Hugh Freeze is back in college football, hired as Liberty University’s head coach, and despite the scandal that disrupted his life 18 months ago, he is not wavering from the faith-based public persona he’s crafted over the years. “Our program is going to be about certain core values. No. 1 is Faith,” Freeze told an audience during an introductory news conference Friday. “Faith for me is believing in the son of God, Jesus Christ. He’s the only one I’ve ever met who can handle my junk.”
Oh, yes, Hugh is back. He’s at a place, too, that seems a perfect match for a coach who needs a to rehabilitate his image after the self-made scar on his career. Liberty, off the beaten path and well out of the spotlight, is a private, deeply Christian school in Virginia, a sort-of Second Chance U. The man who hired Freeze, athletic director Ian McCaw, oversaw the Baylor athletic department during one of the biggest scandals in college football history, when university officials failed to take action regarding alleged rapes and assaults. “He’s a man of great faith,” McCaw said of Freeze on Friday, “a great family man.”
That might send some into fits of laughter given Freeze’s past, but the coach spent much of his news conference acknowledging his transgressions. By now plenty know the story. Freeze resigned at Ole Miss just before the 2017 season after the school discovered the coach had used his university phone to make calls to escort services. This all came amid an NCAA investigation that found Freeze partially responsible for serious recruiting violations that took place within the program. The charges were significant enough that the NCAA handed down a two-conference game suspension on Freeze if he were hired as a head coach before Nov. 30, 2018.
A week after that date passed, he stepped to the podium at Liberty for a 10-minute address that included tears. “I’ve won Sugar Bowls and been praised,” he said, beginning to choke up. “I’ve made decisions that have hurt a lot of people. I don’t want to experience that again.” Freeze admitted during the speech that he “inconvenienced” his wife “many times” in their marriage, and he says he’s spent the past two years out of football reflecting on core values that “when I adhere to them, followed great blessing. It’s also given me time to, when I did not adhere to them, learn about what discipline looks like.”
Freeze arrives to a university very much in flux. The Flames completed their transition this season from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision. In their inaugural season in the FBS this year, they finished 6–5 under former coach Turner Gill. They’ll be eligible for the first time next season for a bowl trip. They’re now the little fish in the big pond after years of owning the FCS’s Big South Conference. Freeze’s contract information is not known. Gill made $940,000 in 2018, according to figures from USA Today.
Coaches in the industry will tell you Freeze is best as a head coach—not an offensive coordinator. Despite his reputation as an offensive guru, he has only served as an OC for one year in college (2010 at Arkansas State). Commanding a program is his forte. He’s 163–55 as a head coach, including his decade leading the Briarcrest Christian high school in Memphis, where the Saints claimed two state championships. He’s endured just one losing season as a head coach, his final season in 2016 at Ole Miss (5–7), took NAIA Lambuth University to its first ever 11–0 regular season in his second year as coach in 2009 and led the Rebels to a 10–3 mark and, at one point, a No. 3 ranking in 2015.
He is a proven winner, but with a great deal of baggage. His Ole Miss troubles haven’t left his side. Freeze was up for much more high profile assistant jobs, reportedly drawing interest from Alabama, Auburn and Tennessee for coordinator gigs. But his return to a league in which he left in shame is not something Southeastern Conference officials take lightly. The league for a second straight season could have strongly recommended that schools not hire Freeze, something that potentially kept the coach out of jobs last year at Missouri and Alabama.
During his news conference Friday, Freeze spoke about his last few days. “I was on this whirlwind tour to other colleges looking at becoming an offensive coordinator at different places. I had three straight days of travel, travel, travel. I’m thinking I know what I’m going to do next, and I turn my phone back on from the flight and there’s a text. ‘Coach, give me a call when you can.’”
Was it completely his decision or did the league step in? We might never know. What we do know: Hugh, his up-tempo, spread offense and religious-themed lectures are back in college football. And if he remains at Liberty in three years, well, there’s a built-in storyline of sorts. In November of 2021, the Flames are scheduled for an SEC road trip against a familiar squad: Ole Miss.