Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss must have cheated. That's the mindset the majority of causal college football fans, outside of Oxford, Miss. have after Ole Miss' Freeze hauled in ESPN's No. 5 recruiting class.
Is it a fair assumption to make? Certainly not.
Would a sudden top-five class have skeptics scratching their heads? Absolutely.
If Hugh Freeze is doing things the wrong way at Ole Miss, then there's simply no hope for anyone else in college athletics. Freeze is a quality man, on and off the field. He's "good people," as southerners familiar with the head coach, husband and father will vehemently proclaim.
However, Freeze does now have a great deal of skeptics as a result of his recruiting success.
Understandably upset about the shots being fired toward how he is running the Ole Miss program, Freeze spoke out at his official signing day press conference at Ole Miss:
"To do something different and fresh at a place (Ole Miss) that may not be the norm, to upset the apple cart, so to speak, that’s what we’re about in this recruiting class. We did it under extreme criticism and negativity, particularly the last 48 hours. It’s been difficult to sit by and know that our coaches have executed our 12-month plan with great integrity."
Being a relative unknown, having only coached one year in the SEC, the majority of America knew very little about Hugh Freeze whatsoever until his name was splashed around by media on national signing day.
What people just learning about Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze don't understand is this: Freeze is essentially the mad scientist of college football recruiting. He's methodical to a level bordering on compulsive.
However, his recruiting blueprint works. It works very, very well.
Andy Staples commented on Freeze's 2013 recruiting plan in a recent SI.com article:
"Freeze flatly denies any NCAA malfeasance. He insists he and his staff had a plan and executed it with the aid of some good fortune. In fact, it wasn't so much of a plan as an all-in recruiting gamble. If it hadn't worked -- if Nkemdiche, Tunsil, Treadwell, cornerback Tony Conner, receiver Quincy Adeboyejo and offensive tackle Austin Golson hadn't signed their names and dialed a 662 fax number on Wednesday -- Freeze and his assistants would have had to scrap everything. They would have wasted a year recruiting, and they would have overhauled their entire player-gathering operation because of it. But they didn't waste that year. The plan worked."
Freeze openly admits that Ole Miss had some great connections to several of the top prospects they targeted in the 2013 class:
"Obviously we have some great ins to national guys. I think that’s something that people criticize. They don’t understand that we have the brother of the number one recruit in the country who just had an incredible experience at Ole Miss this year. Family is very important to that family, to the mom, to the dad and to that brother. Obviously, that was a great in. To have the best friend of the number one wide receiver in the nation on our team, that we signed last year, and his high school coach be dear friends with one of our coaches, it’s a great in. To have those two young men, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche, recruiting, it carries weight."
Beyond the previously existing relationships working in favor of the Rebel leader, Freeze understands the importance of trying to ensure top prospects take official visits to Ole Miss when other highly rated recruits will also be visiting. The weekend of January 26th is thought to be when No. 1 overall prospect Robert Nkemdiche, No. 1 offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, No. 5 wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and No. 3 safety, Antonio Conner, decided to attend Ole Miss. They were all visiting at the same time.
Why? Again, recruiting mad scientist Hugh Freeze knew that it was the perfect time to get such top talent together in Oxford. Freeze was also aware that Ole Miss students were back in town for the first weekend of the spring semester when the campus and town would be electric.
Hugh Freeze expounded on the importance of timing in recruiting during his official signing day press conference:
"I think we were very strategic as to when we got a Laquon Treadwell to campus, when we got Laremy Tunsil to campus, and who they were with when they got here. I think that was all part of our plan, and we laid it out a year ago. We knew a year ago what weekend we were going to try to get this guy and this guy, all here together at the same time and sell our vision to do something new and fresh. It worked for us, but again I’ve always said that if you get a kid to campus and have a chance to develop a relationship with him, one, get him to this campus."
Anyone that has visited Ole Miss in Oxford, MS certainly couldn't disagree with the head coach about the importance of actually having a recruit visit the beautiful campus. Ole Miss is a truly unique place among the myriad of colleges and universities in today's higher education landscape. The school and town of Oxford have a great deal to offer students, and families quickly fall in love with the total package at Ole Miss.
It just so happens that Ole Miss plays in America's hottest football conference, the SEC. Moreover, the Rebels are a member of the toughest division in the nation, the SEC West. Having dropped 15 conference games in a row prior to Freeze's arrival, the Rebels quickly turned things around in 2012.
While finishing 7-6 on the year, the Rebels actually went down to the wire in games against Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and LSU with a legitimate chance to win each game. Had the Rebels pulled off even two of those games, Ole Miss would have finished the season with eight or nine wins following a 2-10 season the year prior. Recruits understand Hugh Freeze is only missing a few key pieces from making his club a perennial contender in the SEC. Understandably, many want to be a part of the charge.
These same recruits also want to be a part of a college program responsible for producing NFL talent like New York Giants QB Eli Manning, San Francisco 49ers LB Patrick Willis, Pittsburgh Steelers WR Mike Wallace, Cincinnati Bengals RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Baltimore Ravens OT Michael Oher. Each of these NFL stars are former Ole Miss Rebels, as recruits are well aware.
Besides the aforementioned factors at play in Freeze's master plan, one of the most overlooked factors in his success is the natural work he can do in the living rooms of recruits and their families.
Hugh Freeze is a young, spiritual man that at his core is first and foremost a father and teacher. Top-notch recruits play college ball with hopes of one day making it to the NFL, but their parents want to know their sons are going to a place that will help them develop as young men in society. Go figure, that's one of Hugh Freeze's most positive attributes.
Will there still be skeptics across the country about the class Hugh Freeze signed for 2013? Sure.
Should they be a little less skeptical after understanding Freeze's master plan? One would hope.
If not, they'll be the same ones asking questions when he lands a similar class in 2014.