PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — When new University of Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze began his one-hour class at the 2012 Carson-Newman Coaches' Clinic, the first thing he wanted to talk about wasn't football. It was his faith.
"It's the most important thing to me and I'm obviously far from perfect," Freeze said. "I think it transforms kids. It's the thing that can bring them great success in life and beyond life. I've never batted 1,000 in reaching all, but I'm still trying."
The message resonated with Carson-Newman head coach Ken Sparks, who sat on the front row. In his fourth decade as a college football coach, Sparks knows all too well the challenges faced by the young men he, Freeze and others in their profession coach.
Coaching the football player becomes less a priority than coaching the man.
"That's the reason guys like Hugh Freeze are special because they know the answer," Sparks said. "Seventy percent of all kids are living without both biological parents. Most of the time it's the male that's not there. Kids are searching for some answers so the great thing about the coaching profession is that we've got a lot of opportunities to show how to make it right now, but how to make it to the promised land. We're responsible for what we do with this and we'll have to answer to the Lord about it. It's a whole lot bigger than football."
There was still time in Freeze's class for plenty of Xs and Os and the new Ole Miss coach delivered on that, including unveiling some plays Sparks called particularly "nasty." It was also no surprise to see the first coach teaching at the clinic go over aspects of the option play. Sparks has been running some form of the option his entire career.
"Almost everyone is now," Sparks said. "You've almost got to if you're going to decide what you're going to do after the ball is snapped."
Friday night marked the first real meeting between Sparks and Freeze, though the young Rebels coach recalled a time when he, in his first years coaching high school football, sat in a small room with Sparks teaching a class.
"We were in a little room in Memphis and he was doing quarterback fundamentals," Freeze said. "I was still a high school coach then. I've admired him for years. He probably doesn't remember the first time we met."
Freeze is preparing to open his first spring practice as the Rebels' coach. He's already got some pretty key allies on campus working out with this team, Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning and Pro Bowl offensive tackle Michael Oher from the Baltimore Ravens. Both are Ole Miss alumni and are caught up in the excitement as Freeze begins to rebuild the program.
For Freeze, though, it's all about hitting the practice field and getting his first official look at his team.
"I haven't coached them a single day," Freeze said. "Everybody keeps asking me what I think I say, 'I haven't coached them yet. I don't know.' I have no thoughts right now other than I'm ready to get out there. I've always been a guy excited by a challenge and it's certainly going to be a great one. I don't know how fast we can get to that level or even if we can, but I know the journey's going to be fun."