The firestorm of rumors in Athens was finally extinguished early this week by the hiring of longtime Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. It's worth noting, however, that one of the names thrown around as a potential replacement for Mark Richt was one Hugh Freeze.
To be clear, there were never any reports that Georgia at any point reached out to Freeze or even had him on their list of candidates -- Freeze's name was simply floated by media types. But it still raises the question: if Georgia had come calling, would Freeze have answered? Would he consider moving to a historical power, or did his spurning of Florida's approaches last offseason represent a genuine commitment to staying in Oxford?
A few of the Red Cup bros got together to discuss.
The Ghost of Jay Cutler: That Freeze turned down the Florida job last season says a lot about his priorities as a coach. It is tough to argue that a native son of north Mississippi would do well to move his family to north Florida, and the pressure to win national championships at Florida weighs heavier on the head coach of the Gators than the expectations of Ole Miss fans do on the head coach of the Rebels. Freeze has also established himself as a premier recruiter in the SEC West, and in taking over a moribund program in 2011 Ole Miss should feel like he has a unique level of control or ownership over the Rebel program. In staying at Ole Miss, he proved his Mississippi bonafides to his players, fans, and future 'croots, and gave his fans an unusual sense of permanence regarding their head coach.
In short, choosing to stay at Ole Miss for four-point-something million dollars a year over a top-10 program like Florida made sense in 2014. But do the same arguments apply to a decision between Ole Miss and Georgia in 2015? I posit no, and I'll take it a step further to argue that Georgia is a more attractive job than Florida for a coach who believes he can win big.
Florida's undeniably a good program. They boast a winning legacy and good facilities, and are located in a talent-rich part of the country. But, by those standards, Georgia is just as good, if not a slightly better program than Florida, at least as far as potential goes. Both schools have similarly-sized fan bases, with Georgia's being far more reliable and diehard.
Athens is a lot like Oxford, with north Georgia being hardly distinguishable from north Mississippi, outside of the obvious difference in the Atlanta metro area. Speaking of, Atlanta's right there, giving Georgia ready access to a fistful of blue chip recruits every damn year. And, unlike Florida, Georgia doesn't have to wrestle away Florida State or Miami every year for their home state's best players. Add to that the nearby hotbeds in the Carolinas and you've got a golden opportunity for any coach who fancies himself a good 'crooter. That talent base, when mixed with a supportive fan base and excellent facilities means that Georgia has no real excuse for doing things like losing to Georgia Tech and stumbling out of the top-10 of most major polls every year.
Juco All-American: I'm not sure Georgia is a better job than Florida. Sure, their fanbase is probably more committed overall. The town is cool, and the overall fit might be better for Freeze in general. However, you talked about Florida had their recruiting troubles; Georgia's problems are even worse. Georgia routinely lets its best players out of the state far too easily. I don't think that would get magically better with Freeze at the helm. Florida was a great job (even if people didn't realize it) when he was offered the job. Florida is full of incredible players, the best of which regularly stay in state.
Jim Lohmar: The recruiting battle points are a mainstay of "would this or that coach jump ship for elsewhere," and perhaps they're more loudly felt with the Georgia job because Athens sits inside such talent-rich country. Like Juco pointed out, though, Richt wasn't necessarily keeping a plurality of that talent in-state. And further, as Bud Elliott has said, Alabama, Florida and Clemson are all bashing down the doors on metro Atlanta, which in any case is such a transplant city that less "state loyalty" is probably felt on the part of croots. In short, Freeze would be engaged in the same sort of arms race, just with slightly different foes.
Juco All-American: Ghost made the argument that Florida's expectations are higher. Maybe that's the case, but does Florida fire Will Muschamp if he goes 9-3 last year instead of whatever the hell record they actually had? I would say they don't. Georgia did though. Georgia fired a coach they LOVE and want to keep around the program in a year in which he went 9-3. Sure, there's more to it than that, but Hugh Freeze will never be fired for a nine win season at Ole Miss. Never. I think it would take an incredible job for Freeze to leave Oxford. I'm not sure what that job is, but I don't think it's a school willing to fire a coach who goes 9-3. I certainly understand how Georgia fans could be frustrated, having not really beaten anyone of consequence this season. Still, I think they fired Richt a bit too early. That kind of thing often carries weight in coaching circles. Perhaps that's why the heavy Smart rumors have them taking a chance on a coordinator.
Whiskey Wednesday: If Freeze was slated to leave Ole Miss, the timing might seem right on the surface. With three first-round draft picks leaving the program, Freeze's stock could very well go down next year. However, if Freeze is the kind of guy to bet on himself (and I think he is), he'll probably stay in anticipation of what he could accomplish over the next 3-4 years. He returns more than you might think, especially if Chad Kelly, Tony Conner, and Evan Engram stay. If he can close this recruiting class with the No. 1 quarterback, No. 1 offensive tackle, another bevy of elite receivers and tight ends, and strong reinforcements on defense ... why would he walk away from that?
Juco All-American: The bigger question I have is: which, if any, SEC programs WOULD Freeze leave for?
Jim Lohmar: I can't see him jumping anywhere in the conference, to be honest, at least not before it's time to renew his contract. LSU is a lateral move, Arky is somewhat down, as is South Carolina. And who wants to coach in Knoxville anyway?
What strikes me about how Freeze might jive at a Georgia or a Florida is a question of identity. When he arrived in Oxford, the program was in shambles. There was little sense of "this is what Ole Miss does" as a football program. In a post-Spurrier world, Florida became a points monster. With a decade and a half of work, Richt turned Georgia into Running Back U. When you think of Georgia football, you think of heavy sets with a downfield rush. Stafford, Green, Murray, these guys are memorable as exceptions to that style of play.
Freeze has rebuilt Ole Miss in his own spread offense image. Coaches can change at Florida, say, but as the Muschamp experiment demonstrated, the program identity can't -- at least not easily. The Athens job is gilded, and they can throw piles of money at whatever candidate, but given the personnel on that roster Freeze's scheme would be that of forcing round pegs into square holes.