Freeze at home with Ole Miss

OXFORD, Miss. -- Hugh Freeze is temporarily lost in his phone. As he sifts through pictures containing family, fish and famous friends, he giggles.

Ole Miss' 45-year-old coach is almost giddy when he views pictures of himself with famous country performers, like Florida Georgia Line and Rascal Flatts. His eyes light up when he sees his arms around NASCAR's Kimye: Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Is that really me with Tom Watson and Miss America?

I had Woody Harrelson in my locker room?

The fame and attention that have come with guiding the Rebels to a 7-0 record and a No. 3 ranking have been both taxing and exciting for the country boy raised about an hour north of Oxford in the rural town of Independence, Mississippi.

Freeze went from milking cows on his family's dairy farm to soaking up the limelight with a team on the cusp of not just an SEC championship but the first College Football Playoff.

"It's a bit surreal," said Freeze.

It has to be for a man who relishes routine, like his diet primarily consisting of Coke Zero, Dasani water, vitamins, Snickers (always with almonds) and ice cream, and his preference for blue -- not green -- Irish Spring soap and Head & Shoulders shampoo.

"I'm just a simple guy, really, man," Freeze said. "My wife used to say, 'You're picky.' I said, 'No, no, no. I just like what I like and don't change, now.' I don't need to change. I don't like change, period. I like things normal."

Normalcy disappears when you're an SEC coach. Try as he might, Freeze has been too good to be normal.

Ten years ago, he entered the league after a decade's worth of high school coaching. Seven years ago, his dream of being an SEC head coach sank when his first boss in Oxford was fired.

"He came up the hardest way you could come up, and he had to prove himself, too," longtime friend Craig Massey said. "Hugh didn't have a shoe in [the door]. He had to work for everything he got. He's just a hometown boy from Independence."

It's been an interesting and demanding journey for Freeze, but he'll head into Tiger Stadium on Saturday night to face LSU as one of the nation's hottest coaches, with one of the country's best teams.

* * *

The rise of Freeze started on a dairy farm right behind the old school in Independence. Fashioned with a four-way stop, two general stores, a local feed store owned by Freeze's grandfather, a bank, a post office and no stop light, Independence couldn't get any more simple.

The second of three children, Freeze was born in Oxford but after moving to Independence became a farm hand shortly after he could walk, embracing hard work, core values, and lots of calcium.

"Those cows have to be milked every day, twice a day -- Christmas, Fourth of July, it didn't matter," Freeze said. "You had to do it."

For fun, he and Massey spent hours running around barefoot punting, passing and kicking on the school's football field during fall. Spring brought days in the Freezes' batting cage and endless games of whiffle ball. Basketball season meant hours of shooting at a homemade backboard constructed out of three-quarter-inch plywood on a weathered concrete court that sent the ball every which way when it bounced.

There was bass fishing and the delicious yet muddy taste of the Coldwater River in the fish Freeze's father cooked.

There was Mt. Zion Baptist Church, where Freeze, still deeply proud of and public with his devout faith, had solos in the choir and the occasional testimonial in front of the congregation.

"He was a little braver than I was," Massey said. "I didn't think I had the Garth Brooks voice. ... He's always been a dominant force when he put his mind to it."

There were girlfriends and loops around the McDonald's and Sonic in Senatobia, Mississippi. There was getting the brand new four-wheeler stuck in a pond and trying Hawken smokeless chewing tobacco a couple of times on the pond bank while catfishing.

Freeze loved the country-boy life, but his father's job intrigued him. Danny Freeze served as a high school football assistant in Independence and Olive Branch, Mississippi, for 17 years.

"It was fun to have him around, just running around on the football field and in the dressing room," Danny said. "When he got big enough to tote a water bottle, he was toting water bottles and packing the bus. He's been on the sideline for a long time."

After his family sold their cows when Hugh was in high school, he realized he had two career options: coaching or finding more cows to milk.

"That was an easy decision for me," Freeze said with a laugh.

* * *

By 25, Freeze was the head coach for football and girls' basketball at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis, and his unique style of pushing the tempo on offense made him remarkably successful.

He won two state titles in football and and reached seven straight state championships with the girls' basketball team, winning four.

"I don't know how he did it," said former Briarcrest football assistant and athletic director Carly Powers. "I'm telling you, he was worn out, but he was the type of guy that if he did it, he was going to do a good job. He was going to work hard at it. He felt like he owed that to those kids."

His football teams sprinted up and down the field, while his basketball team pushed the ball with the run-and-gun philosophy.

"I've always said he saw the field better than anybody who had ever seen it," former Freeze assistant and current head football coach Brian Stewart said. "I used to tell him in the office, 'Man, you belong at the next level.' He could see [the field] so quickly. He knows immediately how to manipulate the defense."

He took a lot of chances. He gambled on offense, considering fourth down just another opportunity to gain yards. He usually didn't even tell his assistants about fourth-down calls because he knew they'd disapprove.

After losing four consecutive state title games, Freeze's team made it to a fifth straight and was down by one point in overtime. He went for two.

"Everybody thought, 'He's lost his mind,'" Powers said.

Of course, he got it.

"That's just the way he is. He's not scared to take a chance," Powers added. "He'll step out in uncharted waters. He has a lot of faith in God, a lot of faith in himself, his coaches, his kids. Hugh's a special guy. He's a leader, and he's gonna take charge."

Freeze, who actually had opportunities to coach women's basketball at Memphis, leapt into uncharted waters when he followed famed Briarcrest offensive lineman Michael Oher to Ole Miss in 2006 for an external affairs job and big pay cut under Ed Orgeron.

A year later, he was named Ole Miss' recruiting coordinator and coached tight ends. He was Orgeron's right-hand man.

But before Freeze could settle into his newly purchased home in Oxford, Orgeron was fired, and Freeze was lost -- no contacts, no resources and no coaching network.

"I went into pout mode and didn't know what to do," Freeze said.

He spent two years at NAIA Lambuth University, where his dream of being an SEC head coach couldn't have seemed further away.

"That ship had sailed, in my mind," he said.

But in 2010, he became the offensive coordinator at Arkansas State. A year later, he was the head coach. And in 2012, the Rebels came calling.

* * *

Freeze's hire at Ole Miss didn't come with exuberant celebrations on the Square. He was less than a decade removed from the high school ranks and had only one year of head coaching experience at the FBS level.

Freeze then took a Rebels team that had lost 16 straight SEC games to consecutive winning seasons in his first two years and signed a historic 2013 recruiting class that included the nation's best overall player (Robert Nkemdiche), receiver (Laquon Treadwell) and offensive tackle (Laremy Tunsil).

Freeze's office shows how far he has come.

There are three couches, two big-screen TVs and a colossal bookshelf that includes a bronze bust of legendary Ole Miss coach Johnny Vaught. There's a framed Archie Manning jersey that represents past success, while the two guitars below it -- one signed by country star Jason Aldean and the other from Ole Miss' 2013 Music City Bowl win -- highlight the recent success.

But sometimes Freeze yearns for the moments of bush-hogging fields on his daddy's old tractor. This job wears on him. He has one phone, yet "dozens" of chargers, two of which are plugged into the same wall socket barely a foot from his desk. He also has three "charging contraptions" in his backpack.

He thinks about the pressure, and how even though this program was buried just three years ago, 7-0 ain't enough for some.

"It's really hard to enjoy. It really is," Freeze said. "You enjoy it for about five, six, seven hours after the last game, and then you get all the tweets from your people."

Keep it going!

Don't overlook the next one!

"It's like, 'Come on, man. Can we just enjoy this?'"

It's tiring, but he loves his job. He values the relationships, even if external matters and social media drain him.

He stays grounded -- and sane -- because he takes great pride in coaching in the home state he loves unconditionally.

He hasn't forgotten his roots. When old friends, like Massey, want to come for a game, he puts them on the sideline and welcomes them into the locker room.

It's why he makes time for dinner at the Oxford Grillehouse with his three daughters every Thursday and why he fishes in the pond behind his house.

It's why he cried after beating Alabama.

"When he is on [TV] and he's emotional about 'I want to bring a winner to this state,' he means it with all his heart, because he loves his community," Stewart said. "It's who he is. It's not where he is, it's who he is; it's a part of his blood."

So is winning, which he's done a lot of lately. Ole Miss is off to its best start since claiming the national championship in 1962. But No. 24 LSU, No. 5 Auburn and No. 1 Mississippi State are still on the docket. Other schools looking for big-time hires will be calling. The pressure is mounting.

Freeze has his blinders on. He keeps his family close and turns to his faith. His mind is in the present, as he points to the TV perfectly angled toward his desk.

"My mind is on [LSU]," he said. "It's hard for me to [think ahead]. I'm big on staying in the moment. Every day has a life of its own, and the only chance we have of [reaching the SEC championship and the playoff] is making the most of today. I just try to keep my mind and our kids' minds right there, and just win today.

"Just win today."