OXFORD, Miss. — “Do I already have you rattled?”
It was a fair question. Hugh Freeze had just made an 8 on the par-4 second hole at The Ole Miss Golf Course in our highly anticipated golf match, if only anticipated by the two of us.
It also was a crazy question. In the past, Freeze had gone into dreaded places such as LSU’s Tiger Stadium and Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium and walked out with victories. Him getting nervous while playing golf against me, a man who had just again started playing the game seriously after a 10-plus year hiatus? That wasn’t going to happen.
To be honest, I am the nervous one. This is our first in-person meeting, I am on his turf and … well … I wasn’t sure how much he had read of what I had written about him in the past. Oh, and there is the other thought that was going through my head leading up to that first tee shot, one that I hooked badly into the woods: What in the hell am I doing here?
That requires me to start at the beginning, when I thought I knew who Freeze was. In the end, I had absolutely no idea.
What could he want with me?
It began with a direct message on Twitter.
Living in Chicago, I had met friends on a chilly December Sunday afternoon to catch the late NFL games and caught a story on Freeze that, at the time, caught me off guard. I fired off a tweet saying that I thought his redemption tour had started a little early. Within five minutes, a message appeared in my inbox.
It was Freeze. He wanted to get to know me and chat if I was up to it.
I reread the sentence six or seven times before responding, “I would absolutely agree to that.”
Multiple questions rolled through my mind, and a lot of it was selfish: Had he read my stuff and wanted to yell at me? I once had concluded that he was more worried about himself than the Ole Miss program and that calling himself a target because of his religious faith was ridiculous.
I also considered that I might be getting catfished. When else is a man of his stature going to randomly reach out to me? Sure, working for SEC Country gives me a large audience, but no one is going to confuse me with a well-known sports writer whom people subscribe to.
Mostly, and this was the cynical side of me, I wondered what his motive was. Why me? Why now? Why everything?
What’s worse: The music or the swing?
After a quadruple bogey on No. 2, Freeze has had enough. Before I know it, he busts out a speaker, ties it to the back part of the cart and the musical twang of Eric Church fills the fairway. We basically have the course to ourselves, with him joking that “you should tell everyone I reserved the entire place for us today.”
It is a somewhat serious match, one we had planned for a few months. At first, he was going to give me two shots per hole, but he talked me down to one. My game had improved vastly since we decided on the outing, and 18 shots seemed fair. Bringing out the speaker was just one way of getting into my head.
He warned me about a certain part of his game beforehand.
“Just for the record, my swing is ugly but I get it in the hole,” Freeze proclaimed.
He wasn’t lying on either account. At times his hands will go over his head and make almost a figure eight on the way back. That is the best way I can think to describe it, and it still leaves much to the imagination. Picture Jim Furyk’s swing but more ferocious. Granted, it isn’t as awkward — or outright bad – as some of the coaches who used to battle Freeze in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Challenge. He reminds me that he and Wesley Walls (a tight end at Ole Miss in the 1980s) won the challenge two years in a row. Noted — another intimidation technique during the round.
The song Beachin by Jake Owen comes on the speakers and Freeze loudly proclaims, “This is Brian’s song right here.” It didn’t matter that I had never heard it before. I had moved to Fort Myers, Fla., just a month prior, and it managed to match the mood, of both the day and my life, at the time. Freeze also could have been predicting my uncanny ability to find any and all sand traps. Either way, the song is now on my iPhone playlist. After all, he picked it for me.
One of the best attributes I can say about Freeze is this: You feel comfortable within five minutes of talking to him. He doesn’t have the social awkwardness that many coaches, who are ultra-focused on nothing but football, can suffer from. It is simple to see why a top-ranked recruit and his parents/guardians would trust him. His slow, Southern drawl comes out, hooking you as he starts to expound on his life outside of football.
Simply put, I didn’t expect to have this much fun.
Mistakes, regrets, expectations
Many often forget this, but the coaches we expect to spend 20 hours a day in a dark film room, analyzing each missed assignment, also have a wife and family at home in most cases. Freeze cares a lot about his wife, Jill, and their three daughters.
On the phone and in person, I could tell from both his voice and demeanor as he described the rough days that began long before the public found out of his transgressions last summer. The calls to the massage parlors. The mistakes made trying to run a football program. He was apologetic almost to a fault, his voice coming to a hush at times as he described having to tell his family what he had done. He spoke of the errors in judgment he made and how he owned up to them. The hurt in his voice made me soften up a bit.
Since the beginning of our friendship, I have pondered this on many sleepless nights: What do we expect out of the head coaches who we are so quick to build up and bring down?
Do we hold coaches to a higher standard than we do ourselves? Should we? I know I do, and that is a bit unfair. If I were in the public spotlight, quite a few things would come out. Basically, who the hell am I to judge someone?
However, that is part of the job that I will argue they, not I, signed up for. They have a platform that is unrivaled by the majority of people in this country, and the way they use that is entirely up to them. However, it wouldn’t be right for me or for any other media member not to challenge those issues, both through articles and in person.
Was he in over his head at Ole Miss? Possibly. A quick rise from the high school level to a major NCAA program, especially one in the SEC, had to be daunting. His faith, which would never be a talking point at Briarcrest Christian School and Lambuth University, suddenly became a major part of who he was – either good or bad – to the public who was being introduced to him. Attention barreled down like a runaway semi-truck in the Tennessee mountains.
Fishing reels and family
It wasn’t more than 15 seconds after entering a convenience store on our way to the golf course when two men, standing in an aisle full of fishing equipment, start asking Freeze for advice.
“What is your favorite reel to use?” one man inquires.
Freeze spends 10 minutes talking fishing with them while other customers come and go, some taking the time to say hello to the coach.
This isn’t an anomaly. Wondering how people felt in Oxford about Freeze, I found out quickly. There isn’t a better way to find out until you walk into a gas station, restaurant or any other establishment in the town with the man himself. He is greeted with a smile everywhere. It almost feels like a scene out of The Truman Show, but with real people, not actors.
It helps that he was born in Oxford. It also helps that during his time in charge of the Rebels, they won. He compiled a regular-season record of 39-25 and a 3-1 record in bowl games in five seasons. But it is how approachable Freeze is at all times that is interesting to watch. You couldn’t imagine many SEC, or any other Power 5 coach, taking the time to explain the differences in fishing rods.
He blends in. The goatee and somewhat of a beard helps, but there is no sense of arrogance, no distance that he puts between himself and fans. While some people call him coach, others call him Hugh. He’s one of them, and damn it if they won’t defend and love him at all times.
This feeling of acceptance despite all of the tribulations is one of the things that kept him in Oxford, but it wasn’t the main factor. One of those would be a promise he hopes to keep to his youngest daughter, Madison, a 15-year-old who just completed her ninth-grade year.
“She asked that I only move her once during her four years of high school,” Freeze says. “I have moved them all over the place before.”
Therein is a Catch-22, not so much for Freeze, but for his family: By staying in Oxford even longer, the girls are more prone to hear ugly rumors surrounding the man that they adore, sometimes from classmates who are being teenagers. Locked in a community that is centered on the Rebels, everyone is sure to have an opinion and be willing to share it with anyone who will listen.
The bright side is that the true friends, the ones who that have stuck with the family through everything, are by their side. High school is hard enough for a teenager to cope with, but adding in a new school with new classmates multiplied by a famous father would almost be too much.
He’s Hugh, I’m Brian: 2 guys doing the best they can
“Do you like cigars?” Freeze asks as we drove down the 10th fairway.
“At times, yes,” I answer.
For him, the perfect round of golf starts at 4 p.m., when the course is almost empty and it is just him and a couple of friends out there. He enjoys a cigar once a month or so during those rounds, and being on the course can help clear his mind. He’s not “Coach Hugh Freeze” anymore, but just another guy trying to master a game that can’t be mastered, and who, despite his skill at the game, is still prone to the same bad shots that we all struggle with from time to time.
I had just popped my drive straight up in the air and watched it go higher in the air than the distance it traveled from the tee box.
“You could fit four super Walmarts between your drive and mine,” Freeze boasts, a line I will bring up later when he is just feet ahead of me after a drive on another hole.
He then hits a bad chip shot, costing him a chance at birdie, and for the first and only time, I see Freeze get upset. I can only imagine it mirrored his actions after one of his quarterbacks threw an interception.
The music is turned up an extra level, and it makes him calm, him singing the words to I Was Jack (You Were Diane), a tribute to John Mellencamp’s 1980s classic.
He plays that same song three times during the round.
Still a competitor
On the par-5 14th hole, Freeze’s home-course advantage comes through in the luckiest of ways. Stuck in the rough between five or six trees, he hits an iron that is heading right toward the middle of one of the trees, with the impending result to be disastrous.
That is when the golf equivalent of Chad Kelly’s interception-turned-touchdown pass to Quincy Adeboyejo in the 2015 victory at Alabama happened. The ball comes as close to the tree without hitting it and rolls right into the fairway.
“How?” I ask out of curiosity.
Freeze looks over and grins. I only shake my head.
Bryan Johnson, a good friend of Freeze whom he lovingly refers to as DeChambeau after the PGA Tour player, also joins us for the round. He and I hit our third shots close, both within 10 feet of the cup, to set up our birdie putts. Amazingly, we drain both of them as Freeze’s 30-foot putt lips out. Freeze is exasperated.
I find my time to strike again, so walking off the green after giving my birdie compadre a fist bump, I joke aloud, “We tried to lead the way for you, Hugh.”
Freeze doesn’t show any response or emotion. The competitive side in him is showing. Those gimme putts he was giving me earlier aren’t going to happen anymore.
Football and forgiveness
“I want to rewrite my ending.”
One of the major motivations for Freeze to get back into coaching is so his departure at Ole Miss becomes a footnote, not his legacy. He’s only 48. He has plenty of time to do that.
The offensive mind is always working. Lest we forget, his Ole Miss offense averaged 40.8 points per game in 2015 against a tough schedule.
He talks about watching one bowl game last season and mentions that he couldn’t figure out why the offensive line was blocking the defense the way it was, getting beaten up front by an inferior opponent.
He won’t say this, so I will: As far as a human being, he does not belong in the same category as some coaches who are mentioned in the same breath. I try to pull names out of him, but he won’t take the bait, refusing to throw out people. Curious, I question him on how he would handle being the head of a football program if given another chance. As he does with all of my questions, he doesn’t hold back, laying out part of a plan that he hopes he soon will present to athletic directors looking for reasons to hire him.
He ponders the question again, drifting off with his thoughts. He looks at me and states, “I will be more determined.”
It isn’t as if he needs to rush back into coaching. Speaking engagement opportunities are rolling in for him and his wife, Jill, and for him, they come with a healthy fee. In January, the couple spoke at Liberty University, a religious college in Lynchburg, Va. His emotions came pouring out during that talk as Jill described her reaction and ultimate forgiveness.
“I know this man and I know his heart,” Jill Freeze said during the speech. “I know he’s going to do what it takes to get right with God. And so for that, it was easy enough in that moment to say, ‘I forgive you.’ Like, immediately.”
The opportunities to get off the lecture circuit and back on the sidelines eventually will be there, but where is a bigger question. The SEC office seemingly put its foot down on Freeze coaching in the conference in the 2018 season, so whether or not that remains the case will be seen. The ultimate scenario, according to Freeze, would be a head coaching position where he brings in old staff members and gives them another great opportunity.
“When do you expect to coach again?”
He doesn’t give a definitive answer, but he’s confident it will be soon.
We walk into Funky’s, a pizza and wings joint that he likes, located just off the square downtown. Since school is out for the summer and it is still early, the place is empty except for a few patrons having drinks or an early dinner.
“This place has the best pizza in the world,” Freeze promises me.
I’m quick to call him out on this bold statement. After all, I have lived in New York City and Chicago, places known for creating pies people crave.
“I would believe in the state of Mississippi, but the world?” I ask.
He quickly agrees to lower the standards just a bit, but he didn’t really need to. The sausage and pepperoni pizza brought out was perfect, along with the BBQ chicken nachos that we ordered as an appetizer. It suits the vastly underrated Oxford food scene well.
Behind the bar are eight large machines, each making different types of frozen drinks. My plan was to stick to just a beer, but the drinks look too refreshing. I go with the pink lemonade one first, then a mango margarita that helped soothe the heat from the jalapeños on the nachos.
The conversation takes many turns, at one time being a debate about soccer vs. NASCAR; he called me out for being such a big European fútbol fan and not understanding the appeal of watching cars turn left for hours.
“I TiVo the race and watch the last 20 laps,” Freeze says. “I do that every week. I drove the pace car at Talladega one time.”
Sigh. I tout the atmospheres of stadiums all across Europe, including my beloved Fulham FC in England and Hamburg SV in Germany, and he gives me the same reaction.
Next subject, I think to myself.
Religion, like during all of our conversations, is an arguable point. On that subject, we could not be more polar opposites, but unlike most times the subject is broached, we don’t argue. Instead, one of us brings up our side of the story and listens to the other. For him, it isn’t about the sets and rules that often are a major core of being religious but a relationship with Jesus Christ. Countering that I wasn’t sure how you could separate the two, he continues.
In January, he asked me to watch The Case for Christ, a movie about a man, much like myself, that questions the reality of it all. While the film wasn’t my idea of great cinema, I did my part and finished it. Afterward, I grabbed my phone and typed out my reaction. We saw different perspectives from the film, but I agreed that some of the facts presented were intriguing.
People continue to stroll into Funky’s and, more than once, Freeze is approached by someone who wants a picture with him or just to say hello. He always obliges. A recent graduate pokes me on the shoulder and asks if I will do the honor of taking a picture and for a split second, I naively think he is talking about all of us until he hands me his phone. Once again I am reminded that Freeze’s celebrity status remains high in this town.
Pointing at a table at the front, Freeze describes the scene after the 2014 Alabama game, the biggest home win in recent Rebels history.
“I got up on that in front of everyone and yelled ‘Are you ready? Hell yes, damn right,’” the start of the famous Hotty Toddy cheer that you hear at every Ole Miss event.
A friend stops by and states that he hadn’t seen Freeze in quite some time. That is because Freeze doesn’t go out much.
“I go to the golf course, I go to church, sometimes Jill and I will go out to eat, but I’m mostly spending time at home these days if I’m not speaking somewhere.”
This doesn’t mean Freeze stays still. He has a lot more time for the little things that, when working in a demanding position like the head football coach, you just can’t do. Freeze is spending more time with his father, Danny, something he missed out on for so long. On our way to the golf course, Danny calls and they start arranging for him and four friends to come to Oxford to play golf and stay at the Freeze home.
In December, he sent me a text message during a situation that almost every man can relate to: having time on the hands while shopping with his wife and kids before Christmas. I’m just assuming he was bored while the rest of the family browsed through each store.
It also became apparent that restraints on his time have kept him from watching many movies. He’s never seen Chinatown or The Thomas Crown Affair, nor did he know who Faye Dunaway was when I mentioned she was in the movie he had me watch. Hopefully soon, I will talk him into sitting down and watching a movie dear to me: Fletch. Let’s hope he enjoys the comedy of Chevy Chase. Of course, who doesn’t?
Before the Super Bowl in February, he claimed to not know any Justin Timberlake songs, but with three teenage daughters – along with Madison, he has Ragan, 19, who just finished her freshman year at Ole Miss and Jordan, 18, who will start at Auburn in the fall – it is hard to believe that he has escaped the man’s music this whole time. He didn’t know much about the halftime entertainment, but he definitely had a feeling on the game. I bet him the Patriots would win, just another friendly wager in a long line I already have lost to him.
To her credit, Jill is determined to get him to Ireland to play golf this summer. I mention how much I like traveling to Europe.
“I would just rather go to Scottsdale,” Freeze says.
But what about Scotland? Germany? France? Any other place outside of the lower 48?
“Scottsdale,” he reconfirms.
He tells an interesting story of going to Russia right after the fall of Communism. There to help rebuild a church that was torn down by the previous regime, he stayed with a Russian family that spoke no English – he speaks no Russian – and saw the citizens struggle to keep food in the house, standing in line for basics such as bread.
This July, he is taking the entire family to New York to see the smash Broadway hit Hamilton; I have been lucky enough to see twice. I spend the next five minutes trying to convince him — actually, promising him — that he will both love it and that the money he spent on it (the number is astounding) will be worth it.
So just who wins?
It comes down to the 18th hole, although we wouldn’t know until we compared scores how close it actually was.
He got lucky – sorry, Hugh, but you got extremely lucky – on his drive, a tree knocking the ball straight down into the rough instead of going into the junk that would have been hellish to get out of if he found the ball at all. Instead, he hits the green with his second shot and two-putts for par.
A par putt refuses to find the hole for me, so I settle for another bogey and the round is over. I didn’t play great – he promises to help me with my short game – but I didn’t play badly, ending with a final score of 94.
He shot a 75, meaning after all that, spotting me 18 strokes and everything, he had won by one stroke and, after that quadruple bogey on the second hole, he had shot minus-1 the rest of the round.
“Maybe the rematch will be on one of your home courses,” Freeze says.
I don’t care about the course, but the music selection on his speakers definitely will be mine next time.
‘Just be sure to mention…’
“You just didn’t like that I beat Auburn twice.”
I’m not sure whether he is joking or being serious, considering he knows how much I love my alma mater. Then a smirk comes across his face and I lightly punch him in the arm. At this point in the evening, it feels like we are old friends, not strangers and definitely not like a journalist and a coach, my subject. Of course, this could also be some of those frozen drinks getting into my system.
The day went by fast, and between the lack of sleep the night before, the golf and now digesting my food, I was ready for bed. Freeze drove me the few blocks back to the Courtyard by Marriott on Jackson Avenue. We chatted for a few minutes in the car and then we agreed to meet up again sometime soon.
“Just be sure to mention how much I love my wife and kids,” he reminds me.
My question gets an answer
So who is Hugh Freeze? That was the main question on my mind long before I arrived in Oxford. You are prone to hear so many different things about a public figure that you aren’t sure what to believe. Of course, I had formed my own theories beforehand and wanted to see where I was wrong and right.
I was much more wrong than right.
Publicly, he is a football coach who can be outspoken about his beliefs; a man who uses his fame to advance his platform; and a man who was part of a major investigation into his football program that led to violations and his eventual firing for personal transgressions.
Privately, you find the person who people cling to, a man who friends describe as a very genuine person through good and bad and someone whose sense of humor will have you crying in laughter. He’s a man who sticks to his conviction but would never judge others because he has his struggles as well, some that became extremely public. He’s charismatic, self-deprecating and has so many other assets that you appreciate in a human being.
In his own words, he is a sinner saved by grace and someone who isn’t sure he will ever live up to God’s standard.
If this comes across as a puff piece, I apologize. It was not my intention. It is the last thing I thought I would do, but after our long conversations and being around Freeze in person, this is what I know: He’s a good man who made mistakes, had his private life exposed and is trying to become a better human every day through every possible avenue, including coaching. We all deserve second chances.
My opinion on Freeze has changed, and it all started because of a direct message on Twitter. Why he reached out and how this has evolved will always be a mystery, but we both agreed we are happy it happened. It is amazing what can happen when two people with differences sit down and have an actual conversation. That’s something that is becoming rarer but is vital to going through life not holding unfounded grudges.
He might now be a friend, but I’m coming for revenge on the golf course next time. The dinner tab that night will depend on it.