Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze and Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn are kindred spirits.
Just nine years ago, the two were coaching high school football—Freeze at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis, Tenn., and Malzahn at Springdale High School in northwest Arkansas. On Saturday, they'll meet in front of more than 85,000 fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala. as head coaches of SEC football programs.
Talk about a fast journey from high school to the big time for the two friends who, not coincidentally, employ similar hurry-up, no-huddle offenses.
So how did it get to this point?
Freeze first gained notoriety as Michael Oher's high school coach, after Oher's journey to the NFL was depicted in the movie The Blind Side. But he was more than just a small piece of one player's storybook journey. Freeze won state titles at Briarcrest in 2002 and 2004, and established himself as a rising star.
He took a gamble and left Briarcrest to become the assistant athletic director for football external affairs at Ole Miss in 2005, and served as the tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator in 2006 and 2007. His first head coaching job in college came in an unlikely place—Lambuth University in Jackson, Tenn., where he went 20-5 over two seasons in 2008-09.
Freeze went on to serve as the offensive coordinator of Arkansas State in 2010, before taking over as head coach for one season in 2011. The Red Wolves went 10-3 and were unblemished in the Sun Belt in Freeze's one year at the helm, before Freeze decided to take the next step and take over the Ole Miss program.
"I actually told my wife on our honeymoon that one day I was going to be a head coach of an SEC school," Freeze said. "That dream started to fade a bit after 13 years of high school coaching, but she was willing for me to take a chance. I took an off-the-field role just to get my foot in the door. When that occurred, I did have a 10-year plan in my mind, and it got sped up a little bit."
The meteoric rise through the coaching ranks from high school to college isn't something he takes for granted.
"It's very unique and it doesn't happen very often," Freeze said. "It makes me think of how fortunate and blessed we are to have this opportunity. There are certainly other high school coaches that could do the same thing, it's just that the opportunity doesn't come along that often."
Malzahn followed Freeze as Arkansas State's head coach in 2012, after successful stints as Auburn's offensive coordinator from 2009-11, Tulsa's offensive coordinator from 2007-08 and Arkansas' in 2006.
In three stops as a college offensive coordinator, Malzahn's offense finished worse than third in the conference in total offense only once (Auburn, 2011).
Prior to making the jump to college, Malzahn was known as one of the top high school coaches in the country, winning Arkansas state championships at Shiloh Christian in 1998 and 99, and in 2005 with Springdale.
"I really didn't start thinking about college until the last three or four years of coaching high school," Malzahn said. "I just got the opportunity and was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time, numerous times in college."
Malzahn made the jump to Arkansas in 2006, along with several of his players at Springdale including star quarterback Mitch Mustain. His stint with the Razorbacks was brief but served as a jumping-off point in his path to becoming a head coach in the SEC.
Freeze and Malzahn maintain a friendship off the field that developed after each made the jump to the college ranks. With both teams at 3-1 and losses within the division, Saturday's game will be challenging from a personal and professional standpoint.
"When we got into college at the same time, we'd touch base on a weekly basis," Malzahn said. "We'd compare notes and how things were going and developed a relationship. I consider him one of my better friends."
Just how many of those notes will be compared this week? Not many.
"We texted each other Sunday," Freeze said. "I don't think either of us enjoy playing your friends, but we're blessed to have the opportunity to do so. That will probably be all (the communication) we have this week."
With Freeze and Malzahn leading their programs back to a competitive level, it's caught the attention of their peers.
"I don't mind saying they're two of my favorite coaches," South Carolina's Steve Spurrier said. "They both wear visors and they both call the plays. They run the show for their teams. Hugh has done very well at Ole Miss. Obviously with the recruiting class they've got, they're going to continue to do very well. Gus has got Auburn off to a very good start also. I admire the way they coach and the way they run their teams."
Their teams are running against each other on Saturday night, in a game that's dripping with intrigue on a personal level and important in determining the postseason hopes for each program. The only surefire wins left on Auburn's schedule are Florida Atlantic and Western Carolina, which means that a win on Saturday would likely assure the Tigers of a bowl game.
For Ole Miss, it's a chance to get to four wins before a seven-game stretch to close the season in which the Rebels won't leave the state of Mississippi.
Whoever wins on Saturday night in Auburn, the game will serve as an inspiration to high school coaches around the country who have bigger goals in mind. It wasn't too long ago that both Freeze and Malzahn were roaming the halls in high schools looking for the next big prospect.
My, how things have changed.
*Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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