HUGH FREEZE: Growing up in Mississippi, you always, you know, understood exactly what the Sugar Bowl meant and how fond it was of the Ole Miss people to be able to play in this game. So I guess you would say it was bred in my mind that taking Ole Miss to the Sugar Bowl was about as good as it could get. Obviously, some of the things have changed with the new formats and playoffs and things, but nonetheless the Sugar Bowl still in many Rebels’ minds, including mine, is one of the pinnacles of coaching in the Southeastern Conference, and to be able to represent our great university in the first ever champions bowl in the New Year’s Six is something that I will never forget. So we’re honored to be here to represent our university and are thankful to the good people of Allstate and the Sugar Bowl committee who has done an absolute phenomenal job in hosting our teams. And we’re anxiously awaiting kickoff. It’s time for that. We have had a good time. But as the festivities continue to build with the Rebels coming into town, we’re hopeful we can keep our kids focused on the task at hand and that is winning the Sugar Bowl.
Q. Hugh, earlier in the week talked about his desire to manage down time responsibly.
Can you talk about how that has gone for your players this week and, as a coach, you know, what do you think about how do you instruct them during a bowl week on those types of things?
HUGH FREEZE: Well, you guys, if you really knew the amount of time that coaching staffs put into begging your kids to make choices that are reflective of your core values and also that represent your teammates and prove that you’re being accountable to them, we never cease to try to educate them in regards to those decisions. I’m like any other coach, you have, when you’re an 18 year old kid I was 18 at one time and there are a lot of decisions that you could make that probably felt right at the time, but you weren’t thinking clearly. We have been fortunate this week. We have had very, very few incidents. I have laid my expectations out very, very clear to our team of the reason to be here, that they would not get this opportunity. We will have an opportunity to come back to New Orleans and enjoy yourself for a good part of your life if you choose. You will not have the opportunity to come back and play in had a game of the magnitude of the Sugar Bowl, and I think our team, I have a leadership council that is formed especially for this week to help me set the parameters, the expectations in regards to curfew and our different visits that we had to go on, who was going, and I think it’s worked really, really well. We had a couple we had two minor curfew violations just a few minutes late, and their penalty was very severe. And that was the only two we had all week, so I think our structure has worked. I have one more night to get through before we play, and we will continue to monitor our entire staff was on the floor last night, checking rooms, well into the night.
Q. This has been an Oklahoma State team that struggled to have a traditional run game so it got pretty creative in terms of masking that, and they still went on to win 10 games. What do you make of how they have been able to do things schematically to make up for that?
HUGH FREEZE: I’m not sure of Mike’s total background but he reminds me of a great high school coach in regards to this guy can find ways to do great things with what he has. And you know, the way he has smoke and mirrored his way to 10 games in regards to the run game, has been very impressive, and the way they create extra gaps, the way they are always creating new things with motion. It creates problems for you defense and he has done a nice job with him. Hats off to him. I have always admired the job I don’t know Mike well but the job they have done in being consistent, consistent over a course in time in this profession is very difficult to do and they managed to do that and I think this is just another example of how he took an area that many considered to be not a strength of the team and is doing well with it.
Q. Hugh, this team did have some ups and downs. What do you think that the team was able to rally and beat LSU and get here?
HUGH FREEZE: It’s kind of like life. Sometimes when you get the gut punches of life and the disappointments you have some options to make and you can choose to stay the course and understand that we have to fight and continue to improve, that we have a chance to be a good football team, and you know, I’m probably as proud of that as anything that has happened. Because with all of the media coverage of, this is what should happen or this is the expectations, there’s always two good football teams on the field in a lot of circumstances and if you don’t play your best, you will get beat. When that happens and the expectations aren’t met in some people’s eyes, immediately, the onslaught comes. And probably the most difficult thing that we have to do in these days and times is manage the mental psyche of our kids and coaches and everyone in the building.
So I would I’m really proud of the job our staff did and the leadership of team did in remaining mentally tough and knowing that we have a lot to play for down the stretch, and you know, to finish the season, winning Magnolia Bowl and Egg Bowl and now playing in the Sugar Bowl speaks to that mental toughness and resolve our team showed.
Q. Coach, you have alluded to preparing differently than you did last year for the Peach Bowl. Can you let the cat out of the bag a little bit now as to what you did differently?
HUGH FREEZE: Well, I started by the prep we did at Ole Miss before we broke for Christmas, and I extended it several days. You know, you guys have known our struggles that we have had with different injuries the last couple of years which would somewhat change our team, like this year’s losing Isaac Gross, Tony Conner, and I can’t state what that did to us defensively and how we had to maneuver around particularly Tony’s deal, and it took us the better part of four weeks to get that figured out. So last year, I broke early, just thinking they need more rest or whatever it was and I don’t know. This we chose to do it a bit differently. Then we broke for Christmas, got here, and the one thing I noticed I make notes after every game, regular season or bowl games on things and bowl games, you add a section to the notes on the outside stuff, not just practice but the outside things, not the Xs and Os of the game.
Last year, total I allowed a schedule to be put in place for our kids last year that had absolutely zero consistency, and didn’t like that, didn’t think it helped us, and I was just determined, I didn’t care where we had to practice or what was going on, we were going to have every day be the same and be consistent. And then as soon as we got here, the first night, the day after Christmas, we had a really good workout with our strength staff. That was a little new. I thought it awakened them a little bit. Get back to why we’re here. And then I think the other thing is just maturity, you know, this is only five schools have played in the New Year’s Six bowl games. Only five. And Ole Miss is one of those. But you know you can learn from last year’s disappointments, and I think I practiced differently. We were more difficult and tackled more, but mainly it was more than just a schedule of make sure it’s consistent from day to day, makes sense.
Q. You just talked about managing the players’ psyche, but how difficult of a year was this with all of the things going on with this program two starting with the quarterback competition, Tunsil’s suspension, what happened with Denzel and Robert, how difficult has it been to block out the outside noise?
HUGH FREEZE: The outside noise I talk about frequently. You have got expectations that are set by people, and then you have other people already talking, is this the last ride? And I’m like, God, it’s just my fourth year, give me chance to keep building. But you know, the disappointments in coaching are tough. Because we care about these kids. And to be quite candid, we have had in my opinion, we have had a small amount, for a year, when you’re dealing with 120 kids, we have had, you know, three or four issues, but they were so public with who they were obviously that it was it carried so much attention. You know, Laremy’s deal was difficult to take, and that was hard on me because I didn’t know, I wasn’t privy to everything that was going on, so you couldn’t really answer when some one of your team members would ask you, but fortunately, we got that wound up.
And then I want to say this about Laremy Tunsil, which I think speaks volumes for him, which is all of the outside noise had his head at that moment when he set so many games was saying, just go and on go, why do you want to play? And I really came to a new appreciation of him as a person when he said, no, I owe it to my team to play.
And then it’s very hard my wife has to remind me all of the time to celebrate the victories that we have, because you can easily, when you have two of your kids that make choices or are dealing with issues that are hurtful, you know, you obviously, as a coach, feel like you failed in some way, that you didn’t get it. But we also you know, I need to look at the other hundred of them that are doing it right, that are progressing toward graduation and making good choices, and so that’s probably I guess how I find some sanity in when the noise is coming about the few that you do have, and it’s everywhere, as you see. I mean, every team has to deal with it because we’re dealing with young men, and there are a lot they are around a lot of things that can immediately be negative to them and it would be, you know, all over the media. But it had we had our down times, of course, but we have celebrated a lot of fun times, too, and to end up here at the Sugar Bowl is a tremendous reward.
Q. What has been the biggest challenge in preparing for OSU’s quarterback situation being they will probably use two guys and at this point it’s unclear who is going to start?
HUGH FREEZE: The great thing about it is that we had time. We have been able to get 14 practices in. If you just have three practices in a given week for two different type deals, it makes it much more difficult. But having the extra time, you know, you really that should not be an excuse after the game. If we get beat, it should not be because we didn’t prepare for two different quarterbacks because we have had the time to do that and that has made it much more manageable.
Q. Hugh, you mentioned the leadership council. Who was on that and who went about picking those guys?
HUGH FREEZE: JC, Mike, Ingram and Bell. We sat down before we left Ole Miss and went through the itinerary, who is going to go to the hospital, who is going to go to the brackets. Really, the bowls do such a good job and there’s a lot of things going on. If you’re not careful, if everybody is having to do everything, suddenly you have an entire football team that is mentally not locked in when it comes time for meetings and practice which is the priority. All of these other things are very good, and we want to participate and I think our kids did a phenomenal job. The hospital visit was incredible. I was part of that you to witness our kids doing that, FCA practice was awesome. The events that they had at night have been well run, well managed, but then those guys set the curfew. You know, you really let them do it. But once we did it, I said this is it, and here is going to be the structure that we’re going to go by if someone chooses to go against what we set in place. We have met daily since we have been here to go over the next day and to hear if anything is going on with our team that I need to know about. And I think that has been helpful to me as a coach to see things from their perspective, and then also for them to see it from my perspective, to be able to be a voice for me, you know, in those small circles that tend to happen in teams.
Q. Y’all still made it to the Sugar Bowl, but how difficult was it to piece things together without having the big four on the field at the same time all year?
HUGH FREEZE: That’s a good point, and a lot of people don’t they talk about we had those four guys that signed in 2013, which they were very talented players, but there are other good ones in that, too. You can’t win in the game with just four people, and I think I would love to see the amount of time those four were on the field at the same time. I don’t think it’s I think you would be shocked how many times we didn’t have [Laremy] Tunsil and Rob [Nkemdiche] and Laremy and Laquon and [Tony] Conner on the field at the same time. Particularly this year. I mean, we lost Conner after week three, I know and Laremy and his seven games, and Rob missed a couple. Laquon has been pretty squint this year.
But I think it speaks for the volume we’re doing in recruiting. Here we sit today, second best record in the SEC, and we did it with other people, too, and I expect that to continue with us, the way we’re hopefully going to recruit and then continuing to build our program, you know. There’s an expectation now that we should be competitive and relevant in the SEC West and I think you pointing out that we didn’t have those, large majority of the time those four were always on the field. I think it says what I have been trying to say is that we’re doing okay with other kids, too.
Q. Hugh, when you mentioned recruiting with that 2013 class, you talked a lot about “natural ends” that helped you and the staff with the high profile guys. With this class that you have coming in that is still ranked very high, is it about natural ends or has that changed? How have you been able to build relationships with the class you’re recruiting now?
HUGH FREEZE: It has totally changed. The Ole Miss brand has come so far. I will forever be indebted to the Robert Nkemdiche and Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil and the other kids, too, that have done a remarkable job. All of the kids that choose to come with you, you’re indebted to. But that kind of was an eye opener, I think, to some of the nation’s best players. And then to have success on the field, to be in two consecutive New Year’s Six games, the Ole Miss brand has just grown. We’re in homes now. If you follow recruiting, you see many of the top players in the nation are listing us as, you know, one of their finalists, and that’s the way you continue to build. And our coaches do a really nice job of building relationships.
I think we work at as hard as any staff in America as recruiting, and we have a university that is easy to sell once you get them on campus. And you know, I just but without some of that that happened, you know, it would still be more difficult, not that we couldn’t, but there’s a lot of kids that we have identified that fit with us. They fit with us, you know, core values. And it’s kind of our family atmosphere, similar to their family atmosphere at their home, and we think that is kind of our niche. That’s where I have a shot at winning the recruiting battle. Some I can tell you from the start, I have no chance at winning that battle against certain schools. But you give us one who is very similar to the atmosphere that we have within our building and we get them on campus, we have got a really good shot as being in it at the end. And there’s a lot of people that are made like me that, man, let’s do something new and fresh; let’s be the I told every one of them, and I called every recruit in our one phone call during the dead period that we get, and I started off with one question: What gives us the best chance to win every game next year? I got some great answers but the answer is: Have the best players. And we coaches are pretty dang good when you have some of the best players.
So you know I’m trying to convince a group of young men, if enough of you quality individuals and players come together to Ole Miss, I think we can do pretty special things.