Mandatory Credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports
I love a lot of things about sports. I love the competition. I love seeing the most gifted athletes on the planet excelling on the field of competition. I love the games themselves. One thing I love, that most other people don’t think about, is the societal implications sports can have on people, and in the case of college athletics, the schools we attend.
I’m a teacher now, but I didn’t receive my degree in education from Mississippi State. I received a degree from MSU in Sociology. One of the classes I took while there was Sociology in Sports. It was my second favorite class that I took at State, right behind my Sociology theory class. The reason I loved it so much was because it opened my eyes to a dimension of sports that I had never considered my entire life.
I bring all of this up because of the turmoil that Ole Miss has been experiencing within the past year, but more specifically the past month. We did a recount of the events that took place, but it has brought up a larger point. How much can a coach who is driven by his faith allow their faith to be the centerpiece of their football program?
There is not a thing wrong with coaches who espouse their religious views consistently. I think it’s great personally. Honestly, I have been a Christian since I was 11 years old. I try to live my life according to the teachings of Christ as best I can every day. So when a coach talks about his faith and spirituality, I think it’s a great thing. I also find it completely fascinating when Hugh Freeze tries to accomplish what he is attempting at Ole Miss, and that is to make Christ the center of the program. It’s fascinating because of the degree of difficulty it is to do so.
There have been lots of coaches who are very upfront about their faith in the past. Tony Dungy and Mark Richt are the first two that come to mind. They don’t ever shy away from questions or the opportunity to talk about their beliefs. How they differ from Freeze is that he centers his program around that Faith, whereas Dungy and Richt use their Faith as the basis for making decisions, and not the focal point for what they do as a football team. It’s interesting because running a football program and living a God centered life can often contradict one another.
Freeze has often been viewed as an up and coming football coaching star because of what he was able to accomplish in his first full year on the job at Ole Miss. He won seven games and shocked everyone. He topped it off by signing one of the best classes of recruits to ever set foot on campus. He did it the same way he has since he was the coach at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis. Faith has been at the forefront of everything he has done, and it has gotten him where he is today. But there is one very big difference in what he is doing now than what he has done in the past. Now he has to manage the egos and personalities of five star recruits, something he didn’t have to do while at Briarcrest or Arkansas State.
The more sought after the recruit is, the more likely it is that the people in that recruit’s life will have done anything and everything to bend over backwards to make it as easy as possible for that player. And don’t automatically assume I am talking about boosters giving kids $500 handshakes. I am talking about simple things. They will get invited to all the parties, they’ll get more attention from the cheerleaders, and other things that have absolutely nothing to do with NCAA violations. So when these big time recruits hear that the coaching staff wants their players to know the love and forgiveness that Jesus Christ paid for on the cross, they might start to take that as a free pass to do whatever they want, since that has basically been their life up until this point.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that these problems started happening after the stellar recruiting class was signed. Up until that point in the Freeze era, there weren’t enough big names on the team to really make people go to extreme lengths to see to it that any particular player was on the field. Now they are everywhere for Ole Miss. The question is if what Freeze and the rest of the coaching staff is selling to recruits and their parents is the root cause of all of the image problems that they now face.
Beast Man Steve wrote an excellent article about a segment from Rebel Sports Radio. It’s the one thing I have often wondered myself. How is Freeze, who is very much a player’s coach, going to handle situations when they turn up? I had a conversation on Twitter with Acey Roberts from Make it Rain Sports, the most ardent Rebel fan I follow, about the fans’ perspective on this. He said it makes him wonder if Freeze is too nice. And if he is too nice, Freeze has to have someone on his staff that can be the tough disciplinarian. And I think that is where the biggest problem lies for what Ole Miss is going through. The entire coaching staff has picked up Freeze’s philosophy around recruiting and coaching that is centered on Faith. If forgiveness of sins is preached, somehow you have to make the players understand that they still must suffer consequences for those sins. What Beast Man Steve and Neal McCready both pointed out, is that even though these are just allegations right now, there still is an escalating image problem that has to be addressed.
Opinions on how Freeze runs his program are very strong among both Ole Miss and Mississippi State fans. Some Mississippi State fans believe that Hugh Freeze is a hypocrite. I don’t think he is, but it is very easy to take all of the recent events combined and say how can someone who says they are running their program on Christian values have so many discipline problems on his team. It is a legitimate question. I believe that Freeze knows this has to be addressed, and I fully expect him to do so. Whatever your opinion of the guy is, the one thing he isn’t is dumb. You don’t get the job he has by being dumb, and you also don’t become one of the most successful recruiters in the game by being stupid. He knows that if these problems continue, then it will cost him when he is selling his program to moms of prospective recruits. I’d love to live in a world where coaches only recruited players based on the positives of the school they work for, but that simply isn’t the case. Coaches use everything against rival schools, true or not. Somehow, Mullen has been turned into a Scientologist according to Ole Miss fans. I’m sure there are coaches that probably try to convince players and parents that he is. So Freeze has to know that other coaches are going to start bringing up all of the legal problems of Ole Miss and ask how anyone could believe that Freeze is running a Christ centered program.
And while it may be fun right now to watch Ole Miss go through all of this, let me give you a word of caution. Every program has periods where their players can’t seem to get their act together. We have had ours in the past. If you don’t remember what the end of the Sherrill era was like, it wasn’t pretty. Croom spent his first two years as the coach cleaning up the riff raff that was left behind. There is going to come a time when we are right were Ole Miss is. The difference between us and what Ole Miss faces is simple. To deal with these problems, the Ole Miss coaching staff might have to change their identity completely, whereas most other programs like ours, just has to tighten the screws.
As a Christian, I would have believed that putting Christ at the center of the program would be the best way to run a team. After being an observer of the issues facing Ole Miss, I am reminded that the decision to follow Christ is a personal decision, not a community decision. I think the players for Ole Miss are misconstruing what Freeze is trying to get them to believe. He preaches love and forgiveness, but they are hearing forgiveness and a free pass.