Hugh Freeze spoke at the Little Rock Touchdown Club on Monday night. I can’t say how many public speaking engagements he’s done in his year-plus out of coaching, but it’s the second time I’ve seen him speak, the first being at Liberty University at January. On both occasions, Freeze told the same story: the tale of Roy Riegels, a player who played center at Cal in the 1920’s.
Freeze never met Riegels (he passed away in 1993), but described him as “one of my heroes,” and it’s clear to see why. Riegels joined football infamy during Cal’s appearance in the 1929 Rose Bowl when he scooped up a fumble and returned it the wrong way to his own 1-yard line. Cal accepted a safety rather than punt from its own end zone. “Coach, I can’t do it. I’ve ruined you, I’ve ruined myself, I’ve ruined the University of California,” he said at halftime. “I couldn’t face that crowd to save my life.”
Riegels returned to the game, but the Golden Bears lost to Georgia Tech, 8-7.
When in Atlanta ahead of Ole Miss’s appearance in the 2014 Peach Bowl, Freeze attended a dinner at the College Football Hall of Fame and happened upon Riegels’s bust.
Riegels was not inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a member — he is in the Rose Bowl and Cal halls of fame, though — but learned to embrace his gaffe and not let it define him. “I gained true understanding of life from my Rose Bowl mistake,” he later told the Pasadena Star. “I learned you can bounce back from misfortune and view it as just something adverse that happened to you.”
Freeze sees himself in the Riegels story, as a man who made a mistake but is determined to overcome it. He clearly wants to coach again, and believes he’s a better coach now than he was after he resigned from Ole Miss in July 2017.
“I know that I’m prepared for it and I know that I’m gifted to do that,” he said Monday.
On that note, Freeze was asked if he believed SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has blackballed him from coaching in the league and Freeze didn’t deny it. Nick Saban attempted to hire Freeze as a co-offensive coordinator and position coach in January until, according to AL.com, Sankey intervened.
“That’s an interesting question,” Freeze said. “This past year there were several schools that showed great interest in me, and for whatever reason they all ended the same way. I think that’s probably a question that’s better asked for people that had discussions in regard to my employment, so it’s probably unfair for me to speculate on that. I think the climate in America in the past year probably affects a lot of administrators’ decision making. If they don’t take the time to really hear what our story is, they probably can come quick to make some type of judgment. Maybe that happened, maybe that didn’t.
It’s easy to see why Saban and particular was interested in Freeze. His spread offense repeatedly flummoxed Saban, as Ole Miss registered back-to-back wins over the Tide in 2014-15 and built a 24-3 lead in 2016 before Alabama rallied for a 48-43 win.
Freeze would have helped Alabama’s development into the RPO game, while Alabama would have offered Freeze a spot in the Lane Kiffin Image Rehabilitation Program, where he could have coached in the background for a few years and then returned to head coaching at some point down the road.
“I’m honored that some coaches in this league know me for who I am and felt like, ‘Man, we need to go after this guy.’ Hated that it didn’t work out and at the time was kind of angry or wondering what the heck’s going on, but looking back there’s been some neat things that have happened this past year and had I jumped back into it I wouldn’t have gotten to experience those so I try to find the glass half full,” he said. “I hope I don’t have to do that much longer, and so does Jill. She tells me every day, ‘It’s time for you to go back to work.’ So, that’s probably better to be answered by somebody that was in those discussions.”
Freeze said he was relieved that Matt Luke was named Ole Miss’s full-time head coach last November, which Freeze’s former assistants and their families from being swept out of Oxford as an unintended consequence of the public exposure of the 2016 affair that forced Freeze’s 2017 resignation.
“I’ve been burdened, but an extra burden that I carried that whole last year was, ‘Oh God please, what about these families?’ And he retained every single one of them,” Freeze said. “I pull for them every week.”