Ole Miss basketball was at center stage Tuesday night, the Rebels holding a one-point lead over tradition-rich Kentucky at halftime of a nationally-televised game on ESPN.
By: Ben Garrett, OMSpirit.com staff writer
But in the bowels of Tad Smith Coliseum sat Hugh Freeze, now in his second year as Ole Miss head coach. With media and famed actor Morgan Freeman, in town for the game, gathered around him, he held an impromptu press conference.
Football never stops, especially with National Signing Day now just a week away. Ole Miss currently has the No. 12 recruiting class in the country, according to Scout.com.
Freeze spoke in generalities. NCAA rules prohibit coaches from discussing recruitable athletes. But he’s proud of the work his staff has put in to get to this point, and his message has been made easier to deliver thanks to a strong finish to the 2012-13 season.
“I don’t think we’d be sitting here talking about the class we’re hopefully going to bring in without the momentum that was created by the end of the season,” Freeze said.
“Winning the Egg Bowl and being competitive in the big games against Alabama, LSU, (Texas) A&M and then going and winning the bowl game, certainly that gave some credibility to our message with these recruits and their families.”
Freeze engineered a five-game turnaround in his debut season. Ole Miss finished the year with a 7-6 overall record, including a blowout win over Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl earlier this month.
The momentum from the season has carried over into recruiting, as Ole Miss is poised to land a top-10 class. Aiding the cause is a handful of Rebel commitments – Ryan Buchanan, Mark Dodson, Laquon Treadwell, etc. – who have helped recruit uncommitted prospects.
Prospects recruiting prospects has always been a part of Freeze’s strategy.
“If you get one that is a really good player and has a great personality that people want to be drawn to, it certainly helps,” Freeze said.
“It’s no question that that’s one of the things that’s been very successful in getting us to this point, is some of the kids early on have really been loyal and stayed strong and continued to help recruit this class.”
Ole Miss is considered the favorite for Nkemdiche and Conner – two signing-day decisions. The Rebels join Georgia and Alabama in the race for Tunsil. And after an official visit to Ole Miss last weekend, Jones is set to decide between the Rebels and in-state rival Mississippi State.
National Signing Day is set for Feb. 6.
“It certainly gets ratcheted up a little tougher this week,” Freeze said. “We’re certainly in on the right guys; we just gotta find a way to hopefully close on a good number of them.
“Our assistants are doing everything they can, and our university sells itself if we get them on campus. That’s been proven. So now we’ve got to see if we can close. Do what we’ve been doing. Hopefully the relationships we’ve built over the course of the year are going to be strong enough to where they come with us next Wednesday.”
Prior to speaking to the media, Freeze received a phone call.
He didn’t say much, only reassuring the person only the other end he’d call them back when the press conference was over. Was he on the phone with a recruit? Maybe. Maybe not. Doesn’t matter, really. The point’s the same.
Over the next few days, recruiting is non-stop. Always on the road. Always building relationships. Because recruiting, at its core, is about relationships.
“Every relationship that you have with that kid or that family is different,” Freeze said. “Some you’ve been on a lot longer than others. Some you’ve got to make up ground in a hurry. Some you’ve just got to be consistent in your message.
“I only get one shot (with an in-home visit) by the rules. I think the job the assistants do is much more important than just my one visit. It kind of varies.”
For Freeze, evaluating players goes far beyond their star ranking, awards and stats. Yes, he’s looking for as much talent as he can find, but character matters, too.
“We want obviously kids that can play, but we’d much rather have a little less talent and more character,” he said. “It’s very important to us. Obviously, we’re not going to be 100 percent in that. But we certainly hope that a large percentage of our class has really good makeup of their moral fiber and how they want to go about working each day to be great.
“You go into the schools, and I’m big on I go to the janitor and I ask the janitor about the young man. I ask the cafeteria workers and the guidance counselor. You get a good feel when you have a year to recruit a kid. And then you see him in every type of environment, whether it’s in the home setting or here on our college campus on a visit. If you have a year to recruit a kid, you have a good chance at being pretty accurate in the evaluation of his character.”
Freeze has a rooting interest in the Super Bowl, to be played Sunday between the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens.
However, he’s torn.
On one side is Patrick Willis, who was drafted by the 49ers in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft, only to become the anchor of what is a top-10 defense. On the other is Michael Oher, whose relationship with Freeze was well-documented in “The Blindside.”
“Real proud, like a dad, kind of. I’ve got three beautiful daughters, but these two are kind of like my sons,” he said.
Freeze said he was far more nervous watching the AFC and NFC championship games than he’s ever been coaching.
He wanted it so badly for Willis and Oher “because they’re tremendous ambassadors for Ole Miss and our program.”
But which team is he pulling for?
“Certainly I have a special place in my heart for my relationship with Michael and Patrick,” he said. “I hope Patrick wins the MVP and Michael wins the championship. What two great individuals to go there and represent us there Sunday.
“Both of them made the most of their chances. The adversity has been there consistently through it. And now to see them overcome that and to be on this stage I think speaks volumes of what young people can do if they’re given a chance with some resources, which both of those were.”