This was Hugh Freeze in his prime.
It was three summers ago, and he was sitting in his spacious office in Oxford, Mississippi. For over two hours, as thin shafts of sunlight filtered through the blinds onto the Ole Miss coach, he shared his life story in his sweet-as-honey drawl, detailing his unlikely rise in college football.
I was spellbound as he described how, only hours after his wedding in July 1992, he and his wife snuck into Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee. There on the empty field, surrounded by the empty bleachers that seemingly stretched into the summer sky, Freeze, then a first-year high school assistant coach, made a promise to his bride: "I will be a head coach in the SEC one day," he said softly. "I will."
Oh, Freeze was a writer’s dream, the rare coach who dug into the bedrock of his emotions and invited you into his life by sharing the most intimate of details. I proceeded to write a long story for B/R that appeared under the headline "Good Guys Finish First: The Hugh Freeze Story." Only hours after it was published, my cellphone buzzed with a text message from an unfamiliar number in Mississippi.
"Thank you Lars," the text read. "You are one of the good ones. You are a friend. Coach Freeze."
I texted Freeze back and thanked him for his honesty. If only more coaches, I thought, could be like Hugh Freeze.
But over the last 18 months, I’d heard some disturbing whispers emanating from Oxford. I wrote a book on the Manning family that was published in August 2016—Archie was a star quarterback at Ole Miss in the late '60s, and Eli broke many of his dad’s records in the early 2000s—and in my reporting, I was repeatedly told that I should examine Freeze’s life. I dismissed those hunches.
"Hugh is gold, man," I remember telling one source.
Yet the warning signs were there.
There was the ongoing investigation by the NCAA into the Ole Miss program, which Freeze had built from the ashes by hauling in one 5-star player after the next. There was the Laremy Tunsil draft-day escapade last spring, which featured one of those elite recruits (Tunsil) confessing that he had been paid by Ole Miss' assistant athletic director.
And just last week there was the defamation lawsuit filed by Houston Nutt, Freeze’s predecessor at Ole Miss, claiming that Freeze and the school had orchestrated a "long-running … smear campaign" against him. I know Nutt well—we spoke repeatedly when I covered college football for a decade for Sports Illustrated—and he never once misled me.
Yet Freeze seemed unfazed. At SEC Media Days last week in Hoover, Alabama, he was at his smiling, good-golly best, assuring reporters the storm clouds over Ole Miss would soon dissipate. As he spoke from the dais at the Wynfrey Hotel, Freeze cut the figure of a serene Southern gentleman, one you wanted to believe—which always has been his seductive allure.
But by last Thursday, I was no longer so sure of Freeze. The evidence was mounting, and I kept remembering what a former Rebel player had told me during my reporting for the Manning book. "You know what they say: If it’s too good to be true, it usually is. I’m worried that a house of cards is going to fall."
Well, it did on Thursday—a day unlike any other in the history of the Ole Miss program. Freeze, 47, resigned after school officials found "a pattern of personal conduct inconsistent with the standard of expectations for the leader of our football team," according to athletic director Ross Bjork. This pattern included a phone call to a female escort service.
After the news broke late Thursday night, my cellphone lit up with messages from old friends in Oxford. The anger is intense. Freeze openly and eloquently talked about his Christian faith—this was one of his charms when he worked the living rooms of prospective recruits—and this makes his fall even more dramatic.
I have little doubt that a documentary will soon be commissioned because so many delicious bites of the apple are here: lust, greed, gluttony, pride—you name the sin and this story has it. My buddy Paul Finebaum of the SEC Network now has show material for the next decade. (And I’m serious: This is how long, at a minimum, the fall of Freeze will be discussed in the football-crazed South.)
So in the end we are left with two Freezes—the one I wrote about three years ago and the one whose darker portrait will surely emerge in the coming days and weeks.
As for me, I don’t feel duped or deceived by Freeze in our long-ago conversation. He presented a version of his life as he saw it.
But here’s the thing about really skilled reporters—and they are a-coming to Oxford now: They will find truths about their subject that the subject himself cannot see.
And truth time has arrived for Freeze.
Lars Anderson is a senior writer at B/R Mag. A 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated, Anderson is the New York Times best-selling author of seven books, including The Mannings, The Storm and the Tide and Carlisle vs. Army. Follow him on Twitter: @LarsAnderson71.