We are less than 24 hours away, Rebel Nation. The stage is set in NOLA for the No. 16 Ole Miss Rebels to battle the No. 13 Okie State Cowboys.
The practices are over. To take a line from one of my friends and a Rebel fan: “Welcome to the main stage.”
Louis L’Amour once wrote “Sometimes we have the dream but we are not ourselves ready for the dream. We have to grow to meet it.” The Rebels have had big aspirations over the last few seasons and have been so close to realizing those dreams. Now, the Rebels have a chance to seize a Sugar Bowl victory.
Here are some final words from Coach Freezes Thursday morning at the Sugar Bowl Press conference. Hotty Toddy y’all! See y’all in NOLA!
Opening Remark: “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.”
On wanting to manage down time responsibly and how that has transpired through this week: “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. 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.”
On Oklahoma State’s unusual run game and how they use it to an advantage: “I’m not sure of Mike’s total background but he reminds me of a great high school coach. In regards to this guy, (he) 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 your defense and he has done a nice job with his (defense). 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.”
On the the team’s ups and downs along with how they beat LSU: “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. 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.”
On how he is preparing different for this bowl game than last year’s: “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 (with) 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 – (that) 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, I allowed a schedule to be put in place for our kids 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 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 – (got) back to why we’re here. And then I think the other thing is just maturity, you know, 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 making sure it’s consistent from day to day.”
On managing his players psyche through this season: “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 (so) obviously … 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 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 – is all of the outside noise had his head at that moment when he set so many games. (They were) 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 (and) 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 obviously as a coach feel like you failed in some way, that you didn’t get it. 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 how I find some sanity when the noise is coming about. I mean, every team has to deal with it because we’re dealing with young men, and 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 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.”
On the preparing for Oklahoma State’s dual quarterback situation: “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…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 (since) we have had the time to do that…”
On the Rebel Leadership Council: J.C., Mike, Ingram and Bell (are the Rebel Leadership Council.) 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 (since) everybody is having to do everything, suddenly you have an entire football team that is mentally not locked in when (the time comes) for meetings and practice which (are) 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 to witness our kids doing that. The 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 in those small circles that tend to happen in teams.”
On how difficult of making it here even without always having the “Big Four:” “That’s a good point, and a lot of people don’t. 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 think you would be shocked how many times we didn’t have [Laremy] Tunsil and Rob [Nkemdiche] and Laquon [Treadwell] and [Tony] Conner on the field at the same time. Particularly this year. I mean, we lost Conner after week three 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 continue to build our program. There’s an expectation now that we should be competitive and relevant in the SEC West… What I have been trying to say is that we’re doing okay with other kids, too.”
On the comparison of the 2013 recruiting class and the 2016 recruitment: “It has totally changed. The Ole Miss brand has come so far. I will forever be indebted to the Robert Nkemdiche, 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. 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 (that) if enough of quality individuals and players come together to Ole Miss, I think we can do pretty special things.”
Lee Ann Herring-Olvedo is a HottyToddy.com contributor, veteran SEC sports journalist and Brown University graduate. She loves good cigars, good games and a smooth glass of bourbon — not necessarily in that order. She can be reached at email@example.com.