Hugh Freeze is out as Ole Miss’ head coach, done in by a combination of the NCAA, Houston Nutt, and call(s) to an escort service on his work phone, but technically only the last part. His final record at his hometown school is 39-25, with three bowl wins and a top-10 finish. But that tells almost none of it.
Let’s work our way from the pretty weird start of all this to the cosmically outlandish conclusion.
8. His résumé. We’re used to it by this point, but it’s important to let yourself be baffled by it all over again. Before landing a job in a conference that was amid a national title streak, Freeze had coached high school teams in various sports, been an Ole Miss assistant for two years, coached an NAIA program that no longer exists, and coached at the Sun Belt’s Arkansas State for two years.
And then POOF! SEC head coach.
“Did you really win four state high school girls basketball championships?” a reporter asked in front of 1,000 people at 2013 SEC Media Days, apparently refusing to believe Wikipedia’s claims. “If so, what is your key to winning championships in basketball, high school football, and your pursuit of an SEC title?”
7. Not exactly what brought him down — SEC West coaches get fired for lewd behavior all the time! — but the setup for it: the public character he’d cultivated of a deeply religious family man:
The listed cause of firing is the escort service: “a failure of character standards for a head coach.” It’s not the NCAA. Of course, Ole Miss is invested in emphasizing the former, as the latter still looms.
Maybe Freeze could’ve maneuvered past the escort service call(s). Hell, probably! This is college football! If it occurred in a vacuum, I think he survives. (“Common” doesn’t begin to quantify the infidelity rumors I hear among coaches.)
But not alongside an NCAA investigation.
And not transposed against his public persona of the archetypical Evangelical Christian, which drove his critics in the industry and the media absolutely mad. His ceaseless proselytizing in defense of his character was at times such a gratuitous, repetitive tic that it invited other Christians, myself included, to sin by doubting its validity. Such is the failing of faith as a commodity.
This one doesn’t rank all that highly because we’ve seen sanctimony end in horny scandal plenty of times before.
6. His teams were unfathomably hard to predict from week to week, even as they steadily improved. Back-to-back ranked wins! A 30-0 loss to Arkansas. A win in Tuscaloosa! A 38-10 loss to Florida. A 28-6 start against Florida State! A 39-6 finish by Florida State.
Freeze’s Rebels soared to No. 3 rankings in two different seasons, the only times they’ve been that high since the SEC integrated. Freeze is responsible for two of Ole Miss’ few chances to smile on a national stage, and one of those ended in sputtering tears, thanks to a 39-point Peach Bowl loss to TCU.
All along, they were pretty good, no matter how hard it was to convince onlookers. A common joke in 2016: Ole Miss is the best four-loss team in the country. Wait, it’s now the best five-loss team in the country. Wait ...
5. He publicly egged on the NCAA. His 2013 recruiting class formed the bulk of his on-the-job legacy, for good and ill. Its star players helped contribute to some of Ole Miss’ greatest moments ever.
But the lil ole Rebels landing commitments from five-stars? That turned a few too many heads. It was a staggering turnaround in the recruiting rankings, and Freeze felt led to tweet the following:
If you have facts about a violation, send it to email@example.com. If not, please do not slander these young men or insult their family
He later said he regretted doing that, which is good, because it was actually not smart.
4. The NCAA stuff has to go somewhere. So sure, fourth is fine. None of the accusations are all that spicy in isolation, but racking up 15 Level I (the most serious kind) allegations is impressive regardless. Freeze’s regime, with some help from Nutt’s, produced a bowl ban, and that’s just Ole Miss’ penance punishment. The NCAA has yet to go in.
Three especially weird things about it:
- If a few nights along the way go differently, the Rebels probably would’ve gotten off with wrist slaps. No. 1 2013 recruit Robert Nkemdiche might’ve joined his brother in Oxford no matter what, and the NCAA turned up basically nothing on the other star 2013 signees ... other than Laremy Tunsil, thanks to a falling out with his eager-to-snitch stepfather. The NCAA based a lot of its findings off that testimony.
- That NFL draft night, when Tunsil was hacked and seemingly admitted to taking money from coaches? The NCAA didn’t even make any allegations based specifically off that, though it did extend investigations.
- Freeze is gone because of non-NCAA stuff anyway. The whole mess is still there for somebody else to clean up.
Also, Nutt is suing Ole Miss, accusing Freeze and the school of tricking the media into blaming Nutt for the NCAA stuff, thereby costing Nutt coaching jobs. That’s dubious, but let’s check back on this plot line in a few.
Finally, never forget one of Freeze’s last public acts as Ole Miss’ head coach was filibustering for a punter-filled 16 minutes at SEC Media Days, to avoid questions about the NCAA and Nutt.
3. He beat Nick Saban twice in a row. Saban rarely loses. He’s lost exactly 19 games in his decade at Alabama.
Saban almost never loses to the same opponent more than once. Exactly two remaining head coaches (Urban Meyer and Mark Richt) have beaten him twice or more.
Saban basically never loses to the same opponent more than once in a row. His numbers in revenge games are hilarious.
Saban’s school just doesn’t lose to Freeze’s. Bama’s record against Ole Miss until 2014 was 47-9-2.
And then Freeze’s Rebels went and did it again, this time in Saban’s own stadium.
2. The fact that the gas mask thing isn’t the weirdest thing on this list. I mean, if this image isn’t your No. 1 ...
Laremy Tunsil's NFL stock was sabotaged minutes before the 2016 draft.— SB Nation (@SBNation) April 26, 2017
Here's what we've learned since:https://t.co/6csUMkuXlA
... you must have a hell of a No. 1.
1. PETTY GOD HOUSTON NUTT’S SHAKESPEAREAN REVENGE. This part alone is instantly one of the greatest college football stories of all time, and I say that with full reverence for the entire libraries of stupidity this sport generates per decade.
At the heart of the reason Freeze stepped down is a phone call:
Freeze told Yahoo last Friday that the call had been brought to Ole Miss administrators’ attention by former coach Houston Nutt’s attorney, Thomas Mars, and that they had questioned him about it. Freeze told Yahoo he had no idea why the call was on his phone records.
USA Today reported that Mars contacted Ole Miss to inform the school that Nutt’s camp had the morsel.
Mars sent an email to Lee Tyner, the school’s general counsel, referencing a “phone call Coach Freeze made that would be highly embarrassing for all of you and extremely difficult to explain.”
The irony: Nutt’s downfall at Arkansas a decade prior was almost the same situation. Just replace the vengeful coach with unhappy fans. Also, no one found any escort services.
A series of records requests preceded Nutt’s departure from Arkansas in 2007. One request, for Nutt’s cell phone records, revealed more than 2,000 texts between the coach and a local news anchor. Rumors circulated that Nutt was having an affair, which he denied. Nutt ended up leaving Arkansas for Ole Miss days after shocking No. 1 LSU.
The widely mocked Houston Nutt ended up orchestrating his successor’s downfall, all via the same bizarre method that’d cost Nutt a job 10 years prior. I wish I knew how to write well enough to express just how perfectly bananas this is. I can’t believe this happened.