Freeze it! Back off cheat accusations
This is the kind of moment that should linger. Mississippi comes from nowhere to land one of college football’s top recruiting classes. Ole Miss playing with the big boys, beating them.
Even LeBron James noticed, tweeting this: “Ole Miss ain’t messing around today! Big time recruits coming in. SEC is crazy.’’
It was testimony from coach Hugh Freeze that the little guy, doing things right, can succeed. You can change your lot in life with good old-fashioned boot-strapping. You can …
Wait, is that what this day showed? A historic moment for Ole Miss, and it lingered for exactly … 136 seconds. That’s how long Freeze’s opening statements lasted at a news conference Wednesday before he felt it necessary to interrupt his own celebration to announce that he’s not a cheater.
It’s something he really shouldn’t have had to do. But he did have to.
“We did it under extreme criticism and negativity, particularly the last 48 hours,’’ Freeze said. “It’s been very difficult to sit back and know that our coaches had executed our 12-month plan with great integrity and obviously we had some great ins to some national guys. I think that’s something that a lot of people who criticize don’t understand.’’
This is our sports world now, and it should be the business world, too. Politics, too. Maybe everything. When someone does too well, is too good, accomplishes too much, it’s hard to believe that it might have been done right.
An example: From now on, no matter who wins the Tour de France, you will be 1) impressed and then, 2) roughly 136 seconds later, be suspicious that the winner was a cheater.
I would like to shake my head at anyone who is suspicious of Freeze. I’d like to, but I can’t. At this point, I’m skeptical of all coaches, especially ones who have unexpected success.
But there are no credible allegations, only rumors on Twitter, which is to say hot air. There’s that, and also a body of work in the coaching profession.
If players reneged on their word to go somewhere else only to go to Mississippi at the last minute, or if Freeze gave a scholarship to a lesser player just to land his stud brother, well, what’s wrong with that?
Every top coach has an inner dirtbag. It’s a killer instinct that you have to tailor to fit the rules.
“If you have facts about a violation,’’ Freeze tweeted before Signing Day, “send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. If not, please do not slander these young men or insult their family.’’
Freeze said the responses to that tweet were so harsh that he eventually deleted it.
It’s actually good to have a healthy skepticism these days. It keeps you from being burned. Ask Penn State fans. Unfortunately, even now, healthy skepticism only comes in when talking about others.
Freeze landed the best player in the country and got a receiver, two offensive tackles and a safety who were all among the best.
“I don’t think you can go out and purchase the exposure we got today,’’ he said in the worst-possible choice of words.
But Freeze is owed the benefit of the doubt. Ole Miss has just been an underachiever, and Freeze, in his second year, is an innovative coach. There is an academic culture there.
On top of that, the SEC absolutely owns college football now. It dominates the BCS, dominates recruiting. National Signing Day is like the NFL Draft in reverse. The best teams get the first choice. The SEC, according to Scout.com ratings, placed six teams in the top-10 recruiting classes Wednesday. Ten SEC teams were in the top 21. Mississippi, as high as No. 5 in some ratings, was No. 10 on Scout.
Mississippi received an SEC bump. The conference is the place to be, maybe more now than ever. It’s the major leagues while most of the rest of the country is the minors. In the South, football is a way of life, and there is no reason for the kids there to leave home when they grow up a part of this greatness.
That doesn’t explain Mississippi, which had lost 16 SEC games in a row before beating Auburn last year.
What was receiver Laquon Treadwell of Crete, Ill., doing going to Ole Miss? Well, Freeze said, his best friend plays there. Defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, considered the No. 1 prospect in the country? His brother plays for Mississippi. See?
Freeze lists off all sorts of “ins’’ like that for top players, and says if critics understood, they wouldn’t be so suspicious.
“Obviously, we had some luck to have some ins to some of those,’’ Freeze said. “I readily admit that. But we did it with integrity. If there is something out there that has some factual basis to it, we would like to know.’’
I saw something similar six years ago, when Ron Zook came to Illinois and suddenly started recruiting top classes. He also interrupted his celebration to announce that he wasn’t a cheater.
Turned out, even Illinois officials couldn’t believe their own success, and started an investigation before the class was even announced.
At the time, Zook said what happens is that one national recruit decides to come to a place, and then another one does, and suddenly it frees up the other players to go there.
“The biggest vision that we have is to do something new and fresh, and to convince a group of young men to come together and want to be different,’’ Freeze said. “To do something different and fresh at a place that may not be the norm, to upset the apple cart.’’
They did it. What a moment. All 136 seconds of it.