SEC MEDIA DAYS 2017: Freeze states that integrity, character still exist at Ole Miss
By Graham Dunn
HOOVER – It took nearly 3,000 words and more than 15 minutes but Ole Miss head football coach Hugh Freeze did what he could to get his point across.
Just two days removed from more controversy surrounding a program already strife with trouble due to a five-year-old NCAA investigation, Freeze all but proclaimed that Ole Miss football was in good hands.
His opening statement at SEC Media Days on Thursday was the longest of any of the 14 coaches but it had more purpose than any other.
This wasn’t about how Ole Miss would win football games but more about how to maintain a program with vultures flying overhead.
“Facing adversity is something that we’re familiar with. It’s kind of been around us for a while now, and I sure will be glad for the day to when I can stand here and it’s not,” Freeze said. “It provides us, though, with a growing season. It — you can grow as an individual, as a coach. And, obviously, you have an opportunity to model for young men that are at an age where they get to see, you know, how does a man go through adversity.”
Thursday’s appearance in Hoover was amped up even more with the announcement of former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt’s lawsuit against Freeze and the Rebels’ athletic administration for defamation and breech of contract. Freeze would not comment on the lawsuit but said he would have if he could.
But it’s becoming increasingly evident that Freeze is feeling the pressure of possible NCAA sanctions, despite saying otherwise. He almost immediately went on defense during his spiel, which had a tone more like a candidate running for political office than a football coach.
Freeze spent the better part trying to convince those listening of the positives he and his staff have generated over the last few years – 27 graduates from last year’s class; a higher APR as a team; all of the community service projects his team has performed.
In a backhanded sort of way, Freeze took responsibility for the problems but gave no indication that he would depart Ole Miss under the circumstances.
“Well, I mean, we obviously have created it in and around our program, you know, the length of it, we can set here and debate all of that.,” Freeze said. When asked who in the program should be blamed for the current problems at the school. “But you can’t — we’ve got to be responsible for the areas in which we were deficient in, that we didn’t — that we didn’t either react or act properly, or whether it was staff or whether it was boosters.
“So we have to own that. And me being in the position I am, I’ve got to stand and look people in the eyes and take that. And, you know, I’m — I have been doing it for several years now, and it’s — I’ll certainly be glad and rejoice and thank God when it’s over, but in the meantime, I’ve been charged with leading us through this time. And so I’ve got to look at myself, our staff, our boosters, our people and our players and try the best I can to manage that while we go through it.”
Nutt’s lawsuit was added to the headaches of the ongoing investigation by the NCAA, which has listed 21 rules violations in two different notices of allegations. The worst of the list includes Freeze getting the “failure to monitor” tag as well as the program being labeled with the dreaded “lack of institutional control,” which normally signalsthe coming of heavy sanctions.
On Thursday, Freeze attempted to rise above the indictment claiming his program would be stronger thanks to its integrity and character.
“Our core values that we talk about all of the time are faith, attitude, mental toughness, integrity, and love,” Freeze said. “Faith doesn’t mean they have to believe as I believe in a higher being or God above, but they’ve got to have faith in something bigger than yourself to be a great team.”
Due to a self-imposed bowl ban, Ole Miss will spend the postseason at home (it also automatically makes the Rebels ineligible to play for the SEC Championship) but few expect the team to compete this year for a title.
Yet, Freeze is selling the idea that Ole Miss will play “12 bowl games” this season and will have 12 opportunities “to play in the greatest conference in America,” even though only eight of the games are in the league.
“One of our finest moments could be the fact that our team could model for whoever chooses to watch us, for the Ole Miss family,” Freeze said, “for whatever outsiders, you know, when all of this is said and done and we’re able to move forward and have our say one day with the Committee on Infractions and be held accountable like with whatever we need to be held accountable for, which we will. I’ve said that every time I stood up here.”