For those of you who regularly listen to my podcasts, you know that over the last couple weeks I’ve talked a lot about Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze. You also know that regardless of the topic or guest, or whatever the subject of the interview might be, whenever Freeze’s name has come up, I’ve repeatedly said the same thing about the guy: “That dude has a couple screws loose.”
Coach Freeze, if you’re reading this article please understand: That statement is a compliment. And when I say those words, I mean them in the most sincere way possible.
After all, don’t you have to have a couple of screws loose to go from high school coach to SEC head man in just seven years? Don’t you have to be a little “off” to take the Ole Miss job not only thinking you can compete for SEC Championships, but knowing it with every fiber of your being? Don’t you have to be a crazy person to look Nick Saban and Les Miles, Mark Richt and Will Muschamp square in the eye, and not flinch?
And really, don’t you have to be truly maniacal mad-man to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk and put together a game-plan to back it all up?
It seems like it, and on Wednesday Freeze took his best step toward executing that game-plan when he had a recruiting afternoon for the ages. By now you’re probably quite familiar with the most unlikely recruiting story we’ve seen in years: Ole Miss lined up the top recruits, and Freeze and his staff knocked them all down. One five-star after the other.
At this point you also know the names that could be the core of a golden-age of Rebel football. There is Tony Conner, one of the top safeties in the country, who chose Ole Miss over Alabama. The nation’s No. 1 offensive tackle Laremy Tunisil picked the Rebels over Georgia, Alabama and just about every other suitor in the country. The top wide receiver in the country Laquon Treadwell has been an Ole Miss commit for weeks. And of course the cherry on top of the Rebels’ recruiting sundae was Robert Nkemdiche, the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect and apple of every college football coach’s eye.
It was a stunning turn of events, one that left jaws on the floor from coast to coast, and coaches across the SEC scrambling to try and fill scholarships with their Plan’s B and C.
But really, it was the work of a truly crazy man, one who refused to take no for an answer from anyone, or simply not listen to it when he did.
It also proved something beyond a reasonable doubt: These aren’t your father’s Ole Miss Rebels (or your grandfather’s for that matter). And whether Ole Miss took its first step toward an SEC Championship or not on Wednesday afternoon, they took one major step away from college football irrelevance. It’s a place Ole Miss has been since before Hugh Freeze was born, and if yesterday was any indication, someplace he never plans on letting the program sink to again.
At the same time, if you also follow this stuff closely enough, you know that what happened in Ole Miss’s recruiting war room yesterday wasn’t an accident. If anything, the wheels have been turning on the Rebels unprecedented recruiting haul for months behind the scenes. It just so happened to all come together in front of a national TV audience Wednesday.
So how did it happen? Well after rocking the recruiting world to its core on Wednesday, Freeze was quick to stay humble and point to a number of factors which helped the Rebels in the lead-up to Signing Day. It didn’t hurt that Conner is from right down the road in South Panola, and played at a high school which has been a feeder to Ole Miss long for decades now (just look at Ole Miss’ current roster. There are half a dozen guys from the high school already on campus in Oxford). It also didn’t hurt that there was a connection with Treadwell, who has a high school buddy at Ole Miss. And it certainly didn’t hurt that Nkemdiche has a brother that plays in Oxford, and a mother who wanted her two sons to play together in college (and if we learned anything on Signing Day, wasn’t it the following: “What momma wants, momma gets!”).
And in large part, Freeze is right: Because of that confluence of events, because of those outside variables, it gave Ole Miss an easy in with these kids. It also- whether it was intentional or not- never left the school far from their minds either.
After all, it’s no secret that Nkemdiche spent just about every free moment he had on Ole Miss’ campus this fall, hanging out with his brother, getting acclimated, and- again, whether he knew it or not- becoming further ingrained with the Ole Miss football program every time he stepped foot within Oxford’s limits. Well after he did that for a few months, it led to a strange thing happening: Even though the younger Nkemdiche didn’t actually “commit” to Ole Miss until Wednesday, ask enough people who’d been around him, and he had been the biggest Rebels cheerleader for months. It’s the same with Treadwell, who Freeze called his “best recruiter” in an interview Wednesday on ESPN. By all accounts Treadwell spent his entire week at the Under Armour All-American game this past December getting into the ears- and heads- of the other top players in the country, and touting the virtues of Ole Miss. You think that stuff doesn’t matter? It does more than you think.
Really though it goes beyond the players and to Freeze himself who- and I cannot emphasize this enough- is one of the most interesting people in the sport of college football right now. Understand that over the last few months I’ve become fascinated by the guy, and if anything, well, I’ve developed a bit of a man-crush on him as well (don’t worry Kevin Sumlin. You’ll always be No. 1 in my heart!).
In a related story, I’ve also spent the last few months picking the brain of just about anyone I know, asking them what makes Freeze such a special recruiter, coach and just “dude” in general. Whether it was high school coaches, players, recruiting experts, on the record, off the record whatever, I was gulping up information on the guy, like a dog lapping up water on a hot summer day. If I talked to someone and they’d had even the faintest interaction with Freeze, I was asking them one simple question: What is it about this guy that makes him so special? What makes him the irresistible force and the immovable object all rolled into one? What makes Hugh Freeze, well, Hugh Freeze?
My armchair psychology got a lot of responses, but one thing that just about everyone said was that Freeze is just an incredibly relatable and down to Earth guy. I had a high school coach (who had a kid sign with Ole Miss this recruiting cycle) tell me “You go up to campus not knowing anything about Freeze, and you leave feeling like you’ve known him your whole life.” And again, that plays into what I said before about Nkemdiche. Sure he might have thought he was going to campus all those weekends this past fall to visit his brother. But after two, three, four visits he couldn’t help but get comfortable with the coaching staff and the program. And whether he knew it at the time or not, every time Robert Nkemdiche walked onto the Ole Miss campus the last few months, he took one step closer to never walking off of it.
Beyond that, it really goes back to what I was saying at the beginning of the article and the implication that maybe, just maybe, Freeze is a tiny bit crazy. And if that’s the case, yesterday proved that under the right circumstances, being a little bit crazy can go a very long way. Combine a quirky coach, unusual recruiting tactics and just enough buzz, and under perfect conditions it creates what we saw yesterday: One of the most surprising recruiting hauls ever.
Of course in the big-picture it’s also important to remember that what culminated yesterday started over a year ago, when Freeze definitely took an unusual approach to getting the Ole Miss name out. Remember, it was last summer that Freeze surprised some and angered others, when he put out 250 scholarship offers to high school recruits, in a profession where most coaches (even ones at terrible programs) offer no more than 75 or 100. When he did, it led to the same question across the entire country: What the hell is this guy doing?
Well what he was doing was using one of the oldest sales tactics in the books. After all, a good salesman hopes to get a return on two calls out of 100, and when you’re the coach of a 2-10 football program (which Ole Miss was the year before Freeze arrived), it’s hard to imagine that the numbers are much better. Understand that if Alabama wants to fill 25 scholarships, they may only be forced to offer 30 in total. Of course Ole Miss ain’t Alabama, and they might have to put out 200 to get the same response. At the same time, who cares? Especially if it gets people talking about your football program.
And by doing that, Freeze was also employing another trick in the sales trade, one that Ole Miss beat writer Hugh Kellenberger mentioned on my podcast last week. That trick: “If you don’t ask, you’ll never know.” Well in football, it’s the same thing. Sure there’s a 95 percent chance that a kid from California or Illinois or Connecticut will say no to Ole Miss if they offer him a scholarship. Then again, there’s also a 100 percent chance that same kid will say no if Ole Miss never bothers to ask in the first place, right?
And really that piggybacks another point Kellenberger made last week to me: “Hugh Freeze makes people say no.” Sure, a Robert Nkemdiche or Laremy Tunisil might’ve never considered Ole Miss in years past, but maybe they might’ve considered them, and the Ole Miss coaching staff never bothered to reach out assuming they had no shot. Looking at that exact tactic, there may be no better example than Treadwell, the nation’s top wide receiver who hails from Illinois. Under a different coaching staff, Treadwell probably would’ve never gotten an Ole Miss offer, and even if he did, the staff would’ve likely never bothered to follow-up, under the assumption they had no chance.
But with Freeze, instead of asking “Why would a kid from Illinois want to come to Ole Miss?” he asks “Why wouldn’t he?” Instead of thinking about all the reasons a kid would never be interested- distance from home, a losing tradition- Freeze is focused on why he might be. Add in a fun offense, beautiful campus and the draw of the SEC (which can never, EVER be understated) and all of a sudden Treadwell is considering Ole Miss. Then he’s visiting. Then he’s committing. As Michael Jordan said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” Well with Hugh Freeze every kid who tells him “no” takes him one step closer to someone eventually saying yes.
Except in the case of the 2013 recruiting cycle, Freeze got a lot more yes’s than no’s, and the scary thing is that this is only the beginning. If you’re a top prospect in the class of 2014 or 2015, how could you watch yesterday and not at least consider Ole Miss? After all, who wouldn’t want to play with Robert Nkemdiche and Tony Conner and Laremy Tunisil and Laquon Treadwell? By the way, did anyone else notice how right after Nkemdiche committed on Wednesday, the next 35 minutes turned into a free infomercial for Ole Miss? As the only saying goes, you can’t put a price on publicity like that. Especially for any high school kid who might’ve been checking out the broadcast before they went off to school.
And finally, let’s remember one very important thing here: Despite all his Willy Loman-esque sales tactics, one thing that seems to be forgotten is that Hugh Freeze can coach. After all, how many other coaches could’ve taken the team Freeze inherited- one with little talent, no depth and a broken spirit- and flip it from a club that went 2-10 to 7-6, played everyone tough and nearly beat Vanderbilt and Texas A&M too. Remember, as easily as they won seven games this year, Ole Miss could’ve been an eight or nine win ball-club instead. Well crap, imagine what Freeze will do now that he’s got a little talent on-hand, and very likely more coming in subsequent years as well.
It’s a question that the college football world is asking themselves this morning, as the rest of the SEC looks over its shoulder, and wonders to themselves, “Who the hell is this guy and how the hell did that just happen?”
It happened because Hugh Freeze is a truly crazy man, one not smart enough to know he’s not supposed to be do what he just did on Wednesday at Ole Miss.
Then again maybe we are the crazy ones, for doubting him to begin with.
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