OXFORD, Miss. — Hugh Freeze takes his seat near the back of the Mississippi football meeting room, and from here, with his three daughters sitting to his left, the Rebels coach can see everything.
Players begin filing through the doors a few minutes before 10 a.m., some wearing dreadlocks and others buzz cuts. Several carry Bibles. Christian music plays through the speakers of this 200-seat auditorium, and Freeze mouths the words to a song titled “Jesus Paid It All.”
This room in the Manning Center is where the Ole Miss football team gathers to discuss its mistakes, players’ hopes and goals, the opportunities and pitfalls that lay ahead in the season, and anyway, doesn’t that sound like life? To Freeze, it makes sense to merge his beliefs with his coaching, holding a Fellowship of Christian Athletes worship service each Sunday during the school year. For the Rebels’ players and coaches during the season, this is church.
“The most important thing we have is the platform we have to impact the lives of the people in our program,” says Freeze, 44. “When my life comes to an end, how much does that scoreboard really matter?”
In this part of America, college football fits somewhere between pastime and obsession, and like church, it is more than a weekend activity. Nothing says more about a Southerner than the team he cheers on Saturdays and the church he attends on Sundays — “the two things we love the most,” says author Chad Gibbs, Auburn fan and Methodist. To many, the merging of cultural forces feels natural; to others, the most stark instances are uncomfortable — maybe even inappropriate.
Throughout most of the United States, church attendance is on the decline, but according to a “religion census” sponsored by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, eight states in the South, including Mississippi, saw increases between 2000 and 2010 — in some cases dramatically.
College football’s influence in the region grew, as well, with bulging stadiums and iconic millionaire coaches. “I don’t know if people have stopped looking forward to church,” says Gibbs, whose book “God & Football” was published in 2010. “But that’s a part of it though: this weird identity we have with our teams where we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.”
Freeze is one of the nation’s up-and-coming coaches, with a $3 million annual salary and a team ranked No. 18 in the preseason top 25. He believes two strong forces, football and his Christian faith, brought him to this point, and within the framework of both parts of his identity, he is able to teach all manner of lessons to young, impressionable men. He uses his Twitter account to share Bible verses and practice photos, sprinkles praise music into the playlist during practices and believes it’s important to tell recruits and their families he believes in Jesus.
Players are not required to attend FCA meetings or participate in devotionals and team prayers, but Freeze encourages them to join him. On this day, dozens have taken him up on it. “I tell them or our position coaches will: ‘We have worship on Sunday,’ ” the coach says.
“I don’t stand over them, make them do it; certainly they hopefully see that it’s important to me and maybe the way I live and the way these other coaches live. Maybe it attracts them to it.”
Sometimes the passions occupy too much of the same space, causing friction. Some religious leaders worry that football in some ways could be replacing churches: crowds in cathedral-like stadiums the new congregation, the all-knowing coach seen as pastor, prayers offered up for one more big play.
“It’s amazing to see how religious they become when their team is down by two points and there’s a field goal to be made,” says Ole Miss chaplain John Powell, who has an office in the Rebels’ football building, “and they’re praying to God that, if there’s any way possible for us to win this game, I’ll change my life.”
Others worry that men such as Freeze, powerful coaches at state-funded schools, are abusing their influence by pushing their beliefs on young men who want nothing more than to please the man sitting in the back of the room. “That’s something a university shouldn’t be doing,” says Patrick Elliott, a staff attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which earlier this year sent a letter to Clemson criticizing how its football program promotes Christianity.
Freeze says his program must be a reflection of himself, of his beliefs, of his place in the world. And he is a man of God, the South and football — almighty one and all. “We’re unapologetic,” he says, “about who we are.”
About 450 miles from Oxford, a rock star is about to take the stage. Machines pump fog through the sanctuary on this Sunday morning in Anderson, S.C., and a nine-person hard rock band performs songs by AC/DC and Collective Soul. Cameras mounted on cranes and jibs show the action on big screens, and state troopers direct hundreds of cars into the packed lots.
Perry Noble, the 43-year-old senior pastor of NewSpring Church, has more than 121,000 followers on Twitter and wears jeans and a T-shirt during sermons. On this day he will deliver a high-energy message for nearly 40,000 worshipers — about 3,000 here and thousands more watching on screens at nine branch campuses. Noble is a face of the new Southern Baptist church, remaking itself and growing. NewSpring was one of 2,529 churches to open in South Carolina from 2000 to 2010, according to the religion census. The message is the same, but the presentation is updated: The sanctuary has stadium seating, speakers that go to 11 and massive screens for the perfect view, and anyway, doesn’t that sound like a football game?
Noble, a lifelong Clemson fan, has developed a friendship with one of the church’s members, Tigers Coach Dabo Swinney. Noble speaks so often about his favorite team that, about four years ago, another member threatened to leave the church if the pastor didn’t stop making fun of Clemson’s rival, the University of South Carolina.
But on days like this, Noble can’t help himself. “I do have a favorite college football team,” he tells the congregation during his lighthearted message. “And I’m not going to say who they are. And I’m not going to say they wear orange all the time. And that Jesus loves them.”
About 15 years ago, Swinney’s predecessor, Tommy Bowden, began holding “Church Day” during the football preseason. Each August, Clemson players would pile onto three buses and attend services at a local church. The activity was optional, but Bowden saw it as an important team-building exercise and a way to introduce players to Jesus. “Make it as mandatory as you can make it,” Bowden says now, proud he had only one player miss services in nine years at the school.
Swinney, a former assistant coach on Bowden’s staff, continued the tradition when he took over the program in 2008. NewSpring was among the churches in the annual rotation, and Noble has led so many players to Christ he has lost count. “Thank the Lord for this,” he says, “but we’ve baptized so many I’m not really sure.”
Two years ago, DeAndre Hopkins, then a junior wide receiver at Clemson, approached Noble with a specific request: He was ready to be saved and wanted the pastor to baptize him — not in the church, though, but alongside his teammates. With Swinney’s blessing, an ice tub was hauled onto a Clemson practice field, land paid for by state taxpayers and filled with water.
The coach spoke briefly about the Tigers’ upcoming game against Auburn, and then he turned things over to Noble. With players and coaching surrounding them, Noble said a few words before guiding Hopkins under, water washing over the young player still in his pads.
Jeff Scott, the team’s wide receivers coach, photographed the occasion and posted it on Twitter, calling it the “highlight of my week.” Scott’s post was shared hundreds of times, eliciting praise from fans across the South — no matter their thoughts on the team Hopkins played for.
“Football may be a religion, but faith is everything,” says Jeff Champion, who as a South Carolina fan usually dislikes anything involving Clemson. “Dabo is actually giving them something they can carry with them the rest of their lives. I’m just jealous that it’s them and not us.”
Not everyone found the ceremony so endearing, the praise seemingly weakening the further removed from the South. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Madison, Wis., sent Clemson a letter in April, calling coaches’ endorsement of Christianity an unconstitutional crossing of boundaries separating church and state.
“This practice coerces players, of varying faiths or none at all, to enter a Christian house of worship, lest they speak up against their superiors,” wrote Elliott, the staff attorney.
The organization, which had examined public records, condemned Swinney’s selection of a team chaplain and the scheduling of devotionals and an FCA breakfast during which three players would “testify.”
The university responded, its own letter stating the organization had “misconstrued important facts and made incorrect statements of the law.” Across the South, supporters and rivals backed Clemson, calling the FFRF charge an attack by those who didn’t understand regional tradition and values. Others cited it as the latest step in the march toward political correctness, an ugly phrase in parts of the Southeast.
“Secularism is not benign,” says Derwin Gray, former NFL player who now leads a 2,500-member church near Charlotte. “It is as aggressive and evangelistic as any worldview.”
The FFRF letter was hardly the first or last move to put distance between football and Christianity. Last year, civil rights groups demanded that a school district in Texas prevent cheerleaders from holding banners with Bible verses, and the matter has reached the state Supreme Court. Earlier this month the Washington-based American Humanist Association accused football coaches at a Georgia high school of leading prayers. Monica Miller, an attorney with the AHA, says officials in Georgia’s Hall County school district have yet to respond.
This past summer, Clemson administrators reminded coaches to operate within legal and ethical boundaries, and before this preseason’s trip to a local church, coaches re-emphasized to players that attendance was optional. Asked whether he regrets anything about Hopkins’s baptism, Swinney admits the tweet caused problems and that the program could have avoided backlash if Hopkins (who, through the NFL’s Houston Texans, declined an interview request) had been baptized in a waterway that runs near the practice fields rather than a university-owned tub.
Otherwise, Swinney says he has changed nothing. “I really took it as a compliment,” he says of the FFRF’s complaint.
Bowden, who’s out of coaching and is a faith-based speaker, is well versed in these matters — and in getting around them. In 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union visited Clemson, meeting with Bowden, a university lawyer and the school’s athletic director. Word had spread about “Church Day” and how Bowden combined his beliefs with coaching.
Bowden says he listened as the ACLU criticized his traditions and that players were transported to a Christian church on buses owned by a public university. The activists demanded changes.
“I said no problem,” Bowden recalls. “They were happy, they left and we went anyway. We just went in cars.
“There’s a way to do it.”
Down here, spiritual growth isn’t just part of the culture. It’s a selling point for football coaches, just as important as pristine facilities, rabid fan bases and a chance to win championships. Although Bowden says he had no problem bringing up his beliefs during visits with high school players, Swinney says he now waits for prospects or their families to initiate the topic. “They want to know. They may ask you point blank: ‘Are you a Christian?’ ” Swinney says, adding he doesn’t target only players with similar beliefs.
“I’m recruiting great football players,” he says. “Some of them are Christian. Some of them are Mormon. Some of them are atheists. Some of them don’t know what they are.”
It’s players within that final group, those making the transition from youth to adulthood, who Bowden hoped to reach. He says now that exposing players to Jesus was, as a Christian, his “No. 1 job.” He kept a Bible on his desk, offered prayers before the team disbanded before Easter and Christmas and occasionally pointed toward the sky during a breathtaking sunset. “Y’all can believe in evolution all you want,” he recalls saying, going on to indicate something so divine doesn’t just happen.
In 2003, Bowden recruited Aaron Kelly, an Atlanta area wide receiver, to Clemson. Kelly listened as Bowden listed his pitches, among them a chance for players to grow closer to Jesus. Kelly, a Jehovah’s Witness, mostly kept quiet, used to the reaction in Georgia when he identified himself as a non-Christian.
He didn’t bring up his own faith until he was on campus and the preseason schedule included “Church Day” on the August calendar. Kelly met with Swinney, who at the time was Bowden’s receivers coach, and asked to be excused. Swinney granted Kelly’s request, the player says, no pressure applied to change his mind or attempt at converting him. Teammates, though, later asked him why he had been the only player to miss a bonding opportunity.
“A little weird,” says Kelly, now 28, “but I think I would’ve felt even more uncomfortable going and doing that.”
Kelly insists his own faith had no effect on playing time or how coaches seemed to view him; Kelly played in 51 games in four seasons and went on to break the ACC record for receptions. Although he says Hopkins’s on-field baptism “shocked” him — “I guess it’s a good thing, but I don’t know,” he says — Kelly speaks fondly of Swinney, Bowden and his experience at Clemson. When the FFRF criticized the program earlier this year, Kelly defended his alma mater on Twitter.
Bowden says, no matter the pressure from outside forces, it would be foolish for a coach to abandon a Christian message, especially on the recruiting trail. It’s a peek into the coach’s life, a promise to parents to improve their son physically, academically and spiritually and — not lost on coaches like Bowden — one of the most effective ways to land a top player.
“A tremendous recruiting advantage, he says. “But I didn’t do it because it was an advantage. I did it because it was a legitimate part of my life.”
When Freeze was introduced as coach at Ole Miss in December 2011, he opened with a joke. During his three-month tenure as offensive coordinator at San Jose State, he noticed a pay phone with a sign: $10,000 for a call to God. High inflation, the joke goes, on the West Coast. When Freeze arrived in Oxford to take over the Rebels, there was another pay phone with a sign: 10 cents for the same call to God.
“Hallelujah, we’re home,” Freeze told the crowd, nailing the punch line: It’s so cheap because in the South, dialing God is a local call.
He built his program using Christian principles, sharing stories about his family’s dairy farm and his own mission trips to Russia and Australia, telling recruits he found success and satisfaction through Jesus — and maybe they can, too.
“We just present who we are,” he says, “and they get to choose whether or not that’s the part they want of us.”
It’s a safe bet around here that players will respond favorably, though not everyone is of a like mind. Last season, the Rebels had a Muslim player, walk-on tight end Jameel Best.
Powell, the team chaplain whom Freeze worked alongside while coaching at Tennessee’s Lambuth University, says he interacted with Best the same as he does with the team’s other players, occasionally discussing faith, insisting he never tried to convert the young man.
Best departed Ole Miss after his sophomore year, enrolling at Mississippi Valley State, though his father says the decision was more about expensive tuition than Freeze’s coaching philosophy. John Best says his son’s season with the Rebels changed the 20-year-old for the better. “Whatever they’re doing in that program, it really did well for him,” says John Best, who also identifies himself as a Muslim.
On this Sunday morning, four days before the Rebels’ opening game against Boise State, Freeze holds a meeting with the offensive staff and then heads for the team meeting room, where Christian music is playing and players are taking their seats.
Elliott, the attorney with the FFRF, says the Christian service in the practice facility sounded like a “pretty blatant state endorsement of religion,” indicating Ole Miss soon might hear from his organization. Freeze says he doesn’t spend time thinking about those who find his program or his culture unusual. There are plenty who don’t.
“God, thank you for this day,” Powell says to begin his opening prayer. A few players nod as they follow the chaplain’s words, and others yawn. The chaplain will read from the books of John and First Corinthians, discuss Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. Freeze leans forward in his chair during Powell’s message, the third in a series about misconceptions, about how the truth to some is a lie to others; faith, he says, is about taking a side.
“See, not one of us in this room can remain neutral,” Powell tells his congregation of players and coaches. “Can’t remain neutral. Either we believe and He is who He says he is, or we don’t. Can’t remain neutral.”