If a college football game is a stirring documentary, college football recruiting is a reality show on Bravo. Every recruiting season is full of backstabbing, overblown egos, underhanded tactics and fake drama that somehow, under the lights, morphs into real drama. It's a dirty business. But it can make stars out of the most unlikely characters.
America, meet Hugh Freeze.
Freeze just finished his first year as coach of the Ole Miss Rebels. He went 7-6. That's a fairly average season in Oxford. The Rebels haven't won an SEC title since 1963. They aren't on anyone's list of top football programs, except when it comes to tailgating.
But on Wednesday – national signing day for college recruits – Ole Miss has a shot at landing three of the top players in the country.
Laquon Treadwell, a 6-3 receiver ranked fifth overall by Rivals.com, has already made a verbal commitment to Ole Miss. Laremy Tunsil*, a 6-6 offensive tackle ranked fifth by ESPN.com, is supposedly leaning toward the Rebels. And the nation's top recruit – Robert Nkemdiche, a 6-5, 260-pound defensive end who's being compared to Jadeveon Clowney** – has narrowed his choice to Ole Miss and LSU.
*Just wanted to add that Laremy Tunsil sounds like a character from a Coen Brothers movie.
**Yeah, let's watch the Clowney hit on that poor running back from Michigan a few more times.
Nkemdiche's story, like every good recruiting saga, involves many characters. Nkemdiche originally made a verbal (but non-binding) commitment to Clemson. Along the way, Clemson just so happened to make offers to a few of his high-school teammates. But then his mother – who's a state legislator in Nigeria, which is not germane but is damn interesting – stepped in and said she didn't like the vibe from the Tigers. She wanted Robert to play with his brother.
Ah, the brother, Denzel Nkemdiche. He was a decent high-school safety, recruited by almost no one because of grades, but Ole Miss – then coached by Houston Nutt – stuck with him until he qualified. The Rebels redshirted him in 2011, turned him into a linebacker, and last season he surprised pretty much everyone by becoming Ole Miss' best defensive player and making a freshman All-America team.
All that happened while Robert was becoming the top high-school recruit in the country. So now his mother wants him to go to Ole Miss, and he has a chance to play beside his late-blooming brother. It's a powerful pull. And if Nkemdiche comes to Oxford, his personal gravity could draw in the others.
(We should also stop here for a second and note that, if Ole Miss does land all these trophies, Houston Nutt tipped over the first domino. Although he did also lose to Jacksonville State. Let's just call it a mixed bag.)
Of course, when any school lands a huge recruiting class – much less a school like Ole Miss – the word-association test automatically pops up CHEATER CHEATER CHEATER. Fans on recruiting message boards have made accusations for weeks. Hugh Freeze finally had about enough of it and responded on Twitter: "If you have facts about a violation, email email@example.com. If not, please don't slander the young men." He has since deleted that Tweet – I'm assuming to save the poor intern who has to monitor that email.
Before we roll off down the path of corruption, let's look at Freeze for a minute. The coach has a fascinating background. He was a longtime high-school coach at Briarcrest Christian in Memphis, where he coached Michael Oher, the current Baltimore Raven OT who became famous as the main character in "The Blind Side." (Freeze has a few quibbles with how his character turned out in the movie.)
When Oher went to Ole Miss, so did Freeze, as an assistant. In his second year there, with the Rebels coming off a 3-8 season, he led the recruiting of a class that was ranked as high as ninth in the country. Among the recruits: current NFL players Greg Hardy, Jerrell Powe and Dexter McCluster.
He left Ole Miss to get head-coaching experience (first at tiny Lambuth, then Arkansas State) before returning to Oxford after Nutt's last team imploded. Freeze took Ole Miss from 2-10 to 7-6 in one year. He's got coaching skills. He's got recruiting chops. And he's got the dumb luck of having the big brother of the nation's top recruit land in his lap.
It will get ugly and profoundly weird in these last hours before signing day begins. (If you are truly insane, you can watch signing ceremonies all day on ESPNU.) We've already had five-star linebacker Reuben Foster get a large Auburn tattoo to celebrate his commitment to the Tigers… then decommit and commit to rival Alabama on Monday. We've already had another big Ole Miss recruit, DE Chris Jones, get death threats after daring to visit both Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Recruiting, in some ways, is more intense and personal than the actual games. A game is engaging in battle; recruiting is asking for a date. It's about acceptance and rejection. It's about mystery and pride. It leads to a 17-year-old sitting at a table with a row of hats in front of him, like some strange three-card-monte dealer, before he picks up a hat and makes some fans happy and others sad.
It's nice to see a school like Ole Miss shoulder its way to the top in this bizarre little sport. (Assuming, for now, that the Rebels got there clean.) But the real sport starts in the fall. All those stars next to the names fall away. Ole Miss still has to play Alabama and LSU every year.
If Hugh Freeze does his job on the field as well as he's done it in the living room, maybe we'll end up saying that Alabama and LSU have to play Ole Miss.
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Questions? Comments? Challenges? Taunts? You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tommytomlinson. My team, of course, conducts its recruiting in a manner as pure as the driven snow. But I'm suspicious about yours.