Given what we now know about Hugh Freeze and his cell phone habits, it’s amazing in hindsight that it took this long for an irrefutably fireable offense to emerge from the dark.
Until recently, that’s where we were, as even the pile of NCAA charges didn’t form enough concrete evidence that led directly to him. On top of that, he had brought so much success to the program that getting rid of him would have been an objectively bad move. New information can change one’s outlook dramatically, and the facts surrounding Thursday’s announcement present a powerful example of that.
The Freeze era will never ring well in Ole Miss fans’ ears. To ruminate too long on what he accomplished would be sending the wrong message, especially considering what information is now out there about him. And doing so invigorates a particularly forgettable piece of Rebel football history.
As part of properly contextualizing the most recent events, it would be helpful, though, to view Freeze’s tenure in its entirety, juxtaposing what he did on the field with the whole mess off of it.
December 2011: Hugh Freeze is hired as the new Rebel head coach
While Freeze isn’t on a lot of hot boards for a job, fans have put an implicit trust in Archie Manning, who conducts a thorough search independent of then-athletic director Pete Boone.
When Freeze is finally announced and given an introductory press conference, it’s hard to not get at least a little excited by the thought of a Mississippi native getting the football program back on track.
“Here very shortly when you walk into our offensive meeting room and you ask them what our ‘it’ is, it will be to be a fundamentally efficient scoring machine. When you walk into our defensive room every one of them will say that ‘it’ is to relentlessly pursue the football and to knock the ever-loving stink out of their opponents. That will be our ‘it’. Our special teams ‘it’ will be to provide the winning edge.”
Following a 2-10 record thanks to Houston Nutt, any remotely positive football-related thoughts are welcome, but bringing his vision to fruition will be a tall order.
2012 season (7-6): Freeze proves he can hang in the SEC
A combination of low expectations and a fresh hurry-up, no-huddle look on offense makes for one of the funnest seasons in decades. While working with a piecemeal roster made up of Nutt’s leftovers and a 2012 recruiting class ranked 40th by Rivals, Freeze does his best with what he’s given, including turning JUCO transfer Bo Wallace into a serviceable quarterback in the toughest division in football.
Despite finishing just 7-6, Ole Miss ranks 19th in Overall S&P+ after handily beating Pittsburgh in the Compass Bowl. The exclamation point of the season, though, is the 41-24 victory over then-ranked Mississippi State that makes them bowl-eligible.
2013 signing day: Ole Miss raises some eyebrows
Freeze already has a commit from top-ranked receiver Laquon Treadwell heading into signing day, but the program really gets the nation’s attention with the acquisitions of Robert Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil, and Tony Connor. Given the Rebels’ status of dwellers in the dregs of the conference, suspicion immediately creeps in as to how they’re able to put together the eighth best-rated class nationally (yes, apparently finishing eighth in something is enough to upset some folks).
The inexperienced head coach, for whatever reason, sends off a tweet that many interpret as him daring the NCAA to come digging for something.
2013 season (8-5): Rebels continue to make strides
While it’s still early to expect Freeze’s young team to deliver a complete season, they build off of an encouraging first year and recruiting cycle to deal blows to powerhouse programs in Texas and LSU. The season still has its share of disappointments, including losses to Texas A&M, Missouri, and Mississippi State, but a one-win improvement from the year prior is enough for fans to fully buy in.
The following recruiting class ranks just 15th, but offers up the encouragement that this roster can eventually be more than just a top-heavy group that can occasionally upset programs with more resources.
2014 season (9-4): Ole Miss breaks through, then falls apart
Freeze’s Rebels start off 4-0 and earn the long-awaited spot of hosting ESPN College Gameday against a typically formidable Alabama team. Ole Miss scores two touchdowns in three minutes to upset the Tide, 23-17, the first time it’s happened since Eli Manning’s senior year in 2003.
Beatdowns of A&M and Tennessee are followed by a string of gut-wrenching losses to LSU, Auburn, Arkansas, and of course, a 42-3 blowout to TCU in the Peach Bowl. How the season ends makes it hard to view things in the big-picture sense, but the program has made significant strides nonetheless.
An off-field incident with Laremy Tunsil provides the NCAA with its first excuse to dig for potential violations with no intention of hurrying, eventually leading to a seven-game suspension for the star tackle.
2015 season (10-3): Ole Miss finishes strong this time
A repeat win over Bama in Tuscaloosa immediately raises expectations in Oxford and sends the Rebels to as high as 3rd in the polls. Freeze has built a reputation mostly of overachieving at this point, but embarrassing defeats to Florida and Memphis cloud the narrative.
Once Tunsil returns to the team, the offense catches fire, but this stretch also includes a heartbreaking loss to Arkansas that ultimately keeps them out of the SEC championship. Judging by how the prior season unraveled, fans expect an ending similar to 2014, but the Rebels go on to trounce LSU and State.
Their eventual Sugar Bowl victory over Oklahoma State serves as the pinnacle of the Freeze era and a farewell to many of the players who got them there. This is undoubtedly Hugh Freeze’s zenith as Ole Miss football’s head coach.
2016 offseason: the NCAA drama ensues
The Friday before signing day, the public learns that Ole Miss has been charged with 30 NCAA violations. Sources close to the program say that just a fraction are football-related. This ends up being mostly true, but many believe the assertion that the most serious charges were under Nutt’s watch is meant to deflect blame and protect what will be a top-ten recruiting class.
Even as more information comes out about what the NCAA has on Ole Miss, it doesn’t appear too threatening to the long-term health of the program, and the investigation is over, but only kind of over. The 2016 NFL draft changes everything, as Tunsil’s social media accounts are hacked to reveal more possible violations. The NCAA reopens the case, though Tunsil’s Draft night shenanigans aren’t brought under scrutiny.
Ole Miss responds to the initial NOA with double-digit scholarship reductions after it’s revealed that four Level I violations — the worst imaginable in NCAA lawyership — happened under Freeze. Because of the reopened investigation, the response doesn’t provide finality. So everyone waits.
2016 season (5-7): Ole Miss football under Freeze bottoms out
The Rebels get back on track after blowing double digit leads against FSU and Bama by handling Georgia and Memphis total shellackings, but go on to win just one of their next six SEC games. There’s a brief glimmer of hope when Shea Patterson leads a comeback win against A&M in November, but it’s shut down after jaw-dropping blowouts to Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, losing by a combined 56 points.
Although it’s not apparent yet, Freeze has coached his last game against the same opponent that he took down as a young upstart four years prior.
Early 2017: The NCAA mess continues, in video form
The university releases a video in which Chancellor Jeff Vitter, Athletic Director Ross Bjork, and Freeze announce a self-imposed football bowl ban for the 2017 season while vowing to contest the majority of the new allegations in the second NOA. With their response months later, they make it clear they’ll be sticking by Freeze.
Lawsuits follow, most notably one from Nutt, who insists that Freeze and others damaged his reputation as a football coach by casting blame on him for the program’s NCAA troubles.
July 2017: A detail in Freeze’s personal life undoes him
As laughable as Nutt’s case comes off at the time, it entails a public records request that leads to discovery of severe missteps in Freeze’s personal life: that he contacted a Tampa based escort service via his university issued cell phone. Bjork investigates and finds a pattern he doesnt like.
Freeze is thus forced to resign, not directly because of NCAA trouble, but because he led a very different life behind closed doors than what the public saw. The NCAA stuff certainly doesn’t help, but extracurricular escort calls are on him. It’s undoubtedly more damning due to the coach’s constant proselytizing on Twitter and incessant effort to build on the facade of a perfectly wholesome Christian man.
Any possibility of having a positive lasting legacy, one that involves taking Rebel football to new heights, vanishes. As much success as he’s brought Ole Miss in a short amount of time, his knack for uncalculated risk-taking has accumulated to the point that the program could end up being worse off in the long term. Two weeks before fall practice is supposed to start, the team is left with even greater uncertainty than when he first arrived in Oxford five and a half years ago: he freaking resigns.