Freeze's Road To Redemption Has Liberty at 6-0

In his first season at Liberty, Hugh Freeze led the Flames to a win over Georgia Southern in the Cure Bowl.Reinhold Matay/USA Today

Tony Barnhart

There was a time when Hugh Freeze, the man who beat Nick Saban in back-to-back years (2014-2015) and came very close to a third straight win over the best coach in college history (a 48-43 loss in 2016) thought he might have lost it all.

In July of 2017, Freeze had abruptly resigned as the Ole Miss head coach. It was later revealed that Freeze had used a university cell phone to call a number related to an escort service. A university investigation revealed “a pattern of personal misconduct” and Freeze stepped away. University officials insisted at the time than an ongoing NCAA investigation into the program played no role in his being forced to leave.

Freeze, who was a successful high school coach before taking this first head coaching college job at tiny Lambuth College in January of 2008, had made a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, taking Ole Miss to back-to-back New Year’s Six bowls. In January of 2016 the Rebels went to their first Sugar Bowl in 36 years. Freeze’s dad, Danny, had his photo taken with Archie Manning on the floor of the Louisiana Superdome.

“It was a thrill,” said Freeze.

Almost 19 months later he was unemployed. He was 48 years old and didn’t know if he would ever coach again.

“I thought I might lose my career,” he said.

That moment in July of 2017 began a journey of redemption for Freeze.

When we talked on Monday, Hugh Freeze wanted me to know this up front: When it came to his personal misconduct, he owns it all. No excuses.

“I will have to go to my grave knowing I caused people to put a question mark beside my name and my character,” he said. “I hate that so much that I can’t put it into words.”

Repairing the damage with his wife, Jill, and their three daughters was beyond painful. But the family is still together.

“My biggest blessing is my wife and kids,” said Freeze

After two years out of college football Freeze was hired in December of 2018 as the head coach at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. Liberty is an FBS independent with a football program that aspires to be much more. Freeze spoke to me from his office at the $20 million Liberty Football Center, a 65,000-square foot facility located in the North End Zone at Williams Stadium.

And as it has been the case in all of his other coaching stops--Lambuth, Arkansas State, Ole Miss—he has had early success at Liberty. In 2019 the Flames went 8-5 and went to their first-ever bowl game, beating Georgia Southern.

So far, the 2020 season has been magical. Liberty is a 6-0, which includes a dominating 38-21 win at Syracuse on Oct. 17, the school’s first-ever win over an ACC team. The Flames are off this week with a challenging back half of the schedule that includes road trips to Virginia Tech, N.C. State, and Coastal Carolina. It was a good time to take stock of where he is and where the program is.

First of all, with only one full recruiting class under his belt, Freeze is doing all this with a roster where less than 50 percent were recruited to play at the FBS level.

“It’s nobody’s fault. That’s just where we are. And to be sitting here in year two with the roster we have we are over-joyed and elated,” said Freeze. “We’re not the most talented team out there. But they are a great group of guys.”

This season Freeze has continued to build on his reputation as a quarterback whisperer. At every level his system has always made quarterbacks comfortable--and productive.

It started with Ryan Aplin at Arkansas State who threw for 3,588 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2011, Freeze’s only season there. It continued at Ole Miss with Bo Wallace and Chad Kelly who ultimately made Alabama’s Nick Saban change his approach to offense.

In 2018, Freeze’s first year at Liberty, Stephen “Buckshot” Calvert from South Florida rewrote the school record books by throwing for 3,663 yards and 17 touchdowns.

This season it has been Auburn transfer Malik Willis, who last week scored seven touchdowns (6 passing, 1 rushing) in a 56-35 win over Southern Mississippi.

Liberty has won its past four games by 21, 33, 17, and 21 points. It will certainly be an underdog at Virginia Tech (Nov. 7), N.C. State (Nov. 14), and Coastal Carolina, which is 5-0 and ranked No. 20 in this week’s AP poll.

Freeze understands and says he’ll be honest with his players about the challenges ahead.

“We’re not playing (those teams) with an equal deck but that doesn’t mean you can’t win,” said Freeze. “I’m excited about it. And it doesn’t take away from anything this team has accomplished so far.”

So now what? With the success Freeze has had at Liberty and the way his offenses continue to confound just about everybody, the phone calls are going to come. In 2018 some SEC teams looked into bringing Freeze back as an offensive coordinator but were ultimately convinced that not enough time had passed since the transgressions that forced him out at Ole Miss.

The question is whether the 2021 season will be mark that enough time has passed for Freeze to return to the highest level of college football.

For a couple of months in 2018 Freeze worked with Rick Neuheisel as the OC of the Arizona Hot Shots of the Alliance of American Football spring league. But when the Liberty offer came along, he took it with Neuheisel’s blessing.

Freeze said his wife Jill was the driving force in his taking the Liberty job.

“She thought our family would be more comfortable in this environment and she was right,” said Freeze.

But Freeze, who turned 51 on Sept. 27, has a lot of years left. Schools that need his skill set are going to reach out. Some of them, we predict, will be from the SEC.

There is currently an opening at Southern Mississippi, where Hugh and Jill Freeze met as students.

The football program in Hattiesburg is a mess.

Jay Hopson resigned just one game into the 2020 season and was replaced by assistant Scotty Walden. Then on Tuesday Walden resigned to become the next coach at Austin Peay.

But to convince Freeze to come home, the powers that be at USM would have to dig deep because he makes $2 million a year at Liberty, which is four times what Hopson was making.

And the case can be made for Freeze to stay where he has found peace. On Monday Freeze received a commitment from the highest-rated recruit in school history—defensive lineman Khristian Zackery of Carrollton, Ga. He would be the first ESPN Top 300 recruit to ever sign with Liberty.

Those discussions will have to wait for another day. This week Hugh Freeze will have a getaway day with Jill to recharge for what could be a historic stretch run for Liberty.

And during that time, Freeze will think about his father.

“I hurt him and a lot of other people,” said Freeze. “But his words to me were ‘You’re my son. Keep standing.’”

After being knocked to his knees and asking for forgiveness,  Danny Hugh Freeze, Jr., is still standing and walking on a path that he prays will lead to redemption.

Comments

Tony Barnhart

FEATURED
COMMUNITY