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Hugh Freeze gets his chance

Below is an excerpt from the feature story I wrote for the June issue of Arkansas Life magazine.

Pick up the June issue to read the whole story (along with a short essay I wrote on the demise of Ray Winder Field).

How do you think Hugh will do?


In his 2006 book “The Blind Side,” author Michael Lewis describes Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis.

“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 writes. “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.”

Briarcrest was where a Mississippi native named Hugh Freeze first made a name for himself.

He 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. Briarcrest won two of those title games, in 2002 and 2004.

Freeze’s record as football coach at the school was 99-23.

Freeze’s success was not limited to football. He was the girls’ basketball coach for 12 seasons, leading Briarcrest to eight consecutive state championship games and winning 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 the Mid-South.

It took “The Blind Side” — first the 2006 book and then, even more so, the 2009 movie.

In the movie, Coach Freeze becomes Coach Cotton. The coach is portrayed by Little Rock actor Ray McKinnon, a Georgia native with a rich Southern accent.

Briarcrest becomes Wingate Christian School in the movie.

Still, it’s the story of Michael Oher, the Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman who was raised in Memphis — a poor black boy adopted by prosperous whites, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy. In the movie, Sandra Bullock plays Leigh Anne Tuohy. Bullock won the Academy Award for best actress. The film itself, directed by John Lee Hancock, was nominated for best picture.

Hugh Freeze doesn’t mind being known as the man who urged the school’s principal to admit Oher, as the man who first taught this future first-round NFL draft pick the sport of football. In fact, Freeze and Oher still exchange text messages on a regular basis.

Lewis describes the coach this way (based on the time 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.”

Hugh Freeze is comfortable with his past. Now he wants something more. He wants to be known as a successful NCAA Division I head football coach. And he’s trying to do it in the most unlikely of places — Jonesboro.

The rain is falling steadily on this spring morning as the new head football coach at Arkansas State University sits in his office in the school’s football complex, which is located in one end zone of a stadium where the seats are rarely filled to capacity.

Hugh Freeze still looks like that young man Michael Lewis described in “The Blind Side.”

He greets a visitor warmly and then reflects on a Nov. 29, 2010, speech to the Little Rock Touchdown Club. On that late fall day, his life began to change.

The club was meeting for the final time of the season on the Monday after Thanksgiving. Several hundred people, including some of Little Rock’s top business leaders, had gathered for lunch at the Embassy Suites in west Little Rock to hear the first-year offensive coordinator at ASU.

Freeze, who does lots of motivational speaking (he’s a favorite of FedEx founder Fred Smith), was at the top of his game that day. He wowed ’em.

Freeze was scheduled to leave the state after the speech on a recruiting trip. He never made it.

As it turned out, things were changing quickly in Jonesboro.

The Jonesboro Sun had reported that morning that Steve Roberts’ future as ASU’s head football coach was in doubt. Roberts failed to 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.

An hour later, ASU wide receiver Dwayne Frampton posted this to his Twitter account: “My head coach is fired.”

ASU’s athletic director, Dean Lee, made it official at the 4 p.m. news conference. Roberts, whose final two seasons in a nine-year stint as ASU’s head coach had ended with 4-8 records, was out. The killer for Roberts had been a loss at home to lowly Western Kentucky. WKU had tied that 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: There’s no need for a search. The best man for the job is already on the staff.

Lee heard that outpouring of support for Freeze.

“It was a snowball effect that came out of Little Rock that day,” Freeze says. “There were great comments, and I was gratified to hear them. I have no doubt they were helpful in this process.”

Indeed, ASU long has tried to build support for its football program in central Arkansas with limited success. In Freeze, it seemed, the school had a coach who could connect with the Little Rock business elite.

The search didn’t take long.

On Thursday of that week, Freeze was named as ASU’s new head coach. Among those in attendance at the news conference was Freeze’s old friend from Memphis, Sean Tuohy.

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