JONESBORO, Ark. – Hugh Freeze has never read "The Blind Side," other than a few passages highlighted by his wife.
Freeze has never seen the entire movie, either, but he's heard enough about both to know he comes across as less than favorable during his time as the Memphis high school coach of Baltimore Ravens' lineman Michael Oher.
Setting all that aside, the new Arkansas State coach has made the most of his opportunities and notoriety. And he and his coaching staff aren't afraid to use that as they try to build the Red Wolves into a Sun Belt Conference contender.
"I use it all the time," Arkansas State tight ends coach Maurice Harris said. "Let's say I'm taking to a tight end from Texas. He doesn't know much about Arkansas State University, but I guarantee you he's seen 'The Blind Side,' and he knows who Michael Oher is.
"All of a sudden, the kid is looking us up on the Internet because of that one connection with coach Freeze."
The 41-year-old Freeze was hired to replace Steve Roberts as head coach in December. The new job is part of a quick ascension for Freeze, who went from coach at Briarcrest Christian High School in Memphis to FBS head coach in six years.
Freeze spent 13 years coaching at Briarcrest, hired as the head coach when he was 25. During that time, the school went 99-23 and won a pair of state championships.
It was there that Oher first met Freeze.
"I could tell right away when I first met him that he's a player's coach and you can't do anything but love him," Oher said. "He's just a great guy all around. If he has anything, you can have it. That's the kind of guy he is."
Despite his success at Briarcrest, including helping elevate Oher to a nationally recruited offensive lineman, Freeze's move to the college ranks didn't come without a few raised eyebrows. Shortly after Oher signed with Mississippi, Freeze joined him with the Rebels in an administrative role.
Freeze said his hiring by then-coach Ed Orgeron was the result of his own coaching success and a prior relationship with then-Ole Miss assistant Noel Mazzone. He insists that any perception that he "shopped" Oher to college coaches in return for a job for himself, as alluded to in "The Blind Side," is false.
"People can say I got my first college job because of Michael Oher, and you know what?" Freeze said. "It doesn't matter. The only thing is the people who are not near it feel like they can cast an opinion when they really may not know all the facts. That's the only time that I somewhat get bothered.
"But I've even gotten to a point now where that doesn't even really bother me. I've got a chance to write my own story."
Freeze said he felt "an itch" to move to college coaching several years before Oher's arrival at Briarcrest. It was his wife, Jill, who finally told him she thought he had lost the edge for high school coaching and to take a chance.
Freeze said that chance came when Orgeron called and offered him a desk job within the athletic department following Oher's signing. He took an estimated $20,000 pay cut and headed for Oxford, Miss., with nothing but a promise from Orgeron that "if something comes open (on the field) and you're the best fit, I'll consider you."
Freeze spent the 2006 season learning everything he could about college football. He became Orgeron's right-hand man within the department, organizing recruiting weekends, travel schedules, meals and budgets.
He showed up at the office when the coaches did and didn't leave until they did. One of the perks of the job was that Orgeron let Freeze be in the coaching box during games and listen to the calls, but the lack of coaching left Freeze wondering if he could miss another season on the field.
A year later, Orgeron hired him as the receivers coach, where Freeze stayed for two seasons.
"I knew that it was eating him up," Oher said. "I could tell whenever I talked to him or whenever I'd go to dinner with him that it was eating him up.
"Once he got back on the field he was as happy as he could be."
Following Orgeron's firing in 2007, Freeze took his first collegiate head coaching job at NAIA Lambuth (Tenn.) College. He led Lambuth to a 20-5 record in two seasons, including a 12-1 mark his second season.
The immediate success came as no surprise to Sean Tuohy, whose Memphis family was portrayed in "The Blind Side" after taking Oher in. Tuohy knew Freeze in passing before Oher but came to know him well later on, becoming a believer in Freeze's motivational methods as well as his on-the-field coaching.
"I don't know why it took people so long, because if I was an athletic director I would have hired him five years ago," Tuohy said. "There are people who know the secret sauce, and I think Hugh is one of them.
"I think it's just a matter of time before a lot of people agree with me."
Tuohy attended two Arkansas State games last season after Freeze was hired there as the offensive coordinator. Under Freeze, the Red Wolves' new no-huddle offense averaged 403.4 yards per game and were 43rd in the country in total offense, up from 95th the season before. They lost by two at Indiana in a game that stunned and dismayed Hoosiers fans.
Tuohy plans to return this season to watch his friend coach and the school senses it has a bit of a rock star, urging fans to "Feel the Freeze" next season.
"I expect big things out of him, knowing the type of guy he is, the kind of coach he is," Oher said. "I even tell people now in a couple of years he might be a head coach in the NFL one day, all types of things.
"The guy just has so many different things in his mind that can win you a ball game."
Freeze saw firsthand just how difficult winning at Arkansas State can be last season. Despite the offensive turnaround, the Red Wolves lost five games by seven points or less and finished 4-8 for the second consecutive season.
That led to Roberts' resignation in November and raised the question of whether Freeze truly believes he can win at a school that hasn't won more than six games in a season since 1987. Roberts was 45-63 in nine seasons, though he did lead Arkansas State to the Sun Belt championship in 2005 and the school's first win over a BCS Conference school when it defeated Texas A&M in 2008.
"I refuse to think any other way," Freeze said. "But I also know a very good football coach and good man preceded me and struggled. I know it's not going to be easy."
Regardless of the challenge, Freeze is confident he is up to it. Meanwhile, he'll continue to trade weekly text messages and phone calls with both Tuohy and Oher and continue to try and step out of his Hollywood shadow.
"I'm blessed to have been a part of the Michael Oher story, whatever small part I played," Freeze said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything."