By Charlie Smith
Dan Mullen and Hugh Freeze aren’t completely different.
Both head coaches were early adopters of the fast-paced, spread option offenses that now dominate college football.
Demographically, they fit the same profile: youthful family men with charisma who enjoy immense popularity among their fan bases.
And most significantly, Mullen and Freeze have each done the almost unthinkable in transforming Mississippi State and Ole Miss to the elite of college football.
But they’ve done it through vastly different personalities and career paths.
A decade ago, while Mullen, a cocksure Yankee, groomed a future No. 1 overall NFL pick to an undefeated NCAA Division I season, Freeze, a good-ole Southern ball coach with an evangelical zeal, counted among his duties leading a high school girl’s basketball team.
Yet their mutual success proves there’s more than one way to the top.
Freeze, 45, was born in Oxford and grew up in the small North Mississippi community of Independence, where his family ran a dairy farm for a time. He graduated from Southern Mississippi and coached both football and girls basketball while at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis from 1992 to 2004.
The football team was a perennial power, winning two state titles, and the girl’s basketball team did even better, earning four state crowns. Impressive in its own way, but not the kind of resumé that hints at a career leading a Southeastern Conference program.
Mullen, on the other hand, seemed destined to be a major head coach but not perhaps in the heart of Dixie.
The 42-year-old Pennsylvania native graduated high school in New Hampshire — a place the vast majority of Mississippians have never been, nor ever plan to visit.
He played tight end at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania and then followed a typical career path for upwardly mobile young coaches, jumping higher and higher up the food chain in short stints at several colleges.
He first entered the public eye as quarterbacks coach for an undefeated Utah team in 2004 led by quarterback Alex Smith, the top pick in the 2005 NFL draft. When Head Coach Urban Meyer left for Florida the next year, Mullen joined him as offensive coordinator. They won two national championships, and Mullen helped groom Heisman winner Tim Tebow.
It was no surprise when Mullen got the call after the 2008 season to take over in Starkville.
COMING TO MISSISSIPPI
Freeze moved to Ole Miss under then-head coach Ed Orgeron and led Coach O’s heralded recruiting efforts. But the program struggled under Orgeron’s bizarre leadership, and Freeze left when Houston Nutt came aboard.
He ended up at Lambuth, an NAIA school in Jackson, Tenn., that later closed because of financial problems. That was far from ideal territory, but Freeze compiled a 20-5 record over two seasons that earned him a promotion to Arkansas State as offensive coordinator and then head coach, where he went 10-2 in 2011.
That opened up the path for him to be named Ole Miss coach after the 2011 season. His experience might not have been on a major stage, but Freeze had already proven he could win wherever he went.
It was the same from the start at Ole Miss. He turned a 2-10 team not expected to do much better into a 7-6 squad that won a bowl game. He improved on that record last season, using a top-ranked recruiting class to go 8-5 and again win a bowl.
So the leap this year, where the Rebels are a play or two from national championship contention, wasn’t completely unexpected for Freeze.
Mullen’s path to the top at Mississippi State took longer. A 9-4 campaign during his second season created big expectations that the Bulldogs struggled to meet. They went 22-17 over the next three years and had zero success against the top SEC teams.
Mullen’s job appeared to be on the line after a 4-6 start last year put the Bulldogs in serious jeopardy of not making a bowl.
But they rallied to win their final two regular season games — including a dramatic overtime triumph in the Egg Bowl — and then blew out Rice in the Liberty Bowl.
That run foreshadowed this season’s success, although no one predicted so much so fast.
Mullen gets grief sometimes for his Northern accent. But he throws it back on Ole Miss by refusing to use his rival’s name. Instead, he exclusively calls it “The School Up North,” referring to Oxford’s proximity to Starkville.
When asked recently on “The Dan Patrick Show” if he hates Ole Miss, Mullen responded, “That’s a pretty fair assumption. … There’s nothing personal about any individuals, about any of their players. I know and recruited a lot of their players. Their coaches: I know their coaches, got a lot of respect for them. I think it’s more just a dislike of the institution as a whole.”
Freeze, who sounds exactly like a Southern Baptist pastor, which he nearly is, takes a different approach. He told this to his team before the 2012 Egg Bowl: “Some schools in rivalry games choose to play it out of hatred for the other school. That’s not who we are. Here’s why we will win the game tonight: because you’re going to play for love for one another, not hatred for somebody else.”
Two different approaches from men who know how to reach the top of college football. They’ll meet on the field Saturday to settle — at least for this year — who’s best.