Hugh Freeze’s big chance

Hugh Freeze brings his nationally ranked Ole Miss football team to Fayetteville on Saturday to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks.

If Freeze is honest with himself, he will probably be thinking that he might not have had the chance to be a head coach in the biggest, baddest college football division of them all — the SEC West — if not for the opportunity another Arkansas school provided him.

I’ll always remember the day of Nov. 29, 2010. Freeze had come to the capital city to speak to the Little Rock Touchdown Club, and I was in my usual spot just to the right of the podium at the Embassy Suites as he spoke.

On that late fall day, his life began to change.

The club was meeting for the final time that season. It was the Monday after Thanksgiving, and several hundred people had gathered for lunch to hear the first-year offensive coordinator at Arkansas State University.

Freeze, who does a lot of motivational speaking, was at the top of his game. The crowd was impressed.

Freeze was scheduled to leave the state after the speech and hit the recruiting trail. He never made it.

Things were changing quickly in Jonesboro.

The Jonesboro Sun reported that morning that Steve Roberts’ future as ASU’s head football coach was in doubt. Roberts didn’t participate in the Sun Belt Conference’s weekly teleconference with the other league coaches that day.

At 1 p.m., just as Freeze was finishing his speech in Little Rock, the ASU athletic department announced that a 4 p.m. news conference would be held on campus.

At 2 p.m., ASU wide receiver Dwayne Frampton posted this to his Twitter account: “My head coach is fired.”

Dean Lee, the ASU athletic director at the time, made it official at the 4 p.m. news conference. Roberts, whose final two seasons in a nine-year stint as the Arkansas State head coach had ended with 4-8 records, was out. The killer had been a loss at home to lowly Western Kentucky, which had tied the game on the final play of regulation and then won in overtime with a two-point conversion play.

As news of Roberts’ departure made its way across the state, a cry went up from those who had heard Freeze speak in Little Rock (a crowd that had included some of the state’s most influential business leaders; the Little Rock Touchdown Club is a place to see and be seen): There was no need for a search. The best man for the job was already on the staff.

Lee couldn’t help but hear the outpouring of support for Freeze.

“It was a snowball effect that came out of Little Rock that day,” Freeze told me when I visited with him in Jonesboro on a rainy morning the following spring. “There were great comments, and I was gratified to hear them. I have no doubt they were helpful in the process.”

Three days after the Little Rock Touchdown Club meeting, Freeze was hired as ASU’s new head coach. Among those in attendance at the news conference was an old Freeze friend from Memphis, Sean Tuohy.

“As we began preparing for our search, we knew Hugh was someone we would have to interview,” Lee said. “From the first time I met him, it was evident he’s a man of character and substance. He also happens to have an outstanding football mind.”

Freeze was instructed to cancel his recruiting trip and remain in Jonesboro.

“We had three meetings over those three days,” Lee said. “We came to the conclusion that this was the guy who could take our program to the next level.”

I contacted my friend Brett Norsworthy, a Forrest City native who hosts a daily sports talk show on WHBQ-AM, 560, in Memphis, to ask if Freeze could win at the NCAA Division I level.

Here’s what he told me back then: “Hugh is ready. He distinguished himself at Ole Miss during the not-so-distinguishing era of Ed Orgeron. Hugh was the de facto leader of the coaching staff and of the team by the time the Orgeron years were coming to an end. He had full command of a team that had Michael Oher, Dexter McCluster and Mike Wallace. They all went to the NFL in no small part due to Hugh Freeze.”

Ah, Michael Oher.

Freeze followed Oher to Ole Miss after Orgeron signed the player Freeze had coached at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis.

In his 2006 book “The Blind Side,” author Michael Lewis described Briarcrest.

“Its founder, Wayne Allen, had long been distressed by the absence of the Bible from public schools; the white outrage over busing was a chance to do something about it,” Lewis wrote. “In the year after the court decision — on Jan. 24, 1973 — that forced the city to deploy 1,000 buses to integrate the public schools, the parents of white children yanked more than 7,000 children out of those schools.

“From the ashes arose an entire, spanking new private school system. The Briarcrest Christian School — originally named the Briarcrest Baptist School — was by far the biggest. It was a system unto itself: 15 different campuses, inside 15 different Baptist churches. Its initial enrollment was just shy of 3,000, and every last one of them was white.”

Freeze, a Mississippi native, spent 13 years there as a coach, teacher and administrator. In football, he was the offensive coordinator and defensive backs coach from 1992-94 as Briarcrest teams reached the state semifinals twice.

He was the head football coach from 1995 through 2004. He led Briarcrest to six consecutive state championship games and won four of those — 1998, 2001, 2004 and 2005.

His record as a girls’ basketball coach was an eye-popping 305-63.

But it took more than that to make Hugh Freeze famous outside of Memphis. It took “The Blind Side” — first the 2006 book and then the 2009 movie.

In the movie, Coach Freeze became Coach Cotton. The coach was portrayed by Ray McKinnon, a Georgia native who later moved to Little Rock. Briarcrest became Wingate Christian School in the movie.

Oher was the poor black boy adopted by prosperous whites, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy. In the movie, Sandra Bullock played Leigh Anne and won the Academy Award for best actress. The film, directed by John Lee Hancock, was nominated for best picture.

Freeze urged the school’s principal to admit Oher and first taught Oher the sport of football.

Lewis described the coach this way (based on the period when Oher entered the school in 2002): “Freeze was only 33, and with his white-blond hair and unlined face might have passed for even younger than he was — if he weren’t so shrewd. His shrewdness was right on the surface, so it had an innocent quality to it, but it was there just the same. Slow to speak and quick to notice, Hugh Freeze had the gifts of a machine politician. He was a man of God — if he hadn’t been a football coach, he said, he’d have liked to have been a preacher — but he was also, very obviously, adept at getting his way on earth without any help from the Almighty. He’d coached at Briarcrest for eight years.”

To find the genesis of what became “The Blind Side,” one must go back to the 1970s in New Orleans, where Michael Lewis and Sean Tuohy grew up.

Lewis was the son of a corporate lawyer, J. Thomas Lewis, and a community activist mother, Diana Monroe Lewis. He attended high school at the private Isidore Newman School before going on to college at Princeton.

Tuohy’s father, Edward “Skeets” Tuohy, was the legendary basketball coach at Isidore Newman. The Tuohy Gymnasium there is named in his honor.

Tuohy and Lewis stayed in touch through the years, and Lewis decided there might be a book in the Oher story.

“I enjoyed the time I spent with Michael Lewis, but it didn’t mean much to me at first,” Freeze said. “I was focused on my job. Suddenly, though, the book is on The New York Times bestseller list and people are calling from all over. Let me make clear that Michael Oher was not the first kid I fought for in order to them into Briarcrest. I fought to get a lot of kids in that school. I also want to point out that I took a pay cut when I went to Ole Miss. For the first six months, I basically sat behind a desk as a clerk.”

Freeze’s original title when he first headed to Ole Miss in February 2005 was assistant athletic director for football external affairs. After one season, he wound up on the field as a receivers coach and the recruiting coordinator during the 2006 and 2007 seasons.

When Orgeron was fired at the end of the 2007 campaign, Freeze served briefly as the interim head coach. He was hopeful that the Rebels’ new head coach, Houston Nutt, would leave him on the staff.

Nutt had other plans.

“I had hoped to stay on with Coach Nutt,” Freeze said. “Pete Boone (the Ole Miss athletic director) offered to let me stay there as an assistant athletic director, but I wanted to coach.”

There were a handful of assistant jobs available to him at other Division I schools, but Freeze decided to try his hand at being a college head coach, albeit at a tiny college. The offer came from Lambuth University in Jackson, Tenn., a Methodist college that began in 1843 as the Memphis Conference Female Institute.

Lambuth had fewer than 400 full-time students, but its administrators had big dreams of a football program that would move from the NAIA level to NCAA Division II and maybe eventually to NCAA Division I.

Freeze accepted Lambuth’s offer in January 2008.

“His contacts and knowledge will move our program forward in a positive direction, hopefully making Lambuth an NAIA power once again,” athletic director Ken Brown said at the time.

Looking back on his stint at Lambuth, Freeze said: “I was impressed with the vision they had for their football program. I really wanted to find out if I had what it takes to make it work as a college head coach. It ended up being two of my most enjoyable years in coaching.”

Freeze found success as he used a no-huddle, spread offense. He was 20-5 in his two seasons at Lambuth. He was the American Football Coaches Association Southeast Region Coach of the Year in 2009 when the Eagles went 11-0 during the regular season. They advanced to the second round of the NAIA playoffs and finished 12-1. Lambuth averaged more than 40 points per game that season, ranked ninth nationally in total yards per game (465), ranked first in the nation in fourth-down conversions, fifth in passing offense and eighth in scoring offense.

There was, however, a major problem. The school was almost broke.

At one point, Freeze went three months without pay.

In April 2011, Lambuth’s board of trustees voted to shut the school down.

“I don’t know that I would have left had it not been for those problems,” Freeze said. “I stayed a second season because I felt obligated to the families of the kids I had talked into attending school there.”

He knew that to support his family — Freeze and his wife Jill have three daughters (Ragan, Jordan and Madison) — he would need to move on.

Just after Christmas 2009, Freeze accepted an offer to become the offensive coordinator at San Jose State.

“This gives me a chance to do something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said when he accepted the job. “There are only 119 of these coordinator positions in the nation, and I couldn’t pass it up.”

Freeze had interviewed for jobs at Arkansas State, Arkansas, Louisiana-Monroe and Murray State. He felt a connection to the new San Jose State head coach, Mike McIntyre, who was heading west after two seasons as the defensive coordinator at Duke.

The problem this time was that his Southern family didn’t like California.

Frankly, neither did Hugh Freeze.

“My three kids thought I had moved them to a foreign country,” Freeze said.

Freeze is Southern to the core. He was raised on a farm in north Mississippi. His father was a high school coach for 37 years.

“I knew I didn’t want to milk cows for a living,” Freeze once told me. “I saw the influence my dad had on kids’ lives and decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

When Freeze was about to begin his junior year in high school, his father decided to take two years off from coaching to work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and continue farming on the side.

“He thought it was best that I earn everything on the field,” Freeze said. “I was a quarterback, and he wanted to watch my games rather than coach them. He just thought that would be best.”

Freeze graduated from Senatobia High School in 1988, attended Northwest Mississippi Community College for two years and then transferred to the University of Southern Mississippi. He met his wife at USM, graduated in the spring of 1992, got married in July 1992 and began coaching at Briarcrest that fall.

After two months at San Jose — his first time to live outside the South — Freeze realized he had made a huge mistake. Fortunately for the Freeze family, the coaching carousel began to spin.

Roberts had hired Clay Helton at Arkansas State when the new Memphis head coach, Larry Porter, chose not to retain Helton. After just two months in Jonesboro, Helton jumped at the opportunity to be an assistant at USC, where he’s now the head coch.

Roberts called Freeze, who had spent the first two months of 2010 on the West Coast.

“The moving van had just arrived in San Jose,” Freeze said. “My mom and dad were out there. But I knew working in Jonesboro would be a better fit. Steve was straightforward about his situation. He knew it might be his last season if things didn’t work out. I was willing to take that chance. This was the region of the country in which I wanted to coach, so I walked away from a four-year contract at San Jose State.”

Despite the 4-8 record, the ASU offense that Freeze coached was ranked among the top two teams in the conference in scoring offense, passing offense, total offense, pass efficiency, red zone offense and first downs. ASU ranked 43rd nationally in total offense and 46th in scoring offense out of 120 teams. Sophomore quarterback Ryan Aplin thrived under Freeze’s system as he set school records for total offense, passing yards, passing touchdowns and completions.

The rest is history.

The Red Wolves went 10-2 in 2011, won their first Sun Belt Conference title in six years and averaged 447.8 yards per game on offense to rank 28th nationally and first in the conference.

On Dec. 5, 2011, it was announced that Freeze would be the new head coach at Ole Miss, replacing Nutt.

In 2012, the Rebels were 7-6 and won the BBVA Compass Bowl at Birmingham.

In 2013, Ole Miss was 8-5 and won the Music City Bowl at Nashville.

In 2014, the Rebels were 9-4, upset Alabama and lost in the Peach Bowl.

In 2015, Ole Miss was 10-3, again upset Alabama and moved to third in The Associated Press poll and later beat Oklahoma State by a final score of 48-20 in the Sugar Bowl.

In the movie “The Blind Side,” coaches such as Orgeron, Nutt, Lou Holtz, Nick Saban, Tommy Tuberville and Philip Fulmer played themselves. The scene where the coaches are recruiting Oher was shot in one day in Atlanta.

Freeze was there for a cameo, playing the role of an assistant to Nutt.

His one speaking part: “Wow.”

Wow indeed.

Thanks to the opportunity provided him by Arkansas State, it has been quite a ride the past six seasons for Hugh Freeze.

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