By MARILYN TINNIN
“Behind every successful man stands a strong woman.” The often-quoted cliché has never been more spot-on than in the marriage of Hugh and Jill Freeze. They are indeed two halves of a whole pulling together toward the same goals. If ever two people were made for each other, they were. Life as the wife of a Division 1, SEC head football coach is not exactly the role for the faint of heart. Jill knows from experience that fortune is fickle and the coach who brings home the trophy one season may find himself standing in the unemployment line at the end of the next. There are no books to read or rules to study to prepare for this life.
Even so, she says with certainty, “It’s a crazy life, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s not a life for everybody, but for me it is a calling.” She gives new meaning to the term, “supportive wife,” but it is her own version created over time and constantly infused with fresh ideas and insights that come through her consistent pursuit of a deep relationship with the Lord.
Jill’s strong faith and family background, as well as her own athleticism, are largely responsible for her desire to do her part in helping Hugh succeed. She shares his primary big picture goal to give his players the tools to succeed in life long after football. “I don’t get to serve the players the way he does, but I can serve the wives of the coaches. If there is anything I can do to make this life easier for them, I want to.”
She leads a weekly Bible Study for wives of all the football staff. Admitting that there are times during the season that are just naturally harder on a marriage than others, she is intentional about being a very approachable friend and mentor to the women who are part of the same sorority. It can be difficult when the demands of a coach’s job mean he will miss some events like children’s birthday parties, and school and sports activities.
“We take the list of our players, walk-ons, red shirts—all of them—and we divide it up and pray for those on our list by name that week. We also send them a card by Thursday of the same week. When you see the difference in these young men’s lives, it is worth it. I just think the letters help us as much as they help the players because we women are relational. We see that what our husbands do is about more than a trophy. This is just my part in Hugh’s job.”
When you take into consideration a wife’s natural desire for security, stability, and a permanent “nest” for her family, the life of a college football coach seems to meet none of those criteria. Jill Freeze believes, however, that she has all of the above, but that is mostly because of the things that matter most to her—and they are absolutely not about “stuff.”
How It Started
It was a hot July day in 1992 when the just married couple drove away from the little Baptist Church in Independence, Mississippi. They were headed to Gatlinburg on their honeymoon when Hugh made a detour through the campus of University of Tennessee and pulled into the empty parking lot of Neyland Stadium. They found a small opening in the chain link fence and slipped through. Standing at center field and looking up into the empty stadium, Hugh said with conviction, “I will be a head coach in the SEC one day.”
At this point, his bride of a few hours had never seen him coach anything, but she says, “All I knew was Hugh, and I just knew it was going to happen.”
A few days later, Hugh began as an assistant coach at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis. He assumed the head coaching position there three years later and set records winning six state championships over the next seven years. The book, The Blind Side, which became the movie in 2009, included the part Coach Hugh Freeze played in Michael Oher’s gridiron achievements. It certainly gave him some new credentials and notoriety that could further his collegiate ambitions.
Jill compares the role of a high school coach’s wife and a college coach’s wife saying that in many ways the high school arena is more difficult. On the high school level when the game becomes intense and there is a failure to execute a play successfully or there is a lopsided score, the criticism is hurtful and can feel very personal because “you know these people.” But on the college level, as brutal as the comments coming from impassioned fans may be, “You don’t know these people, and so, it just doesn’t get to me. I always think, ‘you just don’t understand.’”
Ole Miss provides a box for the Freeze’s that is somewhat removed from the first rows behind the bench where the atmosphere can be loud and unpredictable. She says, “The box is way too quiet for me. I sit down in the stands with the other coach’s wives in the middles of everything. I don’t care if it’s pouring down rain or freezing cold, I want to be in the middle of it all. I feel like if Hugh is going to be in it and all our boys are going to be down in it, I should be in it, too!”
As far as the Monday morning quarterbacking and any critical stories on the sports page, “I don’t read them. I don’t expose myself to it. If I don’t take it in, I don’t have to let it go.” She and Hugh have a shared principle that governs their lives. It is called the “audience of one.” Jill calls it her “go-to” in decision making, people pleasing, and follow through. “I teach our girls that, too, that they have an audience of one [Christ] and those who would criticize and judge are not it.”
Special Course in Being Flexible
Jill’s journey as a football coach’s wife has been anything but smooth sailing. Some would view certain chapters as near-horror stories. Jill can laugh about most of them. She may have promised to “love and to cherish,” but it might have been just as appropriate to add, “and to be flexible always.”
The ten years in Memphis, while Hugh coached at Briarcrest, meant a predictable routine in the same school, the same home, and the same church. When the opportunity presented itself to take a job on the lower rung of the ladder as part of Coach Ed Orgeron’s staff, it meant a significant pay cut for the Freeze’s. Knowing Hugh’s heart and confident of his abilities, Jill did not have a single reservation about making the move. She was all in.
Three years later when Orgeron was fired and Houston Nutt was hired, the Freeze’s felt confident Hugh’s job was not in jeopardy. He had been an impressive recruiting coach and his people skills with both players and other staff was well known. It was a blow Hugh called “crushing,” when Houston Nutt let him go.
Although there were several other offers in administrative positions and Hugh considered them, Jill was the one who encouraged him to find a coaching job. She was as confident of her husband’s God-ordained purpose to coach young men in football as she was that the sun would come up tomorrow. When the only football job offer came from struggling Lambuth University in Jackson, Tennessee, she says she knew the moment they walked into the gym where the players were working out, that this was the right place for them. She describes the way Hugh’s face lit up the minute he set foot in that whole football environment.
This job meant yet another significant pay cut. Jill had enjoyed being a stay-at-home mom up until then. Their youngest, Madison, was in kindergarten, and Jordan and Ragan were in third and fourth grade. It was definitely necessary that Jill go back to work. She went back to the classroom as a math teacher, and all three girls were enrolled in the same Christian school.
“When we moved to Lambuth, we were in this little house we affectionately call ‘the palace,’” she says. “We shared it with a guy who used it as his office during the day. It had blue shag carpet all over the house, and the walls were painted colors like mustard yellow, mauve, and country blue. The stove was ancient and had push buttons. Hugh told me to put everything in storage because we would not be there long. He told me to just unpack five changes of clothes for the girls and me.” She packed up her entire kitchen except for a sauce pan, a skillet, and a crock pot. They used paper plates and plastic cutlery. That arrangement lasted for two years!
She laughs as she tells me about the evening months into their life in “the palace” that Hugh’s plastic fork broke in half while he was trying to cut his steak. The next day she went to Dollar Tree and invested in a few metal forks!
You would think for a woman who had planned and built a home in Oxford a few years before, the two years in “the palace” with the same five outfits and eating on paper plates would be cause for resentment. Not Jill Freeze. She counts it as one of her best family memories.
Hugh’s football team had tremendous success. He did exactly what he came to do turning a losing football program into a winning program, but the financial situation at Lambuth did not improve. The school closed two years later. Hugh was again looking for a job.
Jill recalls, “Hugh went to interview at Arkansas State, and he came home and told me, ‘that’s the place.’ But then they hired someone else. They didn’t hire him, and I have probably never pushed—I let him make the decision, and I am fine with it. But that time I pressured him.” When Coach Mike MacIntyre from San Jose State called to offer Hugh a job as Offensive Coordinator, Jill was starting to panic. “You have to take that job,” I told him.
Looking back she wonders if she was jumping ahead of God or if He had things to teach them both that were part of the whole San Jose episode. Hugh took the job and moved out to San Jose alone. Jill was still under a teaching contract, and she could not leave Jackson, Tennessee, for two more months. The separation was incredibly hard on Hugh, Jill, and all three daughters. There were many tears shed daily.
When Jill’s replacement arrived in February, she and the girls packed up, took everything they had held in storage for two years and moved to join Hugh in California. “We were waiting for the moving van to arrive at the house we had rented. Hugh’s parents had come to help us unpack, and then Arkansas State called. Their coach was leaving and they offered Hugh the job.”
Immediately Hugh made a call to the movers and told them they would need to sit on everything for a day or two because something had come up. Jill and Hugh prayed about it, and could not think of one good reason to stay in California.
When the truck finally did arrive, the only item that came off was Jill’s Yukon SUV. Hugh’s parents and the girls climbed in and began a meandering trip toward Jonesborough with instructions to just take their time! Jill and Hugh turned the movers around, and the two of them boarded a plane so that Hugh could start at Arkansas State the next day.
Jill’s task was to enroll the girls in school and to find a place to rent before the confused moving men arrived with their belongings. Imagine Jill’s surprise when she discovered that it would not be possible to enroll Ragan, Jordan, and Madison in school until they had a legitimate address. She finally found a school that agreed to enroll them, but they would be classified as “homeless,” at least for the time being.
The resourceful Jill quickly found a house to rent in the same school district. The moving van unloaded the truck, and Jill spent a Friday organizing the girls’ rooms and the kitchen. Experience had taught her that everything else would fall into place easily once these rooms were in order. Early the next morning while still waiting for their daughters to arrive with their grandparents, Hugh and Jill headed from their hotel to the rental house. Jill thought they were going to continue moving in, but Hugh pulled into a convenience store telling his wife he had to get a newspaper and find them another place to live.
Jill said, “I did have my moment. I got a little teary telling Hugh, ‘I have to know where we are going to be.’” He explained that the house she had rented did not have access to ESPN and he had to have access to SEC football.
True to his word, Hugh found them a house immediately. It had been in foreclosure, and the people who had bought it were renovating it for rental. The redo was in process, and the construction crew was at work. There were no fixtures in the master bath; the kitchen was incomplete, but Hugh told the landlord, “We’re moving in today, and you can work around us.” Jill had gathered her wits by this time and describes their renting a U-Haul, repacking everything that had been unpacked the day before, and with the generous help of a few of Hugh’s new staff, they moved again—their third move in less than ten days.
Even though they had an address now, it would be a few weeks before the house was habitable. In the meantime, the family of five did live in a hotel—not in a luxury suite—but in one regular standard size room. Doing homework in one room was a challenge, but Jill brags on the resilience of their daughters, “Their third school in one year, but they did great.”
For the Freezes, it is just a matter of perspective.
She says, “We learned very quickly with that California trip that as long as we are together, the rest doesn’t matter. We can live in whatever, however long, without anything, and be really happy.”
Reflections and Priorities
Moving has never been the hard part for Jill. “I’m not attached to just one spot. You get attached when you’re there, but when God says it’s time to go, He makes you ready to go, too.”
She has maintained her friendships through all the moves. “They [friends in every city the Freezes have lived] are still my accountability partners, my prayer warriors. It’s not like I say ‘goodbye,’ but in moving on, I add new people into my life.”
The biggest testimony to that declaration came when it was time to leave Jonesborough and return to Ole Miss, the only place that had ever fired Hugh. They had settled into the community where Hugh led the Arkansas Red Wolves to a championship that first year. They had joined a church they absolutely loved. Oldest daughter Ragan was in a youth group Jill describes as having “captured her heart for Jesus.” Middle daughter Jordan was just a few months shy of being old enough to attend also. Jill thought they would be in Jonesborough a while.
But then, she should have known by this time to expect the unexpected. The offer came to return to Ole Miss as Head Football Coach.
“People think it was a no-brainer, but it really wasn’t an easy decision.” The first thing Jill and Hugh consider when they get a call like that one is not the salary. It’s about the environment for nurturing their faith and their family. The Freezes pray, and they wait to hear from God. As Jill says, “Hugh never answers quickly.” Unfortunately, neither does God.
It was not until a few hours before he was supposed to have an answer for the Ole Miss committee that Hugh felt like he had gotten God’s answer. His morning devotional in the FCA Coaches Bible on that Sunday morning in December 2011, referred to Jeremiah 29, the familiar chapter about God’s perfect plans for a hope and a future for Believers. But in verse 14, he read something he had never seen before, “I will be found by you and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
When he told Jill what he had read and asked her what she thought, she did not hesitate. “Let’s go,” she said. She was certain there was a clear message for them in that verse.
And so the Freezes returned to Oxford, picking up stakes, packing up their earthly belongings, and doing what Jill embraces as part of her calling as Hugh Freeze’s wife—being there for him and doing whatever she possibly can to make his job easier.
When they left Ole Miss in 2008, it was not without pain. Who would have dreamed then that the Freezes would be back in just three short years? It goes against everything Jill believes to hold a grudge, and she had not held one over the firing three years prior. She says, “I probably had a grudge against Huston Nutt at one time, but I realized that it was God who didn’t give Hugh the job of offensive coordinator back then. In my mind I was praying for offensive coordinator, but God had in mind something better—Head Coach. I just had to wait to see that happen.”
And Then There’s Parenting
Jill and Hugh share a philosophy of parenting. It’s called “intentionality,” and they live it consistently. Their skills here are in sync with the way they approach everything else. They are a team, and they are equally involved in the entire parental endeavor.
Jill calls Hugh the “detail” man. As a father he puts great thought into shepherding the hearts of his three daughters. According to his wife, he is adept at making the most of his minutes. He has a great gift of discernment, and he can ask the kinds of questions that lead to substantial conversations. “He sees things I miss,” she says.
When all is said and done, Jill can distill her best maternal advice to a few brief points, but successful execution of them will surely take a 24/7, day-in, day-out approach for at least 18 years!
- Be followers of Christ yourselves because the number one priority parents should have is that their children come to know Christ. Jill believes wholeheartedly in the power of prayer, and she longs to leave a legacy of prayer in her daughters. They talk about their prayer requests with each other. She is a fan of Mark Batterson’s book, The Circle Maker, and she delights in drawing circles around different requests and loves to tell her daughters when she sees an answer and gets to draw a great big X across that circle.
- Love others and be kind, but be discerning as well. Pay attention to those you want to be around as well as those who want to be around you.
- Pre-decisions are important especially in the big things like choosing a mate. There is a lot of discussion in the Freeze household about a range of topics—from what kind of things are appropriate and inappropriate to post on social media to the qualities to consider in a future mate.
Given the down-to-earth personalities of both Jill and Hugh, it is not surprising that despite the female to male ratio in the Freeze family, there is just not a great deal of drama. Family and football consume much of their time. In the off season, you will find the Freeze’s spending their Saturdays fishing, playing golf, or just hanging out together. Sundays are always filled with Sunday morning church at Pinelake Oxford and Sunday afternoon Bible studies and family suppers with the football staff on campus.
“I’m a pretty ordinary person,” the petite Jill Freeze says. Her ice blue eyes tear up with sheer joy when she talks about the life she shares with family and friends. She describes herself as the person who thought she would never even pray out loud. She never saw herself as one who would be leading others to love the Lord like she does. She credits the influence of her man with growing that desire in her heart. God called him to coach, but God also called Jill to be his soulmate and partner. She found her place in serving her family and in serving other women. And just like in the parable of the loaves and fishes, God has multiplied the blessings.