Hugh Freeze is approachable by nature and has a disarming demeanor. On the surface, it’s hard not to like the Ole Miss football coach.
The same can be said, perhaps, for a used car salesman, and fans of opposing SEC schools were quick to cry foul — regardless of the validity of that cry — as Freeze and his staff compiled a consensus top-10 recruiting class in February.
It hadn’t been done at Ole Miss before. How could Freeze do it?
The Ole Miss class checked in at No. 6 in the Athlon recruiting rankings, but it takes more than a smile and handshake for sustained recruiting success, which is what Freeze must have to lift the Rebels from mediocre to meaningful in the SEC West, the toughest division in college football. In his mind, he has to build relationships, not only with prospects but also throughout his program. If he doesn’t, the players he’s trying to sign will discern the lack of authenticity.
The 2013 class indicates that Freeze and staff are off to a good start in all of the above.
National websites devoted to recruiting took ample notice of the 2013 class. Scout named D-line coach Chris Kiffin — Monte’s son and Lane’s younger brother — its Recruiter of the Year, while Kiffin and fellow assistants Wesley McGriff and Maurice Harris were named among the top 50 recruiters in the nation by 247Sports.
When the Rebels were first mentioned with some of the nation’s upper-tier talent, the idea of Freeze and his staff closing the deal seemed a little “far-fetched,” says Barton Simmons, who covers national recruiting for 247Sports. But there came a tipping point when those who follow the recruiting game began to think differently.
“Once it became clear that Robert Nkemdiche (the top-rated recruit nationally) was headed to Ole Miss, once it became clear that a 5-star receiver in Laquon Treadwell was joining the class, everything started to seem much more likely down that home stretch,” Simmons says. “As an industry it got to the point that nothing surprised us about that staff and what they were able to accomplish.”
The key? Relationships.
McGriff, who has left since Signing Day to become secondary coach with the New Orleans Saints, had a friendship with an assistant coach at Treadwell’s high school, and that gave the Rebs a shot with the No. 1 wide receiver.
Kiffin played a big role in the signing of Nkemdiche, the nation’s No. 1 recruit, and also with No. 1 offensive tackle prospect Laremy Tunsil. In addition, Nkemdiche has a brother — All-SEC linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche — already on the Ole Miss roster, while Treadwell has a friend and former high school teammate, defensive back Anthony Standifer, in Oxford. Those are examples of the “natural ins” Freeze references in how the entire 2013 class came together.
“People who criticize don’t understand that we have the brother of the No. 1 recruit in the country who just had an incredible experience at Ole Miss this year,” Freeze says.
“A lot of people talk about family, but we live it,” says offensive line coach Matt Luke, a former Ole Miss center who was also an assistant on Ed Orgeron’s staff. “People see that when they come here. They see us in person. They see that. We build relationships with our guys that are deeper than most. It’s not just, play your four years of football and get out of here.”
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People are attracted to that chemistry, Luke says. In a sport where vicious hits and physical play are applauded, Freeze uses respect for teammate, school and self — and often uses the word “love” — as his main motivating points.
Contact with each recruit from each assistant coach is meticulously planned, as is the Freeze in-home visit — down to what will be discussed and what assistant coaches will be with him.
The classroom discussion is always nearby. Freeze inherited an academic train wreck when he arrived at Ole Miss. Most players — not all — were able to get back on course and become eligible for 2012.
“Academics are non-negotiable in this process,” he says.
Freeze’s devout Christian faith is visible daily through his motivational phraseology and comments on Twitter. That can serve to strengthen a recruiting relationship, or in some cases have no effect.
“You get a mixture. Just like it is in society, but I’m not a guy that forces this on anyone. I tell you who I am,” he says.
The Ole Miss staff could see the momentum building for the class and could predict the reaction from so many who follow the sport of recruiting.
Allegations of cheating began to flood Freeze’s Twitter account to the point that he challenged anyone with evidence of wrongdoing to contact the school’s compliance office. Many did, and their claims were investigated. But nothing was found that raised red flags.
There was discussion with Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork and many others within the athletics department before Freeze issued his Twitter challenge.
“My whole point is, I know our coaches are doing it right,” Freeze says. “Certainly you’re going to do something where you have a secondary violation on something that is totally unintentional, but if somebody does have something that I’m unaware of, there’s too much at stake for me to sit blindly by. I’d like to know it.”
Many of the complaints came from those with ties to Georgia. Mark Richt and his staff had gotten pretty far down the road with Tunsil, and Freeze had no “natural in” with the tackle from Lake City, Fla.
“We had a plan. So we’re thrilled that it worked, but surprised is not a good word,” Luke says. “It’s like when I hit a good golf shot. That’s where I was aiming, it just doesn’t happen all the time. We had a lot of things fall right. We had some siblings, some teammates, some things to get the ball rolling.”
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Freeze expects success in spite of the disadvantages that accompany a state with one of the smallest populations in the country, one that divides its small talent pool with another SEC school (Mississippi State) and a third FBS program (Southern Miss), and must withstand talent raids from more established conference brethren (say, SEC West rivals LSU and Alabama).
Ole Miss was able to do that by landing 4-star prospects Ryan Buchanan and Kailo Moore — a quarterback and running back, respectively — and 5-star safety Tony Conner.
Memphis is a nearby population center that Ole Miss considers “home” recruiting territory. Freeze focuses on advantages like that — and what he says is the ability of Ole Miss to sell itself — as opposed to a lack of numbers inside the state and the year-long battles through recruiting and public relations with SEC rival Mississippi State.
“The same people that (talk about our disadvantages are also) writing that it’s in the top five of most beautiful campuses in the nation or that the game-day experience is among the top three in the nation or that it’s the safest campus in America,” Freeze says.
“And we have a rich tradition in football.”
That tradition is also distant. John Vaught’s best years were five decades ago, and Ole Miss hasn’t won an SEC championship since 1963.
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Freeze contends that recruiting isn’t easy at Ole Miss but that it’s difficult everywhere “with the exception of three or four schools in the conference” and that the past should not dictate the future.
He was a part of three Orgeron teams that never had a winning season, and his 7–6 debut was hailed as remarkable because of the depths to which the program had quickly fallen after Houston Nutt led Ole Miss to Cotton Bowls in his first two seasons.
As with any coach and staff, wins and losses will impact length of tenure. Whether through relationship building or another method, Freeze has to win at recruiting, and winning there can be defined in different ways.
Freeze says he doesn’t need to sign a top-10 class every year, that he can rebuild Ole Miss football with “high 3-stars and 4-stars.” Simmons agrees and uses Auburn as an example of the great misconception of recruiting.
“They’ve recruited consistently in the top 10 and top five, and that’s not translated to wins on the field,” he says.
“There’s every reason to believe that if (Ole Miss’) evaluations and developments are right, that the program is headed in the right direction.”
Written by Parrish Alford for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2013 SEC Preview Edition. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2013 SEC season.
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