Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

For Hugh Freeze and Mississippi Culture Change is more than Football

On the football field Hugh Freeze, and his liberal pigskin counterparts, are making major progress in terms of the way the game is played.

2012 was an interesting year at the University of Mississippi. Two things that grip the state, football and race relations, were agitated. Mississippi played Alabama on September 29 and lost 33-14. Hugh Freeze was in his first year as Mississippi head coach, and he was introducing a high-paced, no-huddle offense that made football purists like Nick Saban a little uncomfortable. On November 6, Barack Obama was reelected as President of the United States. Protests broke out on the Mississippi campus. For the university, and Hugh Freeze, Mississippi culture change was more than football.

In the September clash with Mississippi Alabama surrendered scoring drives of 13 and 16 plays, respectively. Poor Nick Saban didn’t like the pace of the game, and didn’t appreciate his team’s 19-point victory.

“I just think there’s got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking is this what we want football to be?”

Michael Weinreb, in an article published by Grantland, makes an interesting distinction between the conservative and liberal elements of college football. He writes that a conservative old school believes in football that is played primarily on physical terms. The liberal new school seeks alternatives through speed and ingenuity. Weinreb cites a passage in Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side, the book based on Michael Oher’s high school experience with Hugh Freeze.

It was the argument between the football fundamentalists and the football liberals. The fundamentalists reduce football to a game of brute force — and some of them do it so well that they appear to have found the secret to football success. The liberals minimize the importance of brute force and seek to overcome brute force with guile — and some of them do it so well that they, too, appear to have found the key to football success.

Last year #11 Mississippi stunned the third ranked Crimson Tide in Oxford 23-17. After ten weeks of football in 2014 the state of Mississippi was in a state of hysteria as Mississippi State held the number one ranking in the first College Football Playoff poll. Mississippi was number four. Mississippi went on to lose three regular season games against LSU, Auburn, and Arkansas. They got smoked by TCU in the Peach Bowl 42-3.

In the offseason Mississippi sort of faded from the upper echelon imagination of pollsters as they approached this year’s Alabama game. They were ranked fifteenth before they clubbed the Crimson Tide 43-37 on Saturday night in Tuscaloosa. Mississippi jumped twelve spots to land at number three in this week’s AP poll.

On the football field Hugh Freeze, and his liberal pigskin counterparts, are making major progress. Spread offenses and explosive skills position players are proliferating all over the college football landscape. Old school football powers are facing difficult challenges from non-conference foes tinkering with innovative and unorthodox play calling. Last week’s Texas Tech-Arkansas game was a classic example. Arkansas took it on the chin in Fayetteville as the Red Raiders ran up 35 points in a 35-24 victory over the Razorbacks. Cliff Kingsbury and Bret Bielema exchanged pleasantries after the game.

Off the field the University of Mississippi has a long way to go before it sheds its brutal history of bigotry like a wide receiver breaking into a secondary. The night President Obama was reelected an ugly protest broke out on campus.

…a crowd of 550 “agitated and angry” students and spectators gathered to not only attack his policies but shout about race, according to a University of Mississippi police report. It took police an hour and 19 minutes and threats of jail to get students to disperse and go back to their residence halls. Two people were arrested but no one was injured.

Hugh Freeze makes $4,300,000, and that makes him Mississippi’s highest paid public official. Freeze, like many other major college football coaches, is often placed in the quandary of commenting on things other than football. When asked about the ugly protests in Oxford Freeze defaulted to blaming the media.

“In the thirty or so kids that gathered to do whatever they were going to call that, which by the way happened at a lot of places across the nation and not just at Ole Miss,” Freeze said. “I’m very disappointed in our local media that took it upon themselves to run with it and make it into something it wasn’t. We are our own worst enemy when we do those kinds of things.  It’s not, in my opinion, proper journalism, and that’s frustrating.”

Freeze is in the difficult position of acknowledging Mississippi’s past and recruiting the nation’s best high school football players to its present. After the grisly Charleston shooting a new conversation about the Confederate flag erupted. Hugh Freeze stepped out and made an admirable contribution to the dialogue:

“I’m sure that’s something I’m going to get criticized for either way, but at the end of the day, you do what you feel is right, and you handle whatever comes your way,” Freeze said. “Man, there is no one … who understands the heritage, the pride of the Mississippi people (more than I do). I get all of that, but our university moved away from the flag in the late ’90s, and that symbol has been hijacked by some groups that use it for ill will toward others, and I can’t support that. … I’m not a political figure, nor do I want to be, but when you ask me where I stand on it, I think it’s time to move in another direction.”

Freeze may be able to change the football culture at Mississippi and in the SEC, but he has a long way to go to change old school Southern bigotry. Bryan Flynn, a reporter from The Jackson Free Press, makes a valid point about progress at the University of Mississippi.

“Ole Miss” is a term that slaves used for the wife of the plantation owner. Rebels, the school’s official nickname, came from when students left the university to fight for the South in the Civil War.

In 2013 Freeze and the university were dragged into another societal debate when the university’s student newspaper,The Daily Mississippian, reported another ugly incident on campus:

Many members of an audience of mostly Ole Miss students, including an estimated 20 Ole Miss football players, openly disrespected and disrupted the Ole Miss theater department’s production of “The Laramie Project” Tuesday night at the Meek Auditorium. Cast members of the play, which is about an openly gay male who was murdered in Laramie County in Wyoming, said members of the audience became so disruptive at times that they struggled completing the play.

Coach Freeze tweeted out:

Yahoo! Sports columnist Pat Forde highlighted Mississippi’s and Coach Freeze’s predicament.

A football team is both blessed and burdened with being the most visible entity at many American colleges. When things go well, the benefits of that status roll in. And when things go poorly, the backlash can be significant.

Welcome to the backlash. Self inflicted.

Several representatives of Ole Miss have given their school a fresh layer of embarrassment, at a place living with several old layers just beneath the surface. Every campus leader should step up on this one. Including football coach Hugh Freeze. And soon.

A university investigation found no evidence that football players used homosexual slurs during the performance, but acknowledged that there was some sort of disturbance and required all students in the audience to attend an educational dialogue session. Freeze later commented:

“If they had found that one of my players used a slur, I would have punished them,” Freeze told “If they find later that one did, I’d still do it.”

He also stated:

“I do believe in our kids and believe that they are good people, who are still immature and make mistakes,” he said. “They know one of the core values of our program is love, and we don’t want anyone ever to be treated in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable or less than a valued human being. They know that.”

Hugh Freeze is a man known for his religious values and decency. The Deep South is a tough place for progressive ideas – on the football field or off. The University of Mississippi football team is thrilling the SEC and college football with its “liberal” brand of speed and guile; and its influence will be felt in this year’s College Football Playoff polling. Let’s hope that Mississippi makes that much progress on social issues. The path through the SEC West and the post season is treacherous, and so is a football coach’s foray into social and political issues. Hugh Freeze might be just the kind of man to wake up the present and put the past to sleep.
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