A year ago this week, Ole Miss named Hugh Freeze as its head football coach. Now the Rebels are going to a bowl game.
By: Jeff Roberson, Ole Miss Spirit Reporter
Ole Miss, 6-6, will play the 6-6 Pittsburgh Panthers Saturday, January 5, 2013, at historic Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala.
It’s the Panthers’ last game as a member of the Big East Conference. Beginning next summer, Pittsburgh will become a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Few seemed to give Ole Miss a chance to win six games in 2012. Most public accounts had the Rebels predicted in the 4-8 range; some with a record of 3-9.
Go back to a story I wrote on Aug. 31, the day before the season opener against Central Arkansas. It was an in-depth look at Ole Miss’ new head football coach with some people who know him best.
Darry Marshall gave Freeze his first job out of college as an assistant coach at Briarcrest in Memphis.
“One thing you’ll find out about Hugh Freeze is that he’ll have his football team in the very best position to win ballgames,” Marshall said in late August. “We can’t ever guarantee wins, but I can guarantee you that his players will be coached up to the point that they will be in the right spot and have opportunities because of their preparation. He is fundamentally sound and I saw early on that the little things mattered. So he took care of those things.”
I’m not sure anybody, except those wearing red and blue glasses, would have predicted six wins and a bowl for this year’s Rebels. But then, a lot of people didn’t know Hugh Freeze until this season. They do now.
What he and his staff have done the past 12 months, for the academic and social side of this team as well as the athletic aspect, has been remarkable. Just remember last November.
A 2-10 season, the worst ever as far as losses, and some deep-seeded, well-documented problems. Player morale and fan morale was at an all-time low. Academic troubles that seemed almost insurmountable to overcome, at least quickly.
Then came the season. This team not only finished 6-6, but also came fairly close to 8-4 or 9-3, while breaking the lengthy Southeastern Conference losing streak, winding up 3-5 in the league.
A team whose players went to class, had class, and seemed to enjoy playing football at Ole Miss again and competing every day.
A team that got the Golden Egg back from Mississippi State after its longest absence from Oxford in 70 years – three seasons.
Now it’s on to Birmingham. Ole Miss has a rich bowl tradition but not lately. This will be the Rebels’ 34th bowl game, and the record to date is 21-12.
After playing in six bowl games in seven seasons starting in 1997 (they were bowl eligible in 2001 but not chosen), the Rebels only played in two bowls the past eight seasons.
The Panthers’ season in some ways mirrors that of Ole Miss. They are 6-6, finished 3-4 in the Big East and were stronger the last month than in the early stages.
They were 0-2 with losses to Youngstown State and Cincinnati but beat Virginia Tech the next week to signal a turnaround. With a 4-4 record, they went to South Bend, Ind., and took national title contender Notre Dame to overtime before falling. They won their last two games, both on the road, at Rutgers and at South Florida.
Pitt head coach Paul Chryst is also in his first season, having left his alma mater, Wisconsin, after a lengthy stay as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
All signs point to this being an entertaining offensive game, just like bowls love, with two programs obviously on the rise.
Perhaps a 6-6 record that potentially could have been 8-4 or 9-3 is not something that would have been celebrated some other places. But here and especially now, given all that surrounded the program externally and internally, this was a remarkable season for Ole Miss, a turnaround that has this program aiming upward again.
And now there’s a bowl game on Jan. 5 in nearby Birmingham as the reward for a group of players and coaches that few outside the walls of the IPF gave much of a chance to attain.
Except maybe a handful of people like Darry Marshall who knew what Hugh Freeze was capable of doing, even with the circumstances he inherited.