It was too good to be true for Ole Miss football fans. Not only did unpopular athletic director Pete Boone announce that he would soon be vacating his post, but more importantly, Boone would have “nothing” to do with selecting a replacement for ousted head coach Houston Nutt.
Boone and chancellor Dan Jones announced the initiation of a committee to conduct a “national search” for both a head coach and an athletic director, a process that was going to be co-chaired by none other than Archie Manning.
Manning, the man whose No. 18 is the posted speed limit on the Oxford, MS campus, is much more than myth in a place where belief in myth is both a genetic constitution and a religious upbringing.
Truth is hard to come by these days with lines so easily blurred by political persuasions, historical ignorance and a cultural aversion to context. Neither Oxford nor Ole Miss hold the franchise on any of that—its existence is unaffected by geography. But the Deep South’s particular strain has a warm-blooded nostalgia to it—formulations kettled by an agrarian history and a romance for redemption.
With Manning at the helm, the belief—both locally and nationally—was that Ole Miss was finally going to get it right.
No matter the failures of the last few decades, the powers that be inside The Lyceum had recognized their limitations and had committed to not just helping Ole Miss football recover from the implosion of the Houston Nutt Era, they were calling to arms Rebel Nation, pledging a crusade to recapture the glory of a past long since seen, though hardly forgotten.
The selection of Manning to lead the charge meant that previously locked doors would now be open, that no stone would be left unturned to find the best man to rebuild the Rebel program, as it was when playing football at Ole Miss meant academic achievement, athletic excellence and—most importantly—competing for SEC championships.
So how in the Holy Faulkner did Hugh Freeze end up with the job?
The double-secret-to-the-pain-of-death nature with which the search committee protected its actions made news by itself. There were no leaks from either Manning or his co-chair, Fed Ex executive Mike Glenn, no gauging the temperature on prospective coaches, no off-the-record-wink-nudge details that found their way into either digital or paper print.
At first glance, it looks like the committee accomplished everything it wanted: a process to select the right man without the type of messy speculation that can result in public—and embarrassing—denials from coaches who are not interested in the position at a program in such disrepair.
But that is not really what happened.
The committee’s silence and absolute control of information created a vacuum—an empty space filled not just with the absurdity of Internet message boards or regional radio talk shows and their “sources,” but that also allowed for interest to be shown—and then publicly debated—by what should have been legitimate candidates like Mike Leach or Rich Rodriguez.
With no direction, Ole Miss fans soon divided themselves into camps for certain candidates and ceaselessly bantered their pros and cons, all the while believing to be fact that Manning and company were scouring and pitching to bring the absolute best possible choice to Ole Miss to head the football program.
But that’s not what really happened, either.
Leach and Rodriguez were never contacted. Some will say that their baggage from previous stops prohibited their consideration—though it bothered neither Washington State nor Arizona—and that their omission is no proof of any conspiracy.
Okay, what about Kirby Smart?
Smart, the current defensive coordinator at Alabama is considered one of the top assistants in the country. He’s spent years on staff with Nick Saban, arguably the best college head coach in America, and he’s orchestrated some of the best defenses of the BCS era.
Smart is known in coaching circles as a recruiting wunderkind, a relentless pursuer of perfection with an almost inhuman attention to detail and a strong instiller of discipline. In short, his strengths are exactly what the decimated program down in Oxford desperately needs, and he has proven them over both time and competition.
Despite the rumors, Smart was never a candidate.
While the committee strangled information from its end, its efforts had no effect on the real market for coaching search gossip: other coaches.
When positions come open and coaches have interest, their first priority—after some type of informal contact—is to start putting a staff together. Calls have to be made, hints dropped, strategies discussed, all well in advance of any formal interview process.
Growing up around coaches has proved one thing: No junior high locker room ever came close to the amount of wild-eyed rumoring that occurs in athletic offices during a coaching search.
Smart—specifically in anticipation of a call about the Ole Miss position—had begun that process.
But the call never came.
When asked at Freeze’s introductory press conference who else was interviewed for the position, Glenn claimed a confidentiality agreement between parties prevented him from revealing who was interviewed.
He was absolutely right in that assertion.
When a follow-up question asked how many candidates were interviewed, Glenn claimed the same agreement.
No way should he get a pass on that.
Any athletic program worth its salt should protect the names of interviewees to guard them—and the program—from tangential storylines. But for a person in charge of a search that resulted in the hire of—at least on paper—a suspect candidate, to avoid divulging the total number of candidates interviewed is contemptible.
The backstory for that contempt is the decade’s long decay of a once proud—and successful—football program under the stewardship of a rejuvenating group of leaders bound by nepotism and cronyism.
Departing AD Pete Boone developed a reputation within the coaching community as a know-nothing micromanager without management skills. It was hotly—and publicly, thanks to a collection of Ole Miss supporters (maybe) known as Forward Rebels—debated whether or not Boone could find a suitable replacement for Nutt as the disaster continued to build in Vaught-Hemingway stadium this last season.
Coaches described Boone’s reputation to RebelGrove’s Neal McCready as “toxic” and “radioactive.”
As it became evident that Nutt’s position was no longer tenable, Rebel fans knew exactly who the next coach was going to be as long as the hire was left up to Pete Boone:
With the announcement by Chancellor Jones that the university was going to conduct a nationwide search for Nutt’s replacement using a professional search firm and captained by the Greatest Rebel of Them All in Manning, it created the public perception that Ole Miss—fresh off announcing its $150 million athletic fundraising campaign—had recognized the errors of its past and was drawing a line in the sand demarcating the end of all of the pettiness that had plagued the program.
The Chancellor promised the committee resources, but more importantly, the freedom to go out and “make the best possible hire.”
The committee came back with Hugh Freeze.
Freeze. The exact same coach that Boone would have hired for no other reason than Freeze was the only coach that he could have hired.
Ole Miss needed Archie Manning for this?
Now, this diatribe is not directed at Freeze. Time will tell whether or not he has—as Manning put in his video announcing the hire—the ability to “build a staff, recruit [that] part of the country, develop those student athletes, galvanize the fanbase and win the right way.”
Freeze deserves every bit of support to help lead Ole Miss—as he put it—“out of the wilderness.”
He is passionate and fiery, and—as his introductory press conference showed—sincere in both his appreciation for the opportunity and his love for the program.
That’s a good start.
However, if Freeze is not able to overcome the gaping holes in his resume—for instance, no BCS school experience sans his time on former Rebel coach Ed Orgeron’s staff (whose teams didn’t beat dirt out of a rug)—and find a way to defeat the other teams in the NFC, pardon, SEC West, Freeze’s hire will just go down as another arrogant and narrow-minded choice by the collection of good ole boys that have been strangling the life out of the Ole Miss program for years while simultaneously patting themselves on the back.
And Archie Manning—the iconic redhead from Drew, MS that has epitomized the best that Ole Miss football has to offer the world both on and off the field—will be remembered as an accessory.
Manning and Glenn—who, by the way, had a preexisting personal relationship with Freeze—have talked a lot in the last 24 hours about Freeze’s “it” factor.
Freeze himself talked about “it” in the presser on Monday, though his is a decidedly different type of “it.”
Whatever “it” is, “it” is why Manning, et al. chose Freeze and created a highly suspect hiring process that doesn’t pass the smell test and produces more cynicism than an Occupy Wall Street kumbaya.
Wherever “it” is, Freeze better find “it," mass produce “it” and make his new team—whose double-digit conference losing streak was stopped only by this season’s end—breath, eat and sleep “it.”
Otherwise, the “it” is going to hit the fan and end up all over Archie Manning’s reputation.
There is a chance for all that cynicism and doubt to be swept aside. After all, Pete Boone is “retiring,” and his replacement needs to be found.
Manning and Glenn are in charge of that, too.
Will they step outside the recurring history in Oxford and conduct a national search for a top-flight candidate, say No. 2 man at Florida Mike Hill?
Or will they repeat history and decide that what Ole Miss really needs is someone who “understands” her, and choose an insider, someone that’s part of the club? Someone that never proved themselves in another athletic department but will somehow know just what “it” takes to bring Ole Miss from its current depths.
Well, Walker Jones is on the candidate list, too.
And though he has been successful—he is currently the director of sports marketing for Under Armour—he is also a former Rebel football player with no athletic department experience other than his time in Oxford.
That sounds just like Pete Boone’s kind of guy.
Here's to wondering if Manning and Glenn will feel that Jones has "it," too.
Though his first article in a while, you can find older pieces from this author here.