Rex Nelson: Hugh Freeze Gets a Break


Rex Nelson Archive PageHugh Freeze brings his nationally ranked Ole Miss football team to Fayetteville on Saturday to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks.

If Freeze is honest with himself, he will probably be thinking that he might not have had the chance to be a head coach in the biggest, baddest college football division of them all — the SEC West — if not for the opportunity another Arkansas school provided him.

I’ll always remember the day of Nov. 29, 2010. Freeze had come to the capital city to speak to the Little Rock Touchdown Club, and I was in my usual spot just to the right of the podium at the Embassy Suites as he spoke.

On that late fall day, his life began to change.

The club was meeting for the final time that season. It was the Monday after Thanksgiving, and several hundred people had gathered for lunch to hear the first-year offensive coordinator at Arkansas State University.

Hugh Freeze, who does a lot of motivational speaking, was at the top of his game. The crowd was impressed.

Freeze was scheduled to leave the state after the speech and hit the recruiting trail. He never made it.

Things were changing quickly in Jonesboro.

The Jonesboro Sun reported that morning that Steve Roberts’ future as ASU’s head football coach was in doubt. Roberts didn’t participate in the Sun Belt Conference’s weekly teleconference with the other league coaches that day.

At 1 p.m., just as Freeze was finishing his speech in Little Rock, the ASU athletic department announced that a 4 p.m. news conference would be held on campus.

At 2 p.m., ASU wide receiver Dwayne Frampton posted this to his Twitter account: “My head coach is fired.”

Dean Lee, the ASU athletic director at the time, made it official at the 4 p.m. news conference. Roberts, whose final two seasons in a nine-year stint as the Arkansas State head coach had ended with 4-8 records, was out. The killer had been a loss at home to lowly Western Kentucky, which had tied the game on the final play of regulation and then won in overtime with a two-point conversion play.

As news of Roberts’ departure made its way across the state, a cry went up from those who had heard Freeze speak in Little Rock (a crowd that had included some of the state’s most influential business leaders; the Little Rock Touchdown Club is a place to see and be seen): There was no need for a search. The best man for the job was already on the staff.

Lee couldn’t help but hear the outpouring of support for Freeze.

“It was a snowball effect that came out of Little Rock that day,” Hugh Freeze told me when I visited with him in Jonesboro on a rainy morning the following spring. “There were great comments, and I was gratified to hear them. I have no doubt they were helpful in the process.”

Three days after the Little Rock Touchdown Club meeting, Freeze was hired as ASU’s new head coach. Among those in attendance at the news conference was an old Freeze friend from Memphis, Sean Tuohy.

“As we began preparing for our search, we knew Hugh was someone we would have to interview,” Lee said. “From the first time I met him, it was evident he’s a man of character and substance. He also happens to have an outstanding football mind.”

Freeze was instructed to cancel his recruiting trip and remain in Jonesboro.

“We had three meetings over those three days,” Lee said. “We came to the conclusion that this was the guy who could take our program to the next level.”

I contacted my friend Brett Norsworthy, a Forrest City native who hosts a daily sports talk show on WHBQ-AM, 560, in Memphis, to ask if Freeze could win at the NCAA Division I level.

Here’s what he told me back then: “Hugh is ready. He distinguished himself at Ole Miss during the not-so-distinguishing era of Ed Orgeron. Hugh was the de facto leader of the coaching staff and of the team by the time the Orgeron years were coming to an end. He had full command of a team that had Michael Oher, Dexter McCluster and Mike Wallace. They all went to the NFL in no small part due to Hugh Freeze.”

Ah, Michael Oher… Continue reading here:

Hugh Freeze


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