When Hugh Freeze reaches the Walk of Champions to officially welcome his Ole Miss Rebels to the Grove and game day on Saturday, he’ll see many glimpses of himself.
He’ll stop for a brief moment -- soaking up everything -- right before crossing the threshold just outside the Student Union to look upon a sea of red and blue where he once stood as an envious young boy.
Growing up just outside of Oxford, Miss., in Senatobia, it was a family tradition to set up shop in the Grove and cheer on the Rebels. Waiting for them to make that steady walk through the Grove shook Freeze a little more each time he went.
He bathed in the camaraderie, loyalty and passion that came with being an Ole Miss fan, but Saturday, when the Rebels kick off their 118th season against visiting Central Arkansas, he’ll see it from a different perspective, as all eyes will be on him and his team.
“It’s a happening there and an event, so I know how much that day means to [fans],” Freeze said. “The atmosphere of family always stuck out in my mind.”
For now, Freeze has a very surprising tone about him. While he’s taking over a program that has been stuck in the SEC’s cellar for two years, posting a 6-18 record with a current 14-game losing streak against SEC opponents, Freeze isn’t nervous about his debut.
He’s eager to see his team play, and he’s excited about not really knowing what his team will look like come Saturday afternoon.
“There are a lot of unknowns about our football team,” he said. “I’ve never coached them in a single game. It’s very hard to honestly evaluate them.
“I’m anxious to go and play a game and see if we are talent-wise better than I had hoped or not as good as I thought. All those things go through your mind. That gets you very anxious for the game.”
The unknowns are a bit thrilling. There hasn’t been much to cheer about in Oxford, so he’s interested to see what he has to work with. And he’s interested to see the fans’ reception.
Lately, most have called the Grove more of a home than Vaught-Hemingway Stadium -- and that’s during games. But Freeze believes the fervor isn’t gone. It came with every “Hotty Toddy” cheer that welcomed him to booster clubs and it comes with the fan frustration.
If they didn’t care about Ole Miss and what Freeze might do, he wouldn’t hear about it. But he does. Saturday is for Freeze and his players, but it’s also about bringing a fan base back to the field, and Freeze knows that.
That’s why he won’t hold back. He and his staff will throw everything at Central Arkansas in order to see some maturation in their players and some excitement.
“We’ll do everything that we need to do to be successful,” Freeze said. “Whatever that is, we’ll try it. We won’t hold anything back.”
There are still a lot of questions for Freeze’s team. The quarterback battle between Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti is still unsettled and Freeze expects to play both Saturday. Both lines have struggled at times, and Freeze still wonders if he truly has enough SEC-caliber players.
Not everything will get answered before or during Saturday’s game, but it’ll be a start. What Freeze does know is that he has a more grounded and accountable team that has “grown tremendously” since spring.
There’s going to come a point Saturday when things aren’t going to go right for the Rebels, and Freeze is curious as to how his team will respond. It could revert to its old mediocre ways or it could charge ahead and fight harder.
More than ever, Freeze is banking on the latter.
“Most of our young men are starting to get it,” he said. “They’re not all there. I don’t know that we’ll ever get them all there, but I do think that a large percentage of who we’re dependant upon has matured significantly.”