Fall 2021 SS Magazine

'More humble and considerate' Hugh Freeze determined to teach Liberty players character, integrity

Early in his tenure as head coach at Ole Miss, Hugh Freeze took a recruiting trip to a small town in southern Georgia. News of the visit had made its way around town, and waiting outside of the school was an elderly couple who were eager to meet the head coach of their beloved Rebels.

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Not thinking much of it, Freeze bypassed them and went on into the school to visit with an athlete. Miss Lois, as Freeze remembers her, and her husband waited there all day until he was done with his recruiting visit to just shake his hand and talk with him.

Instead of rushing out of town for the next visit, Freeze obliged and even asked the couple to join him for lunch at a local farmer’s market. They shared a long lunch together, where the couple shared a story about a big struggle they were having with their son. Freeze eventually got on the phone with their son and was able to help him through some things.

It was a wholesome moment that, for him, serves as a barometer of who he was, who he became, and who he hopes to be going forward.

“I don’t tell you that to, in any way, pat myself on the back. It’s kind of sad where I’m going with this,” Freeze said. “You take, after year five of going to the Sugar Bowl, and I have that same scenario arise, I’m probably too important to do it.

“But not anymore.”

Now in his third season at Liberty University, Freeze opened up on Sports Spectrum’s “Weekly Slant” about his career, the misdeeds he committed that led to his demise at Ole Miss, his hope to restore his reputation, and how his faith in God has been the center of his restoration.

He said his word for this season is “patience,” and much of his approach now in terms of how he handles things in the locker room and himself as a person stems out of that.

An Ole Miss alum and Oxford, Mississippi, native, Freeze was hired to take over as coach of the Rebels in December 2011 after successful stints at Arkansas State, Lambuth University (Jackson, Tennessee), and Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis.

He led Ole Miss to a 6-6 record his first season, which included a win over rival Mississippi State and a win over Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl. By 2013, he had brought in the fifth-ranked recruiting class in the country. Before hiring Freeze, Ole Miss had gone two seasons without an SEC win. In just a few short years, Freeze had the Rebels near the top of the SEC in terms of talent and success.

It all culminated with a 48-20 win over Oklahoma State in the 2016 Sugar Bowl, the first win in that bowl game for the program since Archie Manning played (1970). The Rebels finished the season ranked ninth in the Associated Press poll, their first top-10 finish since 1969. Along the way, Freeze coached some of the best players to come through Ole Miss in some time — future NFL players D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown, Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil and Robert Nkemdiche, just to name a few.

That quick rise to success didn’t come without its faults, though.

“I wanted to be a hero in a lot of different ways that was not honorable and was not the right path to chase,” Freeze said. “And I knew it. It was an internal battle of, ‘I know that’s not what I really want. Why am I letting this define me? Why am I letting them define me? Why am I letting that scoreboard define me?’ Because I’ve always, for 20 years, preached that doesn’t matter. That’s not who I am.

“It quickly led to a series of really, really, really stupid, poor decisions that forever I will regret.”

Those decisions included improper recruiting benefits and a violation of his morals clause, which led to him being forced to resign. Where he might have tried to hide what happened then to save face, he’s an open book now.

Freeze wants his players and others around him to learn from his mistakes — which almost cost him his career.

He knows there will always be skeptics; there are people out there who don’t believe people can change. But as he told the “Weekly Slant” host, Brock Huard, the Hugh Freeze you see today is a much different man than the one you saw five years ago.

After several years away from football, Liberty hired Freeze in December 2018. It was a chance for him to recalibrate his core values and not just coach young men in football, but also in how to learn from what he did wrong.

He preached as much at his introductory press conference, saying of his values: “No. 1 is faith. It’s about the man Jesus Christ.”

Freeze said the people in his corner know a much different guy now than those latter years at Ole Miss, someone who is much more prone to give out grace and mercy.

“I know my wife would probably say he is much more humble and considerate, more at peace, back to who he was at Arkansas State, the first few years at Ole Miss, or at Lambuth that nobody knows about,” he said. “I think that’s what they would say right now.”

Freeze teaches a character class every Monday to his team, and he’s got yet another potential NFL star in those classes — quarterback Malik Willis, who is being discussed as a potential top-10 draft pick. Whatever failures Freeze might have made at Ole Miss with his players, he not only hopes to change that as a coach with Willis, but he wants Willis to learn from his mistakes as a man.

“It’s remarkable to me the amount of attention he has received, and yet, how little he desires that,” Freeze said. “Trust me, I learned a very difficult way that that affected me negatively some years back, all the attention that came. And as an adult male, I did not handle it properly. Certainly as a believer I did not.”

The theme of those character classes is about having a game plan and being prepared for battle. As Christians, he said, that means having accountability, and for him that’s meant surrounding himself with the right people who have the best intentions at heart for him.

In just a few years at Liberty, Freeze has amassed a 22-7 record, including a win over in-state rival Virginia Tech last season to go with a win over Coastal Carolina in the Cure Bowl and school’s highest end-of-season ranking ever at No. 17 in the AP poll. The Flames sit at 4-1 this season with a Nov. 6 matchup against Ole Miss looming.

He’s been down this road before — quick, and in some cases unprecedented, success at a new program. He’s determined not to go down the same path as before and instead be the guy who stayed and went to lunch with that elderly couple in Georgia.

It all comes down to integrity, he said.

“Integrity is not always getting it right, or none of us would have it,” Freeze said. “To me it’s when you don’t get it right, you own it, you accept whatever consequences come with it, you make the necessary changes, and you play the next play.”

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