The Ole Miss Rebels’ 2012 football campaign has seen some ups and downs this year. Fans have enjoyed some offensive explosions and some defensive letdowns. The Rebels have already played one of the worst teams in Division I in Tulane as well as the consensus best in Alabama.
While not completely successful against stronger competition, you have to admit that first-year head coach Hugh Freeze is exceeding expectations and may be in consideration for both the SEC and National Coach of the Year awards at year's end.
Last week’s victory over Auburn was the Rebels' first SEC win in their 16 tries. That amounts to two full seasons of conference games, and the Rebels hadn’t won a single one.
Houston Nutt was fired with three games remaining in 2011. Imagine yourself as a 18- to 21-year-old kid on this team in last year. Your coach was just fired, your fans were basically boycotting games and social media sites were full of idiots throwing personal insults at you. Would you really want to work out and go to class everyday when you could easily transfer and start over at another school?
I know a lot of you idealists would say, “Of course! You never give up!” Well consider me a realist—or even a cynic—but the majority of people would not keep beating their heads against the likes of LSU or a fired-up Mississippi State team for no reason at all. Now you are starting to see the environment of the 2011 Ole Miss Rebels.
According to Freeze himself, as many as 25 athletes were in “danger” of academic probation. The program was in dire straits. There wasn't a glimmer of hope for these kids. They didn’t even have an athletic director after the release of long-time AD Pete Boone.
Hiring a new coach was the obvious next step. Even then, the fans and program boosters were in disarray, and there were many opinions on who could lead Ole Miss out of the hole they had dug themselves.
There were calls for a top-flight coordinator or a previous NFL coach. Some would have even taken a wide-eyed Big 12 coach who was recently fired. After an exhaustive “search,” the committee put together by Ole Miss' famed former QB Archie Manning selected Freeze, a hometown boy born within an hour’s drive from Oxford with mainly high school coaching experience.
The decision to hire Freeze largely flew across the fanbase like a lead balloon. It fueled some fans' worst fears that Ole Miss is—and will forever be—a good-ol'-boy school where who you know is more important than what you know.
The most rabid Ole Miss fan would have to admit that even if Freeze was a good coach, his experience was not enough to prove that he was capable of handling an SEC team. His resume didn’t give assurances that he could handle a good SEC program, much less one in as much disorder as Ole Miss was in early 2012.
Coach Freeze didn’t have the full allotment of scholarships due to player attrition. He didn’t have all of the support that he needed from the fans. He couldn’t even get all of the players to trust that he could do what Houston Nutt could not. Coach Nutt was, after all, a proven veteran head coach in the SEC. A man that could walk it and talk it, even though his talking had worn thin.
The only thing Freeze could sell was the idea of “family.” In my opinion, Houston Nutt was a “factory” coach. He sold recruits on the idea that he could get them to the NFL. He focused on the individual player, and that is why he was successful for so long. Players would fight for him because he fought for the players.
But this also bred individualism and selfishness in the team, and somewhere along the way, the name on the back of the jersey became more important than the name on the front.
Freeze broke the team down, tore the facade away and faced the problems head-on. He dealt with the issues the only way he could, by refocusing all of the eyes in the locker room from blaming each other to looking through the window at the outside.
Coach Freeze has, in a short period of time, established a new brand of football at Ole Miss and introduced a unique, fast-paced offense to the SEC as well.
Can he win the Coach of the Year honor?
Tommy Tuberville won SEC COY honors at Ole Miss in 1997 with a 7-4 record. It took a 10-win season and Eli Manning at QB for David Cutcliffe to do the same in Oxford in 2003.
The salaries and coaching talent are significantly higher than when either Tuberville or Cutcliffe were at Ole Miss, so the competition will be greater for Freeze to win it this year.
But tell me, who expected Ole Miss to have a chance at a bowl this year? Who expected Ole Miss would have a chance at winning seven or more games in Freeze’s first season?
This is still the same team, besides a few talented freshmen, that lost 16 straight SEC games.
And a “high school” coach from Senatobia, Miss. looks to have the Rebels start a new streak of winning SEC football games.