Hugh Freeze’s voice cracked for the first time as he began to talk about what his father told him on July 21, 2017, the day after he got fired by Mississippi, “when all hell broke loose around me, my family, my career,” he said.
“Son, you keep standing. You just keep standing. You stand tomorrow. You stand the next day. And you keep standing.”
Freeze is still here, and still trying to resurrect his college coaching career after re-emerging publicly in recent weeks. He was part of ESPN’s broadcast for the Labor Day game between Florida State and Virginia, offering analysis during as part of their Coaches Film Room. He spoke to the Touchdown Club of Memphis on Monday.
Whether he’s successful in returning to the sideline may depend on whether you believe his tears to be a genuine sign of remorse or the choreographed emotions of a man who gave this same speech in Little Rock, Montgomery, Ala., and anywhere else that’ll have him.
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Should you buy any of what Freeze was selling Monday night, when his charisma and charm won over the room at the Hilton Memphis just like it did so many times during his rise from a girls’ basketball and football coach in high school to one of the few men to beat Nick Saban twice?
Does he deserve another chance to be a college coach?
But not because he apologized for the “personal issue” — i.e. phone calls to escort services — that ultimately led to his removal at Ole Miss. And not because he claims to have learned from the mistakes he made that led to NCAA sanctions, which were the result of his failure to properly monitor assistants’ interactions with Ole Miss boosters.
It’s because Freeze’s offenses could score points and his teams won football games. A lot of them, in fact.
First at Arkansas State and finally at Ole Miss, where he won a Sugar Bowl and helped the Rebels finish in the top 10 for the first time since 1969.
“One mistake, one decision, it doesn’t define you,” Freeze told reporters before his appearance Monday night. “I’m sure there are people who would just like me to go away forever, but I don’t really understand that mentality and I think everybody deserves a chance to be who they are and pursue their gifts and goals.”
He’s right, of course, even if his undoing was the culmination of several mistakes. None of us are perfect, and so there was something endearing about how Freeze stood up in front of a group of men and talked about how his life got off track, just like his father told him he should.
He didn’t preach, or act holier than thou, because how could he at this point? He didn’t pretend to be anything but a football coach trying to get another job.
Which is who Freeze always was, before he became a national entity and before scandal temporarily took over. Before he won all those college football games.
“Truthfully,” Freeze said, “the compassion was not the same and the motives were not as pure.”
To prove he’s different now, Freeze told funny recruiting stories, joked that he should’ve beaten Alabama three times and hoped there’d come a time when Ole Miss fans could remember all the big wins during his time there instead of his undoing.
He admitted that, even though his “personal issue” happened well before it actually came out publicly in July 2017, he understood the totality of everything swirling around his program forced Ole Miss to get rid of him.
He accepted the blame for what went wrong in a mea culpa that doubled as a recruiting pitch to athletic directors.
“I don’t like to be bitter at anybody because I caused every bit of it,” Freeze said. “I think it could’ve been done differently and handled differently, but that doesn’t matter because I caused it. There will be a chip on the shoulder if I get another chance.”
Whether you believe all that, or at least whether the people who hire college football coaches do, will eventually determine if and when Freeze is back on the sidelines.
Freeze said Monday he’d be willing to work at just about any college, regardless of level, if his family thought the job was a good fit.
And then, just before Freeze finished answering questions from the crowd, a man in the audience raised his hand to speak.
“The way you’ve handled what you’ve been through, the way you stood up here like a man talking about it, it’s unbelievable,” Jim Reedy said. “I’m not an Ole Miss fan, but I’m a big Hugh Freeze fan.”
He believes in Freeze again. Do you?