Hugh Freeze’s placement of 14th among 14 coaches to address the main ballroom at the SEC’s media week was purely coincidental. But it turned into a grande finale when Freeze’s predecessor Houston Nutt filed a retaliatory and deeply personal lawsuit against his former employer, claiming the school conducted an off-the-record smear campaign against him in order to preserve Freeze’s pristine reputation throughout an ongoing NCAA investigation.
“We have taken responsibility for the mistakes we have made,” Freeze said of the NCAA case. “Our administration has taken what we believe are appropriate actions. We look forward to our meeting with the committee on infractions in order to put this behind us. Facing adversity is something we’re familiar with. It’s kind of been around us for a while now. I sure look forward to a day when I can stand here and it’s not.”
Freeze did not comment on the Nutt case, though he said he’d like to. “I would absolutely love to share my opinion on it but unfortunately it’s a legal case and I can’t comment on it,” he said.
Freeze then pivoted into a filibuster touting his program’s numerous successes despite the self-inflicted adversity, citing the Rebels’ APR scores, the program’s mission work in Haiti and new defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff.
I look forward to finding out how many different ways Hugh Freeze can not answer questions today
— Matt Brown (@MattBrownCFB) July 13, 2017
Freeze now talking about the long snapping competition. Filibuster almost over.
— Andy Staples (@Andy_Staples) July 13, 2017
Hugh Freeze had the longest opening statement at 2,773 words. Jim McElwain had the shortest at 213. pic.twitter.com/1MgeI8Nz8u
— Ben Jones (@BW_Jones) July 13, 2017
In fact, Ole Miss replaced both coordinators — 2016 FootballScoop FCS Coordinator of the Year Phil Longo was hired from Sam Houston State to run the offense — after a disappointing 5-7 season, which Freeze said turned in September when the Rebels blew 3-touchdown leads in losses to Florida State and Alabama.
Freeze needs not only to win in front of the NCAA’s infractions committee, he needs to win in an SEC West where he’s had success against the league’s lone standing giant — Alabama — and struggled against everybody else. The 2017 slate calls for back-to-back trips to Alabama and Auburn and a home date with LSU in a 4-week span, all before Halloween. Ole Miss dipped from fourth to 35th in yards per play from 2015 to ’16 and plummeted from 54th to 111th on defense. “We’ve got to get better linebacker play,” Freeze said.
The only question Freeze answered that relayed the drama off-the-field with the reality Freeze will coach in this fall questioned the Ole Miss administration’s support in its fifth-year coach. “They’ve been unwavering in their support of me and I’m greatly indebted to them for that,” Freeze said.
And while that may be true, this the SEC, a conference where one school fired its coach two years after winning a national championship — and that was without an NCAA hearing added into the mess.
The 2017 season will be the most trying of Freeze’s career. He said Thursday these circumstances — Ole Miss has preemptively self-imposed a bowl ban in order to get in the NCAA’s good graces — could create his staff’s “finest hour.”
“We can model what it can look like for people to genuinely care for other people and set an example for how you go through difficult times… Hopefully (the players) can recognize the blessings they have,” Freeze said.
That kind of sermonizing was the exact pinpoint of the needle Nutt poked into Ole Miss’s chest on Wednesday, a public accusation that Freeze’s Shepherd of Linebackers and Right Tackles reputation is a facade to ensure his job security. Freeze says it’s genuinely who he is.
The 2017 season will prove one of those men correct.