is in the room by this time and uses his phone to find somebody's Twitter account who's at Starkville High School. Buttgen knows he doesn't have much time as the coaches keep growling, "Come on, Buttgen!"

But the Periscope that Bjork found has audio, and Buttgen gets it on the television before Brown walks to the podium.

"Thanks, Ross. You just saved my job," Buttgen quips.

Unlike the situation with Carter, Farrar has been in contact with Brown's father, who assured him his son would be a Rebel but added that his living in Starkville while his son was playing in Oxford would be difficult for him.

Even with that advance knowledge, when Brown announced he would be attending Ole Miss, the room went wild with coaches hugging one another and yelling.

Some of the coaches would sneak off to their own offices for periods of the morning just to get away. No matter how hard they try, there's no way to slow the adrenaline rush. Maurice Harris, the tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator for the offense, went to bed around midnight Tuesday.

"But I couldn't sleep and got up at 2 and watched an episode of "The Season," Harris says. "Then I got back up at 3:30 ... but I'll sleep well tonight."

A couple of different times after Brown announced, Freeze bellows, "Let's get him up on the board. Have we seen his papers?''

Freeze suddenly walks out of the room. He's talking to Juarez's father and reminds him of what Juarez had told him about wanting to win a championship.

"We're going to do that here, and he's going to be a big part of that," Freeze says.

But when Freeze gets off the phone, the concern on his face is obvious. The distance from home is a huge factor, and in the end, Juarez chooses to stay close to his Torrance, California, home and picks UCLA.


10:55 a.m.: 'What? Mississippi State?'

Simmons is slated to announce any minute, and by this time, the room is as crowded as it has been all day. Farrar, whose ties in the state have been invaluable for the Rebels, has been the point man in Simmons' recruitment. But Farrar is beginning to get a sick feeling about this one. He can't reach anybody who's connected to the kid.

"It's the first time I haven't been able to get anybody on the phone there," says Farrar, rubbing his chin nervously.

Several kids at Noxubee County High School come to the podium first. The wait for Farrar is excruciating. He's in and out of the room.

"If you ever of hear of me spending the night with a kid, I want you to call me and ask if I'm losing it."

Hugh Freeze

The feeling among Ole Miss' coaches is that it's either them or Alabama for Simmons, who finally strolls to the podium just past 11:30. Everybody in the room is glued to the television, and it's hard to hear anybody even breathing.

There's a glitch in the feed just as he's about to announce, which might have been a bad omen for Ole Miss. The picture returns just in time to see Simmons put a Mississippi State cap onto his head.

Somebody in the room exclaims, "What? Mississippi State?" And then it's the quietest it has been all day, and within minutes, the room looks like a ghost town.


12 p.m.: 'A danged top-five class'

By noon, the coaches all file back in, and Freeze is ready to put a bow on the day. He still has his press conference at 2 p.m., and is attending a Quarterback Club gathering in town with the rest of his staff. Later that evening, Ole Miss hosts a recruiting gala for its donors beginning at 5:45 p.m., and Freeze and his assistants are there for a few hours.

The grind of recruiting is real, and often times, last impressions are all anybody remembers.

Freeze reminds his staff it's the body of work that matters and not to dwell on the ones that got away. Farrar, who has been on the phone trying to find out what happened, is taking the Simmons news especially hard. Freeze looks at his trusty assistant, whose eyes are moist, and tells him that he loves him and not to sweat it.

"Barney, I know how much you poured into it," Freeze says. "Dude, if I doubted that, it would be a bad feeling. You gave your heart and soul to it for two-and-a-half years. I know you did. If everybody put into recruiting what you did, we'd be better off. None of us, including me, put into it what you do. We don't sign A.J. Brown without you. So do not beat yourself up over that one. We're going to have a danged top-five class, and where we didn't hit, we've got to try and fix it."

In the realm of the "new normal," even a top-five class needs some fixing -- yet another sign that the Rebels are here to stay.