'When Can We Move On?': The Past, Present and Future of Hugh Freeze

Hugh Freeze has made his peace with his past. And what of the future? Well, it’s complicated.
Author:
Publish date:

LYNCHBURG, Va. — Hugh Freeze still has pieces of the goal post that once stood at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, the ones that students toted across Oxford Square after an upset of Alabama. He’s got photos of his father and Archie Manning on the field after Ole Miss’s Sugar Bowl victory in 2015. He has bowl rings with Rebels scripted on the side and red-and-blue Egg Bowl memorabilia from his three wins over rival Mississippi State.

However, none of those things are here, inside his window-lined office at Liberty University. On a giant shelf behind his desk, there is a Liberty helmet and a Liberty football. There are dozens of books, mostly football texts and Christian literature. There are Liberty lanyards, a bulky computer screen and an iPad. There is a fridge full of sodas, bottled water and Red Bull.

In fact, if you’d only started following college football two years ago, judging by his office decor and his 14 wins in 19 games as Liberty’s head coach, you might think of Freeze as one of the game’s newest offensive wizards, a 51-year-old bubbly, evangelical man whose players play hard for him, whose opponents dread scheming against him and who likes to stay well hydrated.

Hugh-freeze-cure-bowl

You might think of him as the hottest head football coach in the lower rungs of the FBS, destined for promotion to a big-time gig in the SEC, ACC or Big Ten, where his fast-paced, innovative offensive scheme may change college football forever. You might think of him as a God-fearing family man, a tenacious recruiter and a coach who’s led a curious independent program in the hills of Virginia into the top 25 in its third full year as an FBS member.

You might think of all of those things. But Hugh Freeze knows you won’t.

“I’d love for you to tell me when people will get over it,” he says, his dirty blond locks peeking through a visor and feet propped on his desk.

“I think 80% of them are realistic and say, ‘Dude, he’s made a mistake and paid a price. Good Lord... let him be,’” Freeze continues. “There’s another 20% that never will be over it. I’ve kind of come to grips with that. For most years of my life, I’ve driven the profession. There was a period there that it drove me. The issues of pride and self are not good.

“I don’t want to sound callous but it’s, like, ‘Here are the people important to me and the rest of y’all can…”

He trails off so as to not utter a word he might regret.

Freeze knows you’ll remember his stint in Oxford, Mississippi. You might remember that he beat Nick Saban twice, is the impetus behind Saban rethinking his own offensive philosophy and that he led the Rebels to the Sugar Bowl for the first time in a half-century. But he knows you’ll definitely remember how it all ended, with Freeze caught up in an NCAA investigation and an extra-marital scandal that left the school sanctioned, embarrassed and still angry even years later.

Freeze says he’s made “peace with the past.” You won’t find any Ole Miss keepsakes in his Liberty office. Instead, some of them are hung on the walls of his home and on the shelves of his home office while others are still buried in moving boxes.

Freeze has maybe compartmentalized that time. It’s the past. This is the present. And what of the future? Well, it’s complicated.

“To my knowledge, I’ve tried, with anybody I could, I made sure they knew that if I hurt them I was sorry, but it’s time to move on,” he says. “How many times can we write about it? How many times can we talk about it? I said I was wrong. I’ve paid a price. My family paid a heck of a price. When can we move on?”

The Present

U.S. Route 460 starts near the coast of Virginia, runs through the Appalachian Mountains, dips slightly into West Virginia near a spot named Rocky Gap, weaves into Kentucky at a place called Cave Run Lake and then ends between Louisville and Lexington.

On its winding, 655-mile path, Highway 460, as it is better known, provides a spectacular view of the campus of Liberty University, a gorgeous 7,000 acres of brick and glass that sits atop a bluff along the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a range of the Appalachians. More specifically, Highway 460 gives passersby a panorama of the university’s athletic facilities. There’s the $29 million indoor football field, the attached football operations center, which just received a $25 million facelift, and don’t forget about the brand new, $30 million athletic center. Further away is a $65 million basketball arena set to open soon.

Intermingled with athletic facilities are campus buildings that have received $1 billion in renovations and remodeling over the last couple years. A stroll through campus even comes with a rhythm. Music softly hums from speakers attached to dozens of light poles dotting campus boulevards.

In short, Liberty has money. Lots of it.

While its athletic budget is on par with an American Athletic Conference team (in the $50–70 million range), its facilities rival some in the Power 5. That’s a positive, unless you’re trying to get an invitation into a Group of Five conference. Liberty was unsuccessful in that endeavor and eventually stopped trying. The school submitted a request to the NCAA to move from FCS to FBS as an independent and was granted approval in 2017.

Ian McCaw, the school’s athletic director, says there are two reasons why Liberty’s football program was denied conference admittance (all other sports compete in the Atlantic Sun).

“We don’t look like the public schools. We are a private Christian university,” McCaw says. “The second part, our resources may have intimidated the conferences. Normally when you add membership, you try to add a school that’s in the middle or lower part of the conference. Some of them were worried we might be at the top.”

Liberty’s resources are rooted in enrollment, which is buoyed by one of the largest online education registries in America. The university got in on the ground floor of digital learning, now boasting more than 90,000 online students along with another 15,000 studying on campus for an enrollment that, in 2018 at least, was the largest among American universities.

The school’s endowment is $1.6 billion, top 70 nationally, and it generates enough revenue from tuition alone that it annually has a surplus of hundreds of millions of dollars—part of the reason that its facilities are glamorous and its new head football coach has one of the best contracts (around $2 million in salary) among those not in the Power 5.

It’s also why the school could build Hugh Freeze and his family a brand new home atop a mountain that overlooks campus. You can almost see it from his office window if not for the fall foliage splendidly blocking the view.

“This sounds selfish, but because of what they did for me and my family,” Freeze says after gesturing toward the mountain’s slopes, “it’s rewarding to give back to them or to make good on their investment.”

He’s well on his way to accomplishing that. The 25th-ranked Flames are 6–0, ranked in the AP top 25 for the first time in school history, have already beaten one Power 5 team this season (Syracuse) and hold the nation’s second-longest active win streak. They enter this weekend’s match at Virginia Tech having won eight consecutive games, only bested by Notre Dame’s 12.

hugh-freeze-present-liberty

Freeze’s first Liberty team last season won eight games, advanced to the school’s first bowl game and won it. He did it with a roster mostly of players who signed to play in the FCS. While he’s captained similarly quick turnarounds in the past (Lambuth, Arkansas State and Ole Miss), this one came with a different wrinkle—the transition of an FCS program to FBS. This year, despite having roughly 50% of an FCS roster, the Flames are cruising, specifically leaning on one player whose talents are suited for the highest level of college football. Quarterback Malik Willis transferred last year from Auburn, where he sat behind the likes of Bo Nix and Joey Gatewood.

He is Freeze’s new Chad Kelly, a statistically productive player who creates most of his big plays with his feet and has an arm that’s even surprising coaches. Willis leads the nation in QB rushing with 99 yards a game, has scored six touchdowns on the ground and is averaging seven yards a carry.

In Liberty’s two closest games, he secured the victories with long runs in the fourth quarter—an 18-yard touchdown scamper against Western Kentucky and a 67-yard run against FIU. “Can’t tell you how many third-and-longs he’s gotten us out of just with his natural play-making ability,” says Maurice Harris, a longtime member of Freeze’s staffs who serves as co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach.

Willis is operating out of the same offense that Kelly did. Freeze has changed very little of his scheme, aside from contorting the system to benefit from Willis’s running ability. He calls all of the plays, except for the third-and-longs, which he leaves for co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kent Austin, a longtime Canadian Football League coach and former Ole Miss quarterback.

Freeze’s ability to shape his system around his athletes is why he’s presided over some of the nation’s most successful offenses in college football and a reason for his ability to quickly have success at his stops, says Rick Neuheisel, a longtime friend of Freeze who is now a college football analyst.

Freeze has operated out of an RPO scheme well before it became the latest offensive crave in the sport. His units strike fear into opposing defenses with what Neuheisel calls the modern-day triple option: an RPO on the move. The quarterback has the option to hand off, run it or throw.

And when defenses adjust, so does Freeze. “We know when we face a problem how to fix it,” Harris says. “If they’re taking this away, we know the answer.”

The Past

The winter after Hugh Freeze endured the first losing season in his eight years as a head college coach, he approached his wife with a hard truth: He’d cheated on her. Two months later, in February of 2017, the two participated in a couples’ retreat, overcame the issue together and began a new, stronger relationship, he says.

In July of that year, Freeze’s personal issues became public when a defamation lawsuit brought on by former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt resulted in the school learning what then-Rebels AD Ross Bjork called a “troubling pattern.” Records of Freeze’s school-owned cell phone turned up multiple calls made to escort services.

University officials, namely Bjork and then-new Ole Miss chancellor Jeffrey Vitter, gave him a decision: be fired for cause or resign.

He resigned.

All of this came as the school was embroiled in one of the most serious NCAA investigations in recent college football history. The NCAA eventually slapped Ole Miss with a two-year bowl ban for 21 violations committed by a dozen boosters and six former staff members for arranging impermissible benefits, including cash payments, free car rides, free hotel rooms and food. Freeze himself got a two-game suspension (it was never applied because he was not a head coach in 2018).

It was a double whammy of news, both professionally and personally, scarring what was to that point an impeccable coaching career and tainting Freeze’s long-standing, outwardly evangelical portrayal.

Now years later, Freeze is not shy about discussing and taking responsibility for the wrong he committed, both in not monitoring his program adequately and using school property for unsavory personal use. But he intends to make one thing clear: He wasn’t pushed out of Ole Miss over matters involving the NCAA.

“There are still people that say ‘He had a show-cause and he was fired for NCAA (sanctions)!’ None of that is true,” Freeze says. “Obviously, I was the captain of the ship and I’ve got to own not monitoring properly and I accept that, but that’s not the reason Ole Miss didn’t stand with me.”

hugh-freeze-ole-miss-2

He’s been labeled by many as a cheater, tarnishing the legitimacy of his tenure at Ole Miss and at previous stops as well. Even now, he still regularly receives social media messages.

You’re a cheater. You’re a liar.

For him, the most frustrating part is that the Ole Miss players who helped him win 39 games in five years “don’t get the credit they deserve,” he says.

When reached for comment this week, Bjork, now AD at Texas A&M, says that he has moved on from the Freeze situation. He declined to comment about the past. He does not regularly communicate with the coach any longer.

But that’s not the case with everyone from Freeze’s days in Oxford. In fact, at least two members of the search committee who hired Freeze still continue a close friendship with the coach, holding text or phone conversations with him periodically. They include former Ole Miss chancellor Dan Jones and ex-Rebels quarterback Archie Manning. During interviews this week with SI, Jones and Manning declined comment on most questions regarding Freeze’s hire, his time at Ole Miss and its bitter end.

“We maintain a friendship and I’m happy for that,” says Jones, who has closely followed the coach’s stint at Liberty.

Manning is happy for Freeze’s success at Liberty, but he tiptoes around the coach’s issues in Oxford.

“It’s hard for me to talk about,” he says. “People like me who got to know Hugh well, we hate what happened and wish him well. I know he’s a good person and a good football coach.”

The Ole Miss fan base remains somewhat split on Freeze. Some feel betrayed, humiliated and embarrassed, the coach leaving the program splintered and saddled with sanctions. Others believe he should have kept his job and they long for the winning that he brought to a school that often finds itself on an uphill climb in the SEC West.

Meanwhile, in Lynchburg, Freeze finds himself at a place with its own past transgressions. Jerry Falwell Sr., a Southern Baptist preacher and televangelist, founded the school in the 1970s while fighting Martin Luther King Jr.’s Civil Rights movement, infamously speaking out against the desegregation of schools. After Falwell’s death in 2007, his son, Jerry Falwell Jr., took over leadership of the university until this August, when he resigned amid allegations that he and his wife had engaged in a years-long sexual relationship with a man.

For some, the parallels to Freeze are striking. Falwell Jr. was involved in hiring the coach. The two met during one of Liberty’s weekly convocations, the largest gathering of Christian students in America, at which Freeze spoke. But Freeze’s interactions with Falwell Jr. were limited.

In the meantime, Freeze feels like he’s satisfied those who truly matter in his life: his family. His wife, Jill, and three daughters, Ragan, Jordan and Madison, are all back together again. Ragan and Jordan left Ole Miss and Auburn, respectively, transferring to Liberty. Madison, meanwhile, is a freshman at Liberty.

Freeze says the family is closer than ever after the adversity of four years ago. Though he doesn’t directly compare his personal situation to football, he talks in sports language as coaches do. He lost a close game and he’s now rallying his team (family) to win next week.

“Failure is so close to success—they’re kin,” he says. “Now, everybody can’t handle failing and the fight it takes to make it tied to your success.”

Those closest to Freeze have seen a change in the coach since the scandal became public. In fact, for years, even while Freeze coached Ole Miss, he attended an accountability small group session each Wednesday morning in Oxford. Harris, part of the group, describes it as a discussion about life and “spiritual things.”

Freeze continued to attend the group after he stepped down, displaying a transparency that Harris appreciated. “He put his faith in our Lord and Savior,” Harris says.

Religion is a central figure to Freeze and his staff. His outward Christian beliefs continue to this day. When asked why he divulged his extramarital relationships to his wife in December of 2016, Freeze quickly quips, “My faith.”

The Future

In the winter of 2018, just before Liberty announced him as coach and 18 months removed from his time at Ole Miss, Hugh Freeze had plenty of options to return to the SEC as a coordinator.

Well removed from that time, Freeze now reveals that both Gus Malzahn at Auburn and Nick Saban at Alabama approached him about jobs. There were others, too, including Tennessee.

Freeze says he was “prepared to” accept any one of those jobs before deciding against it. But he preferred being a head coach and a visit to Liberty’s campus further solidified that belief.

Also, he believes the time away from the league is a necessity. Not for him but for his family.

“As you can imagine what walking back into some of those stadiums would be like…” he says before pausing. “I could have handled it. But the less my family has to (deal with)... This was just the best for my girls. It’s worked out.”

But there’s more to this story. Freeze’s ability to return to the SEC is a murky issue. Multiple sources within the conference who spoke to SI for this story have made it clear: It will be difficult for him to return, if he ever wants to. In fact, in a memo to league schools in 2018, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey informed programs what hiring Freeze might entail, including a deep vetting akin to an NCAA show-cause. Why is your program hiring him?

While Freeze’s Ole Miss tenure ended because of his personal issues, the SEC office is more concerned with the level of NCAA rule-breaking transpiring at a program that he captained. One former SEC administrator describes this as a “sensitive issue” with the conference office and the commissioner.

No sitting head coach at the FBS level has been in charge of a program that has sustained such serious sanctions. FIU coach Butch Davis is the closest example. He was coach at North Carolina during a similar investigation that found improper benefits and academic issues. But Davis was later cleared by the NCAA of all involvement.

hugh-freeze-nick-saban-alabama-offensive-coordinator-mike-locksley.jpg

NCAA sanctions or not, it might not matter.

“He beat Nick Saban twice,” says one industry insider. “Some SEC school is going to offer him a job.”

That goes for the rest of the country, too. Freeze’s marketability as a head coach continues to climb with each victory. Three industry experts who spoke to SI under condition of anonymity believe that he’ll return somewhat soon to the big leagues of NCAA football. But, asks one, who’s willing to take the baggage?

“I think he’s on lists, but he’s in a category of ‘Can I really do this?’” says the source.

Some believe Freeze is more likely to be hired by a desperate Power 5 program with an older athletic director who’s on his way out. No young AD wants the hire, if it backfires, to impact the rest of his or her career, says one agent. “He wasn’t relevant before this year,” says another sports agent, “but he’s propelling himself into relevancy.”

The move may not happen this year, though. Those in the industry expect low turnover because of COVID-related financial issues. Buyout money isn’t there. Optics are bad. However, all eyes are on Texas, says one sports agent.

Do the Longhorns make a move with Tom Herman? What about Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh jumping to the NFL?

Either could create a domino effect that’d open the door for Freeze. And though his alma mater (Southern Miss) has an opening, the Golden Eagles’ resources can’t compete with Liberty.

McCaw is ready when the time comes to attempt to keep his coach. “It’s in the back of your mind,” he says.

Freeze’s candidacy is strong enough that members of his own staff hear chatter from their friends.

“We’ve got buddies, too. They’ll say, ‘I saw Coach Freeze is up for this job!’” says Tanner Burns, Liberty’s special teams coordinator who played for Freeze at Ole Miss. “If you’re getting talked about for Power 5 jobs or this job opens… we see it. I’m not going to lie. If it is coach’s dream to get back at the Power 5 level, it’s God’s plan for him. He’s happy here for now. This place has treated us well, treated him well.”

When asked about the future, Freeze waves aside the topic. He rattles off the coaching cliches. He’s happy in Lynchburg. His family is well taken care of. He’s honored to be here.

“I’m transparent to a fault these days probably,” he says. “I’m sure that will bite me in the tail with the media. I don’t want to tell anyone anything that’s not true, but I really believe there are very few jobs that I could leave here for right now.”

Plus, in 2021, the Flames could be better than they are this season. And the ’21 schedule sets up nicely. Sure, Liberty has to play at Troy, at Syracuse and at UAB, but there are eight more very winnable games. The toughest game on that 2021 slate is a trip to a familiar conference and a familiar town.

In a game arranged a year before Freeze took the Liberty job, the Flames are scheduled on Nov. 6, 2021, to play at Ole Miss.

“Oh yeah,” Freeze chuckles, his voice dripping in sarcasm, “I’m really looking forward to that one.”