HOOVER, Ala. – The dark cloud above Hugh Freeze is growing larger, meaner and more intimidating.
By now it’s easy to wonder if a washout will come sooner than later in Oxford. It’s logical to ask whether this was Freeze’s last SEC Media Days appearance as Ole Miss coach.
The possibility for his exit is there after former Rebels coach Houston Nutt hijacked the chatter here Wednesday by filing a lawsuit that alleges Freeze contacted journalists “off the record” with a false narrative regarding Ole Miss’ NCAA violations.
Another day, another stinging headline.
When will enough be enough?
That thought was impossible to avoid on this bizarre Thursday. Freeze resembled a man trying to outrun many things during a ridiculous 16-minute filibuster at the Wynfrey Hotel as part of his 30-minute appearance in front of reporters:
Questions about ongoing NCAA trouble that has led to a self-imposed bowl ban for this season. Inquiries about why Nutt all but took a bat to Freeze’s kneecaps in the lawsuit. Curiosity about how Freeze will be remembered when that dark cloud opens and the downpour comes.
There will be a time to judge Freeze’s legacy. On Thursday, he didn’t look like a man who could escape the storm.
“I think with a large portion of the Ole Miss people, they know me for who I am,” Freeze said when asked by SEC Country about how his legacy has been affected by recent issues. “But there’s no question that it’s been negative in some people’s eyes, and I think you have to come back to what I want my legacy to be, and that doesn’t get to be determined probably from 20 years from now.
“I do have a plan of, ‘This is what I would like to be known as and to be known for doing.’ And I’ve got all that written down. The only thing I can control is not how people view me because they read some article or they perceive something to be this way — what I can control is doing everything today that gets me the result that I want 20 years from now from the people that really matter.”
To be frank, the people who matter for Freeze are his bosses and those involved in the NCAA investigation. Ole Miss will play 12 games this season. Scores will be kept, but the biggest result for the coach will arrive when those above him consider his future after a clearer picture of Ole Miss’ future is gained.
The outlook isn’t pretty.
There’s that bowl ban. There are those 21 NCAA allegations, with Ole Miss contesting seven. The Nutt accusations are detailed and brutal. A weird, what-will-happen-next vibe has arrived.
Freeze said he’s “extremely confident” that Ole Miss officials have his back. But they would be silly not to reconsider their stance if the Rebels’ story keeps turning more uncertain.
Everything about Ole Miss’ situation is fluid, and Nutt’s lawsuit is a punch to Freeze’s stomach.
After all, perception matters. Despite Freeze’s gains as Ole Miss’ coach, despite his 44 victories and five bowl appearances in five seasons, he can be replaced. We’re not talking about Nick Saban or Urban Meyer or Dabo Swinney.
At some point, it might be wise for Ole Miss to wash its hands of the slop, even if that means Rebels players will lose a close ally.
“He wants to shield us away from any negativity,” Ole Miss defensive tackle Breeland Speaks said. “He wants to make sure that we’re good. He said he’ll take our shellacking as long as we’re doing what we’re supposed to do.”
“Things like that can make or break him, and it definitely didn’t break him,” Ole Miss offensive lineman Javon Patterson said. “He’s a great guy who stands strong.”
Still, strength is only as good as the forces that make it possible.
For now, Freeze has support from the voices who shape his future. For now, he can continue to lead his program as the dark cloud above him builds, his future more uncertain by the day.
But Thursday, it was easy to envision a time soon when all the trouble will be too much to keep things the way they are.