The Numbers Game

Arkansas State’s Hugh Freeze destroys football coaching myths.

Courtesy of ASU Sports Information

'Tis the season of churn in the college football coaching ranks. Houston Nutt is on the way out at Ole Miss, Larry Porter is shaky at Memphis, and Hugh Freeze is probably getting itchy at Arkansas State. 

If you follow sports at all, you’ve probably heard of Nutt and Porter. Nutt, at this writing, has not won a game in the Southeastern Conference in two seasons. Porter’s record is 3-19 in his two seasons.  

You may not have heard of Freeze. He doesn’t fit into the standard football coaching myths. His team is 7-2 this year, including a 47-3 win over Memphis. Freeze’s salary from all sources is $210,000 — good money in Jonesboro but chump change in the world of big-time college football. Arkansas State’s $2.7 million football budget ranks 119th out of 120 schools in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision. 

From 1995 to 2004, Freeze was the head football coach and girls’ basketball coach at Briarcrest High School in Memphis.

“He was a better basketball coach than football coach, and I mean that as a compliment,” said Rhodes College athletic director Mike Clary. 

With prize Briarcrest recruit Michael Oher (The Blind Side), Freeze went to Ole Miss as an assistant coach from 2005 to 2007, and his name is being tossed about as a possible replacement for Nutt. 

If not Ole Miss, then someone should hire Freeze just to keep him from shattering every phony myth about correlations between success in college football and huge budgets and salaries. Not a week goes by without a story whining about how the University of Memphis would be a football powerhouse if only it had a better stadium, weight room, practice field, press box, visitors’ locker room, donor base, recruiting base, schedule, assistant coaches, and Gatorade delivery system. 

Thanks to agents like Memphian Jimmy Sexton, salaries for college football coaches have exploded, to the benefit of losers as well as winners like Les Miles and Nick Saban. Porter earns $750,000 a year to lose 47-3 to Arkansas State.

“When NCAA Division I went to 85 scholarships, there are going to be good players on every team,” said Freeze. “About 75 percent of this deal is how you bring 85 egos together and make them feel like a team. Another 20 percent is skill, and 5 percent is game-day coaching.” 

Nutt came to Ole Miss from the University of Arkansas, another big-time football school. He has a contract worth $2.5 million this season, and it will cost the Rebels a few million more to buy him out before the next sucker school hires him. 

Those being considered to replace Nutt reportedly include former Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez. A Michigan graduate, I watched from afar as Coach Rod presided over the three-year implosion of a once-proud football program. He had a six-year, $15 million contract, which he punctuated at the end of his third and last season with a 52-14 loss to Mississippi State. The film of that game apparently has not made it to Oxford. Is Freeze interested in the job?

“I got a big game tomorrow,” he said in November. 

In the big picture, football, we are constantly told, is the way colleges and universities market themselves and raise their profile. The big money comes from the universities, alumni, deals on media shows, and sometimes a share of ticket sales. 

But is there really any relationship between a university’s success on the field and growth in its endowment?

According to the National Association of College and University Business Offices and Commonfund Institute, last year Michigan’s endowment grew 9 percent, Mississippi’s endowment grew 12 percent, and the University of Memphis’ endowment grew 2 percent while they were stinking it up on the football field. Just think if they’d won more games and their fans were happy. 

And Arkansas State? The endowment was up 15 percent, to $36 million, which ranks 609th out of 865 institutions. 

Hugh Freeze ought to get a raise when he heads to his next coaching stop. Which, if Ole Miss doesn’t take him, should be Memphis.

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