Spring 2021 Magazine

Liberty football bowl eligible after first season in FBS, coach Hugh Freeze's first season

The Liberty Flames football team notched its seventh win of the season Saturday with a 49-28 win over New Mexico State. It was Senior Day for the Flames and senior running back Frankie Hickson delivered a career-best performance with 196 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

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The win marks a significant step for the Liberty football program — the Flames have qualified for an FBS bowl game for the first time ever, and in their first season of eligibility. They previously competed at the FCS level until the university announced in 2017 that the program would transition to FBS competition. The Flames were a provisional FBS member last season, in which they finished 6-6, and currently compete as an independent.

The 2019 season was also the first for head coach Hugh Freeze, who was hired in December 2018 to help Liberty navigate the transition to the top tier of college football.

Freeze came to Liberty with a wealth of experience. He coached D-I Arkansas State to a 10-2 record in 2011 before being hired at Ole Miss at the end of the season to take over a struggling SEC program.

Freeze’s Rebels made four bowl games and won three — including a victory in the 2015 Sugar Bowl — during his five seasons at the helm and, in 2015, Ole Miss won 10 games in a season for the first time since 2003. The squad was a mainstay in the top 10 in 2014 and 2015, and regularly beat traditional SEC powers, including taking down Alabama in back-to-back seasons for the first time ever.

But the beginning of the end for Freeze in Oxford came in January 2016 when the NCAA charged him with numerous recruiting violations. That fall, Freeze’s team lost seven games and missed a bowl for the first time. Then in July 2017, Freeze resigned when the school discovered that he had made a series of calls to a female escort service during his time at Ole Miss.

Earlier this year, the NCAA stripped Freeze of many of his wins at Ole Miss, instituted a two-year postseason ban, reduced scholarships for four years and placed the school on three year’s probation.

Freeze’s name had been dragged through the mud for all to see, yet he said his faith is what helped him recover from one of the most trying times in his life. In his first public appearance since his resignation, Freeze addressed Liberty students and staff. He expressed deep regret and asked for forgiveness.

“When my walls came crumbling down around me, the faith that I stand on through the son of God, Jesus Christ — it is a solid rock. A solid foundation,” Freeze said at the school’s Convocation. “And when all hell is breaking loose around you and everybody has their opinion about what is going on, and you know that you’ve hurt the heart of God, His love never changes. Ever.”

He continued: “I had to say to people that I love. ‘I am sorry, please forgive me.’ And today is really the first day I can tell the faith family, ‘I am sorry, please forgive me.'”

“My mind is set. It is settled. My eyes are clear. My heart is full,” Freeze said. “My feet are pointed forward. And I am looking forward, with thanksgiving, to what God has for me and my family next, because of His great love, and His great forgiveness.”

Liberty, a large private evangelical Christian university in Lynchburg, Va., took note of Freeze’s sincere repentance and commitment to his faith. The school extended a head coaching offer to him last December after the retirement of former coach Turner Gill, and Freeze accepted.

Freeze joined the Sports Spectrum Podcast this past March to discuss his faith, his journey to forgiveness and his new role at Liberty.

“The foundational core of who I am is based on faith in God through His Son Jesus Christ,” Freeze said. “And that certainly doesn’t mean I’m perfect, as everyone knows, but I am forgiven and I want everyone to experience that forgiveness, that same grace and mercy that I’ve received.”

The 2019 season has been a series of new beginnings for Liberty football in the FBS and for Coach Freeze. Together, they will look to end their successful season with a bowl win next month. The Flames will learn of their bowl placement after the conference championship games Saturday.

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