FAYETTEVILLE — Dave Wommack was so discouraged with the college coaching profession he didn’t have any plans to return after the 2009 season.
The veteran coach had been fired as Georgia Tech’s defensive coordinator and went back home to Missouri, where he fished, hunted and watched football as a spectator for the first time in his career. He slowly began to consider high school jobs as his next step in coaching, seeing it as a good way to stay involved in teaching the game.
Then Wommack got a phone call from a friend.
“They asked if I knew Hugh Freeze,” Wommack said. “I said, ‘No, I really don’t and I really wasn’t that much thinking about coming back.’ … They said you ought to talk to him. So I kind of waited around about three weeks and finally did call him.”
It led to Wommack’s return to college football as Arkansas State’s defensive coordinator under Freeze last season. Then a return to the Southeastern Conference last winter after Freeze moved to Ole Miss and brought Wommack with him.
Wommack will be back in War Memorial Stadium on Saturday, too, for the first time since 2004 when he was in the final season of his four-year run on Arkansas’ staff.
He is in charge of an Ole Miss defense that needed an overhaul after limping through its final season under coach Houston Nutt in 2011. Wommack said the project hasn’t been easy, but is enjoying it after his brief absence from the college game.
“It was the best thing to happen to me after coaching for 31 years,” Wommack said, looking back on his season away from football. “Boy, I really missed it. I really did.
“It has just been fun getting back and being around. And quite honestly, looking at it from a different perspective and getting a chance to step back and say hey, this is what you can do maybe scheme-wise better. I think I’ve become a better coach.”
The challenge requires it. Wommack did inherit, arguably, the toughest task among new SEC coordinators in the offseason when he joined Freeze at Ole Miss.
The Rebels were among the nation’s worst defenses last season, allowing 32.1 points and 419.3 yards a game. While it wasn’t the only problem Ole Miss experienced, the defensive lapses contributed to the 0-8 finish in SEC play.
Wommack admitted he had mixed emotions about leaving Arkansas State after helping Freeze lead the program to one of the best seasons in school history. The Red Wolves led the Sun Belt in both scoring defense (20.8 points a game) and total defense (331.5 yards), ranking in the top 25 in the nation in both categories.
But he jumped on board because he believed in the Ole Miss coach.
The feeling is mutual with Freeze calling Wommack “the right fit for me.”
“He is really valuable to me because I am so enamored and involved in the offensive side of it that I have to have great trust with what’s going on in the defensive meting rooms,” Freeze said. “I usually only meet with them twice a week and usually it’s just an overview of how they see things and the adjustments they are going to make.
“His demeanor on game days is a good complement to me.”
Wommack said patience was necessary early as Ole Miss endured some rough performances. The 66-31 loss to Texas was most notable. But Wommack believes the game was a turning point for the Rebels in their rebirth under Freeze.
“I think it embarrassed them,” Wommack said. “It embarrassed us as coaches. We didn’t get mad at them, we just said, ‘Hey, you know if you want to keep doing that we’re going to keep losing.’ We’ve really gotten better after that game.”
Ole Miss has improved statistically through eight games. The Rebels are ranked 40th in the nation in total defense (356 yards a game) and 64th in scoring (26.6 points).
Wommack said his team is defense is looking forward to its next test against the Razorbacks. He said Arkansas has “four or five NFL” players on offense, but said the Rebels are looking forward to the challenge after their off week.
He also knows its leader well after working with offensive coordinator Paul Petrino at Southern Miss in 2000. Petrino called Wommack a “good friend” and a “good coach” who will challenge Arkansas with a variety of blitzes Saturday.
“That’s something Dave’s always done,” Petrino said. “He’s been more of a man blitzer in the past. He’s doing more zone blitzing right now and third down is more man blitz. That’s something he’s always carried a big volume.”
Wommack said he’s eager to see how his defense performs against the Razorbacks after the program enjoyed a big moment in its last outing. Ole Miss beat Auburn 41-20 to snap a 16-game SEC losing streak that dated back to early in the 2010 season.
It was a good day to be a college coach. Wommack has had plenty of those in the past year-and-a-half since returning to the profession at Arkansas State. And he’s expected even more as Ole Miss continues to grow in its first year under Freeze.
“I’ve enjoyed this here at Ole Miss, too, because I know which way this program is going and I know where it’s going to be down the road,” Wommack said.