By MARILYN TINNIN
It was better than a Cinderella story for Ole Miss fans this past year. Even those who do not claim allegiance to the “Rebel Nation” found themselves in awe of Hugh Freeze. He took a team that was picked dead last in the 2012 SEC Western Division and directed a 180-degree turnaround. He is obviously a gifted coach, but it was the authenticity of his character and the reality of his relationship with Jesus Christ that fired his motivating expertise for the players, his staff, and the myriad number of fans who packed the stadium to cheer the resurgence of the Ole Miss Rebel football team.
Jill Freeze, his wife of 21 years, is probably the least surprised person of all that Hugh’s initial season as head coach was so successful. She says that the first thing that attracted her to her husband when they met in a math class during their USM undergrad days was that, “he made me want to be a better person.” Three children, numerous moves, and more than a few trials and triumphs later, “Every time I’m around him, he still makes me want to be a better everything— a better wife, a better mom, a better Christian. He really is an amazing man.”
Nothing reveals a man’s mettle more than adversity, and five brief years earlier, it seemed quite unlikely that Hugh Freeze was going to be sitting where he sits today. He says people ask him all the time how he ended up as the head coach of a Division I school when his path has been anything but the norm for getting here. He does not hesitate or apologize when he explains it this way: “It is a God thing.”
Hugh, who never played a second of college ball, spent 13 very successful years as football coach at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis. He was a rising star in the Ole Miss coaching staff of Ed Orgeron. It had been a personal goal for Hugh for a while to make it to the college level, and when he was offered an administrative position, Director of External Affairs—which he describes as a “gopher” position—he rolled up his sleeves and thought it could be the first step toward something greater. His method of operation was to go the second mile, to do more than was expected, to be the best he could be at every duty given him, and he never went home until the coaches were gone. It started out with a big salary cut, a lot of faith that this was the thing to do, and a big dose of encouragement and support from Jill.
“I would not leave until the coaches left. If they left at midnight, I stayed,” he says. It took about six months, but Hugh’s work ethic and attitude were noted, and he moved to the field. He was first the tight end coach, then receivers coach the next year, and recruiting coordinator both years. It looked like he was well on his way to achieving his dream. When Orgeron was fired at the end of the 2007 season, Hugh was assured by some in high positions that whoever came in to take over as head coach was not about to fire him. He was a Mississippi boy; he had gotten 11 impressive recruits for the next year; his receivers had performed well. No problem—except that there was a problem.
When Houston Nutt took over a few days later, his first act was to fire everyone who had been a part of Orgeron’s staff. Hugh Freeze was now unemployed. And he describes his feelings as “crushed.”
“I had never been asked to leave a job,” he says. “That was a difficult experience and I cried out to God. ‘You know, I’ve got my family here. We just built a house because we thought we were staying—what is going on? So, I moped around the house a few days, had a few offers for other jobs—even some assistant jobs at Division I schools, but nothing seemed right.”
Jill, described by her husband as a “trooper” and a “prayer warrior,” insists she is NOT the steady and consistent one in the family. But she says she watched Hugh consider several job options during that time and every time he brought up something out of the arena of coaching, she discouraged it. “He would be miserable if he wasn’t coaching. I knew that.” As wild and rocky and uncertain as is the life of a college coach, she knew her husband and she knew that he was indeed “called” to invest himself in coaching—not just because he is a master of the game, but because the qualities that he inspires in his players are bigger than football and longer lasting than their fleeting careers.
What Hugh decided to do speaks volumes about the man, his character, and his sheer spunk!
He says he told his wife, “I’m going to find the worst college football program I can and see if we can’t go turn it around.” And he did just that.
Lambuth University Bound
Lambuth University was a small liberal arts college in Jackson, Tennessee, part of the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics). It was a giant step down from the SEC and Division I, and in 2008 it was struggling to stay afloat as an independent school. In fact, the University of Memphis acquired the school in 2011, but Hugh Freeze did exactly what he set his cap to do when he took a losing and underfunded football team and transformed it. In Freeze fashion, he assembled a great staff along with a “great group of guys,” and God blessed it. Lambuth won 20 games in two years.
Jill describes Lambuth as “the right place at the right time. It was a wonderful time for our family. It was like a reboot.” If there was any lingering hurt over leaving Oxford, it did not last long. Jill says that on her first visit to campus with Hugh, they walked into the gymnasium where the players were working out. “Hugh’s face lit up, and I told him, ‘See, that is what you were meant to do—you are a coach.”
Those two years were filled with great moments, wins, and a lot of joy. When Lambuth announced that it would be closing its doors at the end of the 2011 spring semester that meant the Freezes were once again looking for a job.
A Series of New Beginnings
The morning Hugh left Jackson, Tennessee, en route to the Memphis airport and then to San Jose State where Coach Mike MacIntyre had offered him a job as offensive coordinator, he admits to crying real tears the entire way. “I didn’t want to get on that plane. I didn’t want to leave my wife and kids behind. Looking back, I wonder if I acted out of fear—if I didn’t pray enough about it—I don’t know.”
Nothing seemed to fit. Flexibility and portability—they are part of the profession. But this time it wasn’t happening. “I’m just not a West Coast kind of guy,” Hugh says. He had great respect for MacIntyre; their values and philosophy of coaching are very similar. He lasted two months, and then an offer came from Arkansas State to be offensive coordinator. “Mike handled it like a trooper, like the true Believer that he is. He understood what was best for my family, and so I left San Jose.”
Jonesboro, Arkansas, was an easy place to love. The girls adjusted quickly and the schools, their church, their friends were all part of a fabric that felt like blessing upon blessing. As Jill says, “I’ve never cared where we lived as long as we were together.” But it did look like Jonesboro was going to be long term. Everyone was exceptionally happy there. Hugh guided his offense to a record-breaking season, and was named head coach the next year.
In that 2011 season, Arkansas State was undefeated in the Sun Belt Conference. In November, the very week the Red Wolves were preparing for their championship finale, Hugh got a call from Ole Miss offering him the head-coaching job. Five years before, he would have been celebrating with fireworks, but this time he was torn.
“I struggle with those decisions that affect my family,” he says. “People talk about experiencing this total peace—I don’t experience that. There are so many variables that go into this job now.” It was about much more than the title, or the prestige, or the fame, or even the money—even when the money is very good. All of those things, Hugh Freeze knows only too well, can be quite temporary. What was uppermost in his mind as he was looking for a clear and certain answer from God? He was looking for God’s plan for the Freeze family.
“Your children are so happy in school. They’re happy in church, and you’re taking risks moving them. They are the most valuable possession you have—you’re taking a risk to move them out of that to something you aren’t certain is going to be all you hope it will be.” Those thoughts were heavy on his mind.
Meanwhile there was a big game Arkansas State was about to play, and Hugh felt like he was being deceptive every time he looked into the faces of his staff and his players. Integrity, affection, and depth of relationships are at the core of his management style. Nobody except Jill knew the turmoil he was feeling inside.
The game was on a Saturday night and Ole Miss expected an answer by Sunday night. Hugh was still praying. God was taking His time answering.
The Rest of the Story
The Red Wolves were victorious in that final game beating their opponent by a sound 45-14. They would be headed to a bowl. In the midst of their celebration was the same anguished Hugh Freeze trying to maintain his composure and knowing all too well he had to have a “yes” or “no” for Ole Miss in a few short hours.
The answer came on Sunday morning, and as he tells the story in a straightforward way, he says, “I’ll just tell you what happened and we took it as a sign.” He had stayed overnight with the team in a hotel, and as is his custom, he woke up on Sunday morning and reached for His Bible for his morning devotion. The FCA Coaches Bible contains a section of daily devotions in the very back. He flipped to the devotion for that day, December 4, and it took him to Jeremiah 29. It was not the familiar verse 11, (“For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”), that grabbed his attention, but rather verse 14, something he did not recall ever seeing until then. The scripture says, “I will be found by you and will bring you back from all the nations and places where I have banished you and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” It was the message of God bringing him back that for Hugh seemed like a personal word. He was so willing to remain at Arkansas State if that was what God wanted, but the “taking you back” message went straight to the question in his heart. This was it.
He called Jill because unless she saw it the same way he did, he would have thought he was reading something into it that was not there. Jill listened to Hugh and then said without hesitation, “Let’s go.”
A Consistent Strategy
Within a few days, Hugh stood on a stage on the Ole Miss campus before a packed auditorium and spoke with an energy and enthusiasm that nobody there had seen for a while. In what has become the familiar Freeze-style, motivational off-the-cuff communication, he won the hearts of the audience. To watch that video on YouTube today, it is clear that the vision Coach Freeze articulated on that first day continues to be the same vision he executes each and every day.
One of his core values as a leader, whether he is being “Daddy” to three adoring daughters or “Coach” to 120 young men, is consistency. Jill calls it his “steadiness,” and he is that always.
In the unpredictable world of collegiate sports, there are plenty of opportunities to let exasperation show when a well-rehearsed play is fumbled or an error brings disappointing consequences. Hugh Freeze is notably NOT shouting at his players. He calls himself, “a play-the-next-play guy. I don’t harp on the last one.” He says, “You know I’ve never coached a kid on any level that I thought wanted to go out on game day in front of his family and on national TV and mess up. So, you’ll hear us on the sideline saying ‘Just play the next play—don’t blink. I hope that’s encouragement. I think it’s consistent anyway.”
Hugh’s philosophy of coaching comes from biblical principles more than anything else. He preaches love, family, and others above self as the foundational platform that undergirds everything. Hard work, attention to the technical details of the sport—certainly he is meticulous there—but he is a believer that the best performers are motivated from within, and it starts with passion and heart and love for one’s teammates.
Sportswriters and news media ask Hugh often who his coaching heroes are. He can recite a long list of those he has worked or played under, including his father, and he has selectively chosen certain habits and disciplines from each one. He points to Bobby Bowden and Tom Osborne as great coaches who were also great men of faith, but ultimately, he calls his coaching style “a mixed bag.” His management style is “just the way God made me.” He values people and he values relationships.
Ken Smith of Ken Smith Ministries was speaking at an FCA coach’s camp at Black Mountain, North Carolina years ago. Hugh was in attendance, and they became fast friends. “Probably the thing that is most intriguing to me about Hugh is his desire to grow in faith,” Ken says. As Hugh’s mentor and probably the person whose advice Hugh seeks more than anyone else’s other than Jill’s, he has the privilege of spending a week with the Ole Miss staff and team when the team camp begins in August. That’s another thing about Hugh. He is committed to giving those around him the opportunity to grow in faith alongside their leader.
“I have vowed to God that no player would ever play for me and not hear the gospel,” Hugh says. He has obviously thought through this whole “What’s my legacy” kind of thing. His thoughts are totally Hugh Freeze. “I would love for each one of our players to have a personal relationship with Christ when they leave here. And then I would love for them to say that as they played for me, they played for a man that was consistent in his faith, in his speech, in his actions, and that I loved them and they could trust me.”
Michael Catt’s name may not be a household word, but as the pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, he is the genius behind such films as Fireproof, Facing the Giants, and Courageous. He is also among Hugh Freeze’s friends, fans, and wise counselors.
Michael’s roots are in Mississippi and because his father is an Ole Miss graduate, he has been a lifelong fan of Ole Miss. “Knowing a little of Hugh’s story, I have to be honest,” he says, “He was a person I wanted to get to know. “
They had been connecting on social media for a while when Michael met him in person at the 2013 Compass Bowl Game. Hugh invited him to come inside the gate and pray for the coaching staff before the game and to stay for the pregame team meeting. Michael watched Hugh give countless autographs to kids prior to the game. He was “consistent” in the way he treated everybody.
As Michael stood to the side and watched, a security guard at the gate just struck up a conversation and said, “Your coach is the real deal. He signed a hat for me to give to my young grandson. I’ve been a guard here for a year, but no coach has ever even spoken to me.”
Michael Catt did not leave that day before inviting Hugh to come and give the sermon at Sherwood Baptist on Easter Sunday. Hugh accepted, and Michael was not disappointed.
Although their friendship has been short in terms of time, their connection has been deep as brothers in Christ. Michael says it well although most who know him would agree. “Words that come to mind are: integrity, lover of God, great dad and husband, motivator, encourager. He believes in young men and what they can be and can become if they let God take control of their lives. He’s not ‘preachy’ as much as he just exudes his faith in a positive way. It’s easy to see why young men want to play football for him. He’s the dad some of them never had. He’s the mentor they need. He’s the role model they will take with them for the rest of their lives.”
And all mommas everywhere say, “Win the Day, Son. I hope Coach Freeze is in your future!”