Almost six years ago to the day, Hugh Freeze was seated in a high-back leather chair at a big, round table nervously looking around the Ole Miss war room at the faces of other Rebels assistants while head coach Ed Orgeron received an 8 a.m. phone call about the team's pursuit of the nation's No. 1 recruit.
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Beating every powerhouse in college football to land blue-chip running back Joe McKnight would change the perception of what for decades had been known as a second-tier program in the mighty SEC. Orgeron, though, learned on that phone call that McKnight was going someplace else, choosing USC over Ole Miss and LSU. To everyone else outside that room, the news was hardly a surprise, but to Orgeron and his staff, McKnight's decision felt like a punch in the throat.
Freeze, like every other Orgeron assistant in the room that morning, would lose their jobs at Ole Miss some nine months later. But in a surreal twist, most of that Rebels staff was back in the same war room Wednesday. Only now, Freeze, the 43-year-old, is running the show. And this time, the Rebels not only reeled in the nation's top recruit, defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, but they also signed the nation's top offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, top wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, No-2 rated safety Tony Conner and, well, a bunch of other top recruits in what could go down as the most stunning day in the bizarre history of college football recruiting.
Just how wild was it to see Ole Miss, a program that hasn't won the SEC in almost 50 years, snatching one blue-chipper after another? The AP's Miami Heat beat writer tweeted this:
How good a Signing Day is Ole Miss having? It's the talk of the Miami Heat locker room this morning. Seriously.— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) February 6, 2013
And then LeBron James tweeted this:
Ole Miss ain't messing around today! Big time recruits coming in. SEC is crazy— LeBron James (@KingJames) February 6, 2013
I spent over a year around that Rebels staff in 2006 and never saw giddiness like there was in the Ole Miss war room Wednesday. The whole scene was jaw-dropping because this wasn't just about an upstart program getting commitments. This was really about a smaller program beating the big boys on the biggest stage. Repeatedly.
Freeze came on our Signing Say show on CBSSports.com and said he wasn't surprised at all by the events of the day, but he admitted he was pleased.
“I think the plan that we had in place and the connections and the natural 'ins' and God's goodness to us and little luck and hard work has brought this fate to fruition for us," Freeze said. "Our staff just did a phenomenal job. Obviously, we had a natural tie-in with Robert Nkemdiche with his brother being here and Laquon Treadwell with his best friend being here and then able to get Laremy here on the same weekend with those top guys and Tony Conner, who is from just down the road here. We were able to sell what our vision was: 'Let's do something new and fresh here with you guys and, in order for us to do that, it will take all of you to come.' Coaches did a good job of selling that and building those relationships."
Having been inside the Ole Miss war room years ago, I saw first-hand how devastating it can be to come close on top recruits but then miss out in the end, when it counted. I also witnessed Freeze's ability to communicate and motivate people. A Baptist preacher, Hugh Freeze is the most dynamic speaker in front of a group I've ever seen. Since leaving Oxford with the Orgeron regime, the former Memphis high school coach best known for being Michael Oher's coach from the best-selling book and its film adaptation The Blind Side, Freeze has worked wonders with a few beleaguered programs immediately.
Two years ago, in his first and only season as Arkansas State's head coach, Freeze led the Red Wolves -- a team that in two decades of FBS-level football hadn't had a winning record -- to a 10-2 mark. Then last year, he inherited a Ole Miss team coming off its worst season in school history (2-10) and transformed it into a squad that won seven games, beat arch-rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl and won a bowl game. But that's just serving as a warmup act compared to this Signing Day splash.
Freeze attributed the success Wednesday to a variety of factors, including the momentum that came as one blue-chip signing seemingly begat another.
“If we didn't close on these, then obviously we needed to go back and revamp our 12-month plan,” he said. “You mention Coach Orgeron, and I'm indebted to him, and I have to thank him for the opportunity he gave me and the lessons I've learned from watching him recruiting. I think the difference this year was the natural tie-ins with Robert Nkemdiche and Laquon Treadwell, who were recruiting behind the scenes for us for a long time now. That gave us some validity to what we were preaching to the Laremy Tunsils of the world, and Tony Conner is right down the road from us. So we had three natural tie-ins to the top players in the nation with five-star guys. And for them to preach that to Austin Golson and Laremy Tunsil.
"We did a great job with the four-star guys too, in-state -- the Kailo Moores of the world, the Ryan Buchanans, the Devante Kincades, the Jordan Wilkins, the Mark Dodsons, Lavonte Hooks -- the number one junior college player in the country that I had a natural tie-in with. We have to thank Houston Nutt and his staff for that because he was committed to them early on and we continued to hold onto him after he became the No. 1 player in the country."
But with the big spotlight has come a ton of skepticism. Heck, there are usually skeptics, even when it's top-20 programs and traditional powers landing five-star guys, but when it's Ole Miss generating all the buzz, there's practically outrage from some rivals and programs that never would've given the Rebels a second thought as a real recruiting adversary. To that end, I will never forget being in the room when I worked on my recruiting book, Meat Market, and hearing Ed Orgeron tell his staff that if Ole Miss landed McKnight, the Rebels would get investigated by the NCAA.
Freeze knows skeptics are out there. People are already whispering about what it took for Ole Miss to go from second-tier recruiting destination to an elite one. What would he say to the skeptics who think something sketchy must be going on around Ole Miss football this year?
"I say that they need to come and visit,” Freeze said. “They need to come and see. The same critics are the same ones who say that Oxford is the No. 1 college town in the nation to live in and that the Grove is the No. 1 tailgate experience in the nation. It's the No. 2-safest community in America. And again, the ones who don't want to be critics are looking reasonably at, 'Look at the natural tie-ins they had.' And the momentum that was created and the plan we had to bring in all of those kids in on the same weekend and the excitement level that was around our program that weekend did a great job of selling what we can do here and that it can be a special place.
"I understand that there are going to be critics. That's part of it. It's unfortunate that the kids can get tied up in that. Obviously, people can criticize me all they want. I know we've done it with integrity and we've built relationships with these people. I'm not foolish enough to believe that if we didn't have these tie-ins, that we would be sitting in this setting today talking about all of this. It's just kind of been the perfect storm for us and we're elated that it's gone this way. [We won't say] 'if someone else steals a kid from someone, it's OK, but let's not rock the apple cart and start messing with the top dogs' ... that's our mission here."
Negative recruiting has always been a part of the process in big-time college football. That kind of thing seems to have only increased with more people paying attention to recruiting, and Freeze admitted he'd never heard the level of venom directed at a program like he and his staff heard this winter.
"That's a sad part,” he said. “I know that our staff doesn't talk about other staffs nor other programs. And there's not many that do that, but we did experience a considerable amount this year from other schools. But we don't get too worried about that. I think that it may have helped us in a couple of situations because they would see that we didn't do that. And I think when they found out that was a consistent thing with some, that could have helped us. I think that recruiting is a little out of hand with the social media, and people can hide behind different names and just say whatever they want to say. It's a part of the process that I'm not crazy about, but hopefully the negative recruiting will die down in the future."