Ole Miss rolls the dice on Hugh Freeze, Arkansas State’s one-year wonder

Dr. Saturday

Ole Miss' coaching search has been good for more than a few laughs over the last month, but it ends on a serious gamble: Hugh Freeze, less than a year removed from being promoted to his first Division I head coaching job in the Sun Belt, will be introduced as the Rebels' new boss Monday. The partisans are… well, they're trying to be patient.

Freeze comes in hot on the heels of a Sun Belt championship in his first (and now only) season at the helm of Arkansas State. The other head coaches in the SEC West? Nick Saban, Les Miles, Bobby Petrino, Gene Chizik and Dan Mullen, who — including the upcoming Alabama-LSU rematch in the BCS Championship Game — have combined for five national championships, a dozen BCS bowl games, three seasons as head coaches in the NFL and perennial overtures from the most attractive programs in the country. But hey, everybody's gotta start somewhere.

Of course, Freeze is still best known as Michael Oher's head coach at Memphis' Briarcrest Christian School from 2003-05, as depicted in the bestselling book/hit movie "The Blind Side," in which Freeze's character ("Coach Burt Cotton") is frequently upstaged in his duties by Sandra Bullock. In reality, Freeze won two state championships at Briarcrest and was Region 8-AA Coach of the Year five times. He joined Ed Orgeron's staff at Ole Miss almost immediately after Oher signed with the Rebels in 2005 — prompting an NCAA investigation in the process — but it was a low-ranking title, and didn't exactly put him on the fast track: After the Orgeron regime was swept out in 2007, Freeze landed in Jackson, Tenn., as head coach at NAIA Lambuth, where he spent two successful seasons before moving on to Arkansas State as offensive coordinator. In other words, as a major college coaching candidate in December 2010, the guy might know Sandra Bullock.

In December 2011, his resumé looks considerably better, thanks to a 10-2 debut at ASU that may stand as the best in school history. Since early losses at Illinois and Virginia Tech, the Red Wolves have ripped off a nine-game winning streak, run the table in Sun Belt play and clinched a rare postseason nod to the GoDaddy.com Bowl. With Saturday's 45-14 rout over Troy, they're the first SBC team to crack 10 wins in a season since the league formed in 2001. This by the lowest-paid head coach in the country, at a program that had produced exactly one winning season (6-5 in 1995) since moving up to the I-A level 19 years ago.{YSP:MORE}

Put another way, Hugh Freeze's first season at Arkansas State was better — for about 10 percent of the cost — than Houston Nutt's last season at Ole Miss, which played out as an extended funeral dirge. Not only were the Rebels winless in SEC games: They only came within two touchdowns of an SEC opponent once, in a five-point loss to Arkansas, in which the Razorbacks erased an early 17-0 deficit with 29 consecutive points in a little under two quarters.

Compared to the rest of the season, that qualified as vindication. The Rebels were so pitiful at the end that LSU literally had to start kneeling out the clock with more than five minutes left to prevent running up the score even further in the most lopsided massacre in the 100-year history of the series. Ole Miss finished dead last in the conference in every major defensive category, next to last in every major offensive category, and managed a grand total of 13 points in its last three games after the axe fell on Nutt in early November.

In all, the Rebels have lost 14 straight and 16 of their last 17 against SEC competition, including back-to-back losses to Vanderbilt and three straight at the hands of Mississippi State. Recruiting — a strength under Orgeron, whose signees led the way to a pair of Cotton Bowl wins in Nutt's first two seasons — has tanked. In a conference that still includes Vanderbilt and Kentucky, Nutt left Ole Miss at the bottom, and it's not close.

So: Welcome to the family, Hugh Freeze. He's young, he's a native Mississippian, he's spent his entire career in the Mississippi/Arkansas/Tennessee Delta, he runs a wide-open offense and he's got a consistent (if short) track record as a winner on multiple levels. At this point, he might as well be Tony Dungy: Rebel fans will believe it when they see it.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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