USA TODAY Sports Dan Wolken reveals how he broke the Hugh Freeze scandal and explains what the college football world can learn from it.
USA TODAY Sports
OXFORD, Miss. — Hugh Freeze stood outside his house near a muscular dog earlier this week when a reporter approached.
“You better watch this dog,’’ Freeze said, and a moment later he added, “I can control him.’’
But less than two weeks after he abruptly resigned as head football coach at the University of Mississippi, the narrative of the once-charmed coach has spun beyond control.
Freeze, 47, was the devout Christian who beat Nick Saban and Alabama two years in a row, built a team that climbed to No. 3 in the polls and, at least in the eyes of the Ole Miss faithful, could do little wrong. A husband and father of three daughters, he often tweeted Bible verses or religious words of inspiration.
Another side has emerged, though. Before he resigned on July 20, Freeze was under scrutiny for alleged recruiting violations. Ole Miss has self-imposed several penalties, including a postseason ban, and an NCAA investigation continues.
His downfall was ultimately the result of what Ole Miss officials called a “pattern of personal misconduct,” and the revelation that a phone call from Freeze’s university-issued cell phone had been made to a number associated with a female escort.
Since resigning, several former students have taken to social media to speak out against — and support — Freeze. Three women who were students at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis in the late 1990s and early 2000s described to USA TODAY Sports how Freeze made them feel uncomfortable with inappropriate behavior.
All of it has led to a difficult question: Who is Hugh Freeze?
“The rumor mill is on fire,’’ said James Allison, who played high school football for Freeze more than a decade ago at Briarcrest. “I’m obviously rooting for him to come out of all of this clean, but I’m also rooting for the truth.’’
‘John Wayne is the best comparison’
Freeze’s rise to Ole Miss was storybook stuff.
Never played a down of college football.
Coached high school girls basketball at Briarcrest for more than a decade, compiling a record of 305-63 and winning four high school state championships.
Won two more state championships as head coach of the football team.
Was depicted in “The Blind Side,’’ a movie for which Sandra Bullock won an Academy Award and was inspired by the life of Michael Oher, who played for Freeze at Briarcrest.
But, it turns out, Freeze was developing a reputation as something more than an offensive genius whose teams lit up the scoreboard whether they were on the football field or in the gym. He was known for strictly enforcing rules such as the Christian school’s dress code.
“John Wayne is the best comparison I can make in that it’s not a guy you want to go up against,’’ Allison, a captain on Freeze’s 2004 football team at Briarcrest, told USA TODAY Sports. “So I can understand why people would be scared and afraid of him and, if something were to happen, why they might not feel completely comfortable going forward with that.
“I want (any victims) to come forward.’’
Katie Dalmasso, 27, said she was an eighth grader at Briarcrest in 1999 when Freeze made her change shirts inside his office after he said her Grateful Dead T-shirt violated school dress code.
“Coach Freeze pulled me in his office and told me that my shirt represented drugs,’’ Dalmasso said. “I said, ‘I’ll go change in the bathroom,’ and when I said that he said, ‘No, you’re going to change in here so I get the (Grateful Dead) shirt and you can’t have it back.’
“He didn’t do anything sexual. But I stood in the corner and faced the wall when I did it and I changed out of my shirt. No privacy.’’
Another former Briarcrest student said Freeze was “hyper attentive’’ to the length of her skirts and that he loomed in the parking lot after she would go to her car to change clothes. She also said she was troubled by the time she and some football players faced discipline for arriving late from lunch, when she asked to be paddled — a form of discipline reserved for the male students — instead of receiving detention. She said she was stunned when Freeze obliged rather than getting a female teacher.
“(Freeze) did some bizarre warm-up taunt before actually making contact,’’ said the woman, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because she said she fears reprisal. “I was humiliated that he didn’t have a female in the room.
“I don’t know if the acts were intentionally sexual or if he was really that oblivious to the inherently sexual nature of his approach to discipline.’’
A third woman who attended Briarcrest said she created a closed Facebook page last week to offer a safe place to discuss Freeze after some former Briarcrest students received threats for criticizing the coach and making allegations about him online.
The woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she fears reprisal, said she found Freeze’s method of discipline “shocking.’’
Freeze said in a statement issued to USA TODAY Sports through his attorney Saturday: “These accusations are totally false. I can unequivocally say that during my time at Briarcrest Christian School I handled disciplinary issues professionally and in accordance with the school’s policy. I am very confident that the members of the administration who worked hand in hand with me during my tenure will verify that.”
Briarcrest, which also released a statement Saturday, said current and former administration officials with whom the school has been in contact were unaware of any claims of misconduct by Freeze.
“Briarcrest would take any such allegations very seriously and would investigate fully,” the statement read.
After reading his former coach’s statement, Allison said, “I believe him and support him 100%.”
Images of Freeze in Haiti alongside his Ole Miss players and helping disadvantaged children contrast sharply with the depiction of a harsh and inappropriate disciplinarian. He started his own non-profit organization, too.
Its first full year in 2015, the Freeze Foundation provided $25,000 in funding to a Christian ministry in Florida and another $100,000 to an organization that supported missionaries in Africa, according to its tax form.
“Coach Freeze, the man that I know, is just completely genuine and has a pure heart of gold for our mission, which is helping orphans and needy children,” Alice Blackmon, the charity’s executive director, told USA TODAY Sports. “So that’s where he is. He’s that same person today, regardless of what happened.”
The Freeze family, known for their charitable work, have become guardians for a local girl from Oxford, said attorney W.G. Watkins, who represents Freeze. But Watkins declined to provide more information about the guardianship, saying it was a private matter.
During a brief interview with USA TODAY Sports last week, Freeze said he had the support of his family.
“Oh gosh, yes,’’ Freeze said, also adding, “God is good, even in difficult times.’’
Freeze has relied on his religion in difficult times and in the best of times, which has made his tumble even more confusing for some around Oxford.
“People don’t know what to believe about a person anymore,” said Kyle Cole, a campus minister at Ole Miss and a senior staff member with Campus Crusade for Christ International. “I’ve been doing campus ministry for 12 years. I’ve seen men fall in a lot of different ways.
“They keep asking me what I think about Coach Freeze. Honestly, I’m not prepared to answer that yet.”
Freeze’s phone records, being sought by news media outlets and an attorney representing former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, aren’t the only thing casting suspicion about what really happened at Ole Miss.
Freeze and Ole Miss also are facing sanctions for 21 alleged NCAA rules infractions, most of which involved impermissible benefits for recruits. But Mack Brown, the former coach at Texas, said it would be unfair to discredit what Freeze accomplished in inheriting a program coming off a 2-10 season and, with only one year of experience as a Division I head coach, signing top-rated recruiting classes and leading the Rebels to four consecutive bowl appearances.
“I won’t go into the (NCAA) violations,’’ Brown told USA TODAY Sports. “It will be settled over time. But you still have to do a good job with your program, of presenting it. And I thought they did a great job of presenting the positive things about Oxford, Mississippi.
“My last two or three years (at Texas), I was talking to kids in Houston and Dallas that were going to visit Ole Miss, and that had never happened before. They had good players, but they had to know what they were doing and do a good job of coaching or you don’t beat Alabama twice.’’
After those victories over Saban, there were few places in Oxford as crowded as Funkys Pizza & Daiquiri Bar. The NCAA has alleged the bar owner, Lee Harris, provided between $200 and $600 worth of free food and drinks to Ole Miss players.
Harris declined to comment. But one of his bartenders recalled how Freeze dropped in from time to time. The bartender identified himself as Brett, and he identified Freeze as more than a coach, a Christian or a cheat.
“He’s human,’’ the bartender said.
Contributing: Antonio Morales and Billy Watkins in Oxford, Brent Schrotenboer and Dan Wolken