OXFORD, Miss. — They were alone together, driving through the summer twilight, aglow in the blush of love. It was July of 1992, and the bride and groom cruised away from the Baptist church in Independence, Miss., and into the first hours of their future, which now began on an endless expanse of road, rich with possibility.
What a couple they were, rolling through the backwoods of Mississippi and into the Tennessee Valley on their way to the Smoky Mountains of Gatlinburg, Tenn., where they would honeymoon. But Hugh Freeze, 22 and then a first-year assistant coach at Briarcrest Christian High in Memphis, had a surprise for his wife, Jill. He pulled off Interstate-40 at Knoxville and drove onto the University of Tennessee campus. He eased into the parking lot at Neyland Stadium. The gates were shackled, but husband and wife slipped through a small opening.
They walked into the empty stadium, the grandstands stretching up, up and up, seemingly to touch the basement of heaven. A whisper of wind feathering their cheeks, Hugh grabbed Jill's hand. They looked at each other, practically disappearing into each other's eyes. He had something to say, and it was almost as important as the vows he'd taken in the small white clapboard church topped with a steeple.
"I will be a head coach in the SEC one day," he said softly. "I will."
"I know," Jill replied. "I know."
In the growing darkness, the two kissed. And in this silent stadium, on this silent summer night, so began one of the most unlikely coaching journeys in college football history.
The last time Ole Miss clinched an SEC title was Nov. 30, 1963, eight days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Since then, 10 head coaches have stalked the sideline at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium—and all 10 have failed to raise the Rebels into the realm of the elite. But the winds of change are strumming the magnolia trees in Oxford. On Saturday, No. 11 Ole Miss (4-0) hosts No. 3 Alabama (4-0) in what may very well be Mississippi's most significant home game since a freckled-faced Archie Manning was running around the field like his shoelaces were on fire in the late '60s.
Freeze, now 45, is in his third season at Ole Miss. A decade ago, he was a high school head coach in Memphis who feared he was destined to never advance to the college level, much less to the sport's power conference. But as he sits in his vast office inside the Rebel football headquarters—it's almost spacious enough to house the private plane he's been jetting across the nation in, sweet-talking 5- and 4-star recruits—he acts and sounds like a man who belongs in the SEC.
"We are ahead of schedule," he says. "When I got here, we'd won only one SEC game in two years. I thought it would take some time to get to a bowl game, but we made it to one in my first year. Now the challenge is stay sharp, on edge, act like we have to fight for everything and earn it. The big questions we have are how will our offensive line improve and how will [quarterback] Bo Wallace take care of the ball. Our defense can stand toe-to-toe with anyone. I like this team. I like it a lot."
Freeze rises from his chair, walks to a bookshelf and grabs a three-ring binder. Labeled The Journey, this phonebook-thick manuscript is his personal manifesto for how to construct a winning program, brick by brick. The nine chapters include his "Recruiting Plan," his "First 100 Days on the Job," his "Top 25 Things to Build," his ideas for "How to Engage the Fan Base" and his "Coaching Philosophy." It took Freeze two decades to write and refine these words. "Without this," he says, tapping the binder, "I'm not here today."
Fact is, on a long-shot team—remember that Ole Miss is less than three years removed from a 2-10 record, the school's worst season since 1946—Freeze is by far the biggest long shot of them all.
Little Hugh Freeze was consumed by football; the sport was nothing short of the sun in his solar system. His father, Danny Freeze, was a longtime assistant coach at Independence (Miss.) High and later at Senatobia (Miss.) High. The Freeze's family farm in Independence—a speck on the map in the northwest corner of the state that is marked by a four-way stop sign—sat on 1,000 acres of land and abutted the school's football field. Just out of diapers, towheaded Hugh would crawl to the fence and watch his dad's team practice, hypnotized by the hitting, the violence and the ball spiraling through the sky.
In grade school, Freeze, his older brother, Cary, and younger sister, Tammy, had strict routine: rise at 4:30 a.m., tend to the 320 head of cattle, carry pails into the barn to milk the cows, bale hay and do whatever else needed to be completed to keep the farm running. Then they were off to school. Once the final bell rang at the end of the day, Freeze would watch football practice and carry a water bottle to the players. On Friday nights, he wore khaki pants and a red shirt—just like the coaches on the sidelines—and for away games, he always helped pack the equipment onto the team bus.
Observant and preternaturally curious, young Hugh studied the practices and the games as if his dad would quiz him before his bedtime story. Independence ran the "Notre Dame Box" offense, a variation of the single-wing that can be traced back to Knute Rockne in the late 1910s. Danny Freeze's offense resembles the hurry-up spread that his son has installed at Ole Miss. "The principles of our offense come from the Notre Dame box," Freeze says, smiling at the memory of his dad's old teams. "It's not a coincidence."
Freeze attended Southern Miss, where he majored in math. At 5'10" and just over 150 pounds, he wasn't big or athletic enough to play college football, but he maintained his child-like fascination with the sport, keeping notebooks on his nightstand that he would fill with jottings deep into the night as he watched games that he had taped. He was particularly enchanted with Steve Spurrier and his high-flying Fun 'n' Gun offense that propelled Florida to six SEC titles between 1991 and 2000. When Freeze saw a play that he liked, he diagrammed it in his notebook in a careful, deliberate scrawl; he constantly hit pause and rewind on his VCR to make sure he got it right. Even today, he still refers to these spiral notebooks.
The first steps in Freeze's ascent of the coaching ladder were taken at Briarcrest Christian High in Memphis, where he landed a job as an assistant after he graduated from Southern Miss in 1992. It was far from glamorous—Jill Freeze tells the story of having pork skins and beef jerky from a gas station for two consecutive Christmas dinners—but Freeze became the head coach in '95. Implementing the offense he learned at the knee of his father, Freeze erected a high school powerhouse. In 10 seasons, he compiled a 99-23 record, made six trips to state titles games and won two state championships (2002 and '04).
In 2001, Freeze met Michael Oher, a Memphis teenager who bounced around homes and even had been homeless for stretches in his life. The Freeze family embraced him—Oher spent one to two nights a week at their house—and Jill tutored him. Oher became especially close to the Freeze's three young daughters: Jordan, Madison and Ragan. In 2006, the tale was documented in the best-selling book The Blind Side by Michael Lewis, which was made into a movie in 2009. The book elevated Freeze, a devout Christian, onto the national stage. With eloquence and power, the narrative captured his belief that athletics—and football in particular—can help save souls.
It was Oher's reputation that led to Freeze's first big break. After winning his second state title in '04, Freeze told his wife, a teacher, that he thirsted for something more in his career. "Hugh, you have to dream bigger," she told him. "Remember what you told me at Tennessee."
Paying for his own plane ticket, Freeze flew to Miami in January of 2004. Ed Orgeron had just been hired as the new coach at Ole Miss—the dream destination for Freeze, a Mississippi kid—but Orgeron was still an assistant for USC, which was preparing to play Oklahoma in the BCS National Title Game in Miami Gardens, Fla. Freeze knew where USC's team hotel was located, so for four hours he sat on a bench in the lobby, waiting to spot Orgeron, whom he had never met. When Orgeron appeared, Freeze bee-lined it to the coach. For three minutes, as the two walked to the idling team bus in front of the hotel, Freeze talked a blue streak, turning on his country charm. He told Orgeron about developing Michael Oher—Orgeron knew the young player well—and how he was willing to work 150 hours a week, if that's what it took. Orgeron merely smiled and said thanks.
On the plane home, Freeze was crestfallen. He met his wife at the airport. "That was a wasted trip," he said. But then two months later, as Freeze was coaching the girls basketball team at Briarcrest, he received a phone call: Orgeron wanted to know if he'd take a substantial pay cut to join the Ole Miss athletic department as the assistant athletic director for football external affairs. He wouldn't coach football, but it was a job in the SEC. "If I do this and bust my tail, will I have a shot at something on the field?" Freeze asked Orgeron.
"You'll have a chance to interview," the coach replied. That was good enough for Freeze. Days later, he left his family behind in Memphis and moved into a small apartment in Oxford.
He applied the lessons of the farm: Work hard, commit to the job and start at 4:30 a.m. every morning. At night, Freeze refused to leave the football facility if a light in a coach's office was still on. He watched tape of opponents like it was a divine duty, staying up into the small hours of every morning and delivering detailed analysis reports to the staff. He came up with a 12-month recruiting plan—he broke down, by the minute of each day of each month, what the coaches should be doing—and he shared the plan with Orgeron in 2006. Impressed, he hired Freeze to be his recruiting coordinator. Freeze immediately drove to Memphis to tell his dad he was finally an SEC assistant coach. They cried with joy. In his first year as recruiting coordinator, Freeze helped land the nation's ninth-ranked recruiting class.
In 2008, Freeze became the head coach at Lambuth University, an NAIA school in Jackson, Tenn. Every note he'd ever taken was poured into his playbook. For the first time in college, he was calling the plays, and what he constructed was an offensive machine that hummed with ruthless efficiency. In '09, he led the Eagles to their best season in school history (11-0) and his offense averaged more than 40 points a game. He moved to Arkansas State in 2010, where in his first year as offensive coordinator the Red Wolves broke nine offensive school records. He was named Arkansas State's head coach in '11. The pattern of his success continued: He became the 14th FBS first-year head coach in history to win 10 regular-season games. His offense finished 16th in the country in passing yards. Through it all, he never stopped consulting his notebooks.
Arms folded, his eyes bright with intensity, the coach walks among his players during practice at Ole Miss. He slaps the shoulder pads of defensive end Robert Nkemdiche (5-star recruit, 2013). He points at offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil (5-star recruit, 2013). He speaks to wide receiver Laquon Treadwell (the nation's top wide receiver prospect, 2013). He smiles at safety Antonio Conner (5-star recruit, 2013). This is what it looks like—a Thursday practice in September that is teeming with future NFL players—to build a program.
"Hugh is the total package," says Mississippi athletic director Ross Bjork, sitting in a cafeteria that overlooks the indoor practice facility. "He's personable, charismatic, he plays a style that kids love—fast on offense, aggressive on defense—and everything about him is family. He tells his assistants to bring their kids to work. No one does this in college football. But recruits see this family atmosphere he's created, and recruits see that Hugh has got an 'it' factor that few coaches possess."
Since Freeze was hired in Oxford on Dec. 5, 2011, his recruiting has been the stuff of legend. When you talk to Freeze, who could charm a snake with his honey-dripping drawl, he makes you feel like you're on the porch of his farmhouse on a tea-sipping afternoon dreaming aloud about the promises of tomorrow. This is his seductive allure, and it's resonating in living rooms across America. In '13, he landed the nation's seventh-best recruiting class, according to Rivals; Last year, the haul ranked 19th. Freeze has been so effective on the recruiting trail that he has repeatedly had to defend his process. On October 2, 2014 Yahoo reported that Ole Miss is under investigation for rules violations in multiple sports, however it is important to note 'Freeze and his staff reportedly aren't the subject of any potential major violations, and most of the football-related part of the investigation focuses on a previous staff.'
Freeze, smiling luminously, continues to stroll across the practice field. Alabama, the premiere college football program of the 21st century, is coming. The coach has been preparing for this hour of reckoning since he was two-feet high on the farm looking through that chain-link fence in Independence at his dad's practices. The notes in his right hand are a testament to that.
Lars Anderson is a 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated and the author of six books, including The Storm and the Tide, which was published in August. He's currently an instructor of journalism at the University of Alabama. Follow him on Twitter @LarsAnderson71.
All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.