Hugh Freeze finds shelter at Liberty after Ole Miss scandals

LYNCHBURG, Va. -- The words of Paul the Apostle appear in a bold white font on a dark blue banner that hangs over one end zone of Liberty University's still-new $29 million indoor football practice facility:

Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Liberty. -- 2 Corinthians 3:17

"Lord," "Spirit" and "Liberty" are highlighted with extra bars of red. Red, white and blue. The colors of liberty, as well as Liberty.

Some 40 feet beneath the banner, on an AstroTurf field, head coach Hugh Freeze is running drills. Here, on Aug. 7, in the midst of his first week of fall practice in three years, Freeze has no idea what the future holds. He has no idea what will happen in 24 days, when No. 22 Syracuse comes to Lynchburg for Liberty's first game as a bowl-eligible FBS program. He has no idea if his players, most recruited for an FCS schedule, will be ready for the challenges of the next level. And he certainly has no idea that, in one week's time, back spasms will send him to the hospital and under the knife, forcing Freeze to lead practices from a recovery bed via video feed and putting him in jeopardy of missing his first game back on the sideline as a head coach since 2016.

No, today -- as Freeze hopes will be the case every day -- is not about what may or may not happen in the future or what may or may not have happened in the past. As an air horn sounds to signal a change in sessions, the coach looks to the sideline where wife Jill and oldest daughter Ragan, a Liberty junior, are watching practice, and he winks. The Freezes smile. That's something they weren't doing a year ago -- not three years ago and not together. But here in Lynchburg, there is no talk of infidelity and call girls or vacated wins and NCAA show-causes that dominated Freeze's past at Ole Miss. Today is all about football.

Liberty, indeed.

"Do I look happy? Because I feel pretty dang happy," the 49-year-old says, jogging over between run-pass option reps to deliver an exuberant handshake via a wrist adorned with a band that reads "Tougher Together." The rubber bracelet is a familiar Ole Miss-ish powder blue. Turns out it was also a seldom-used alternative hue on the Liberty Flames' official uniform palette. Freeze sweeps his free hand to point toward the field behind him. "I have always loved this. But it had to be taken away from me to make me appreciate it as much as I do now."

There is no outrage to be found in Lynchburg. There are no protests outside. The media assemblage to cover the day's practice includes in-house university television and radio and two beat writers. The local TV station was here a few days earlier, but not today. The national eye-rolling reaction to Freeze's introductory media conference at Liberty ("Jesus Christ, he is the only one I've ever met who can handle my junk ...") has faded away over eight months. It was long ago lost amid the chatter about a solid recruiting class, excitement over the finalization of Liberty's move up into the FBS football ranks, and the round-the-clock noise of construction crews working on a $25 million football operations center, the school's 16th athletic department construction project since 2010.

New buildings. The new frontier of FBS for a longtime small college program. No national attention (not yet, anyway). A team with good, but not great, expectations (not yet, anyway). No one around here will call Freeze's move to Liberty a rehabilitation retreat or dare think of it as a soft relaunch into something bigger elsewhere. They'll leave it up to others to throw around terms like reinvention, rejuvenation or even inevitable repetition. As potential cocoons go, one could do worse.

"He owns his mistakes as a man, so it doesn't seem too hard to own my mistakes as a quarterback." Liberty quarterback Buckshot Calvert

"I started out fall camp with a team meeting," Freeze says of his first preseason practice in three years. "That night I asked, 'How did we all get here?' We all have a story. Obviously, they know my story, or at least parts of it, good and bad, mountaintops, valleys, and they all have one. You all have one. Everybody doesn't have to live theirs out like another person, but we all have a story. ... There's going to be some things that everybody's not crazy about admitting to, but yet I think young men need to learn to be transparent as much as possible with the people who love them and who aren't trying to hurt them."

Freeze himself owned his mistakes from the get-go; from there, his new players say they have found it easy to follow suit.

"From Day 1, the first meeting we had with him in January, Coach Freeze owned everything we might have heard about him," says senior Buckshot Calvert, a scraggly bearded, gold-chained South Florida QB who certainly doesn't lean into the image most think of when they hear Liberty University. Last year, he threw for 3,068 yards and 21 touchdowns in then-coach Turner Gill's more conventional offense. In practice, running Freeze's hyper-speed schemes, Calvert has already managed to curb his 2018 habit of throwing interceptions and has an incredible downfield target in receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden, a potential first-round NFL draft talent.

"I believe he is always honest with us, so that makes us want to always be honest with him," Calvert says of Freeze. "He owns his mistakes as a man, so it doesn't seem too hard to own my mistakes as a quarterback."

Freeze is not the first person to come to Liberty Mountain seeking redemption. Since the Rev. Jerry Falwell founded then-Lynchburg Baptist College in 1971, the school and the house of worship upon which it was founded, Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church, have become places of national pilgrimage for conservative Christians. On the same day of this midweek practice, a family joined hands and prayed over Falwell's gravesite, only a few minutes' stroll from Williams Stadium and the grind of those construction cranes racing to complete the Flames' new locker rooms in time for the Aug. 31 opener.

High atop the mountain, looking directly down into that stadium from the gazebo where Falwell held his final Bible study on the morning of his death in 1997, a group of Liberty students and their parents took a break from moving into their dorms for the fall semester. They sat in a circle and asked the Lord to forgive them for the sins they had succumbed to during the summer. "Jesus, we cannot change our past," the prayer leader said aloud, eyes closed, "but you can help us change the ways in which we walk into our futures."

At the bottom of that mountain, Freeze says he has changed his walk. But not his playbook.

"The same plan I put in place year one at Arkansas State, year one at Ole Miss, I'm doing here. I don't treat it any different because what I've done on the field has worked," he says in the middle of his first full week of practice since 2016. As he turns the talk to football, he does so with a hint of old Oxford Landshark swagger. He's not wrong. He famously led NAIA Lambuth College to an 8-4 debut while working for free, eager to transfer his incredible success as a high school coach to the college game. He went 10-2 in his lone season at Arkansas State. He posted a 39-25 record in five seasons at Ole Miss, including two wins against Alabama -- at least until the NCAA took away 27 of those wins for recruiting violations.

His quick success in Oxford immediately conjured outside skepticism about how he was suddenly luring so much five-star talent to Ole Miss. His sometimes overly aggressive defensive stance of those accusations only recruited more enemies eager to take him down. And they did. Now, he blames his detachments from reality on the pride that came with those wins, an arrogance well-fertilized by the likes of a No. 1 ranking, Sports Illustrated covers, College GameDay visits, and Katy Perry doing celebratory Hotty Toddy bar dives at Funkys in Oxford Square.

In the midst of those seasons, Freeze went total ivory tower. He started taking his daily post-practice dinners in his office, watching film alone instead of eating with the rest of the team. Publicly, he spoke of love within the locker room, the blood brotherhood of team, and continued his unapologetic tweeting of scriptures. But behind closed doors, his life had increasingly turned into X's, O's, dollar signs and secret phone numbers. At the height of it all, sometime in the offseason of 2016, he says he woke up and felt the need to confess to his family about the women at the other end of those numbers.

For whatever reason, perhaps that arrogance, he believed his marital struggles would remain a private matter. As we all know now, they did not; he was dismissed from Ole Miss in disgrace on June 20, 2017, for what then-athletic director Ross Bjork described as "a pattern of personal misconduct inconsistent with the standards we expect from the leader of our football team." Bjork and Ole Miss administrators were tipped off to that pattern by the attorneys of former Rebels head coach Houston Nutt, who were preparing a civil suit against Freeze, Bjork and other Ole Miss officials for violating Nutt's separation agreement by making incorrect statements about him during off-the-record conversations with media. The case was dismissed shortly after Freeze's resignation, which came after he had confirmed to Bjork what had been brought to their attention. An ESPN.com investigation later identified calls to at least a dozen escort services over a 33-month period beginning in April 2014.

Freeze coached nowhere in 2017 while awaiting the results of an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations. When the ruling came down in December of that year, he was hit with a de facto show cause when the NCAA said any head-coach job he might take prior to November 30, 2018, would come with a two-conference game suspension.

Freeze says he hopes the pair of seasons he spent sitting at home made him a better man and a better coach. The tone of his explanation sounds extremely familiar. It's the old Freeze. It's confident. It's the schoolteacher in him at work again. But because of what happened at Ole Miss, he has forfeited his benefit of the doubt. Everything Hugh Freeze says now comes with an asterisk. He says he is well aware of that and it's why he now works to find the asterisks carried by others.

"What is different about me now, I think, is that I probably have a little extra sense of compassion," he says. "I'm easier on the kids with some things. I try to be understanding. I try to hear the backstory. 'How did you get here to feel this way?' Or, 'What caused you to be depressed today?' Let's talk about that, instead of, 'C'mon, dude, get your butt in gear, or get your mind right.'"

He now opens his morning staff meetings asking his coaches for names of players who need extra attention, not on routes and schemes, but on personal matters. He bases the day's interactions on that intel. "Who do I need to reach out to today? Do I need to find a table to sit with at lunch? I wouldn't have done that three years ago."

As Freeze talks, his boss, athletic director Ian McCaw listens nearby, nodding. When Freeze was hired by McCaw in December, the guffaws and disbelief were largely limited to a few days on social media and then dissipated as the college football world moved on to watching bowl games.

McCaw's arrival two years earlier sparked protestations with much longer legs. Only six months earlier, he had resigned from the same post at another Christian school, Baylor University. He directed record growth in the Bears' athletic department, largely powered by the hiring of coach Art Briles, like Freeze an offensive guru who had first earned his reputation as a high school sideline legend. But McCaw, Briles and president Ken Starr all had their tenures ended amid one of the most horrifying scandals in the history of collegiate athletics, a systemic pattern of sexual assaults involving Baylor football players and a lack of university response.

Yet when Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University since his father's death, decided a change was needed at the top of his burgeoning athletic department, he hired McCaw and charged him with building programs worthy of the new facilities and boosting Liberty's 43-year-old football program into the big leagues. "You look at what Baylor was able to do during his tenure," Falwell said at the time, in a quote that didn't go over well nationally, "it fits perfectly with where we see our sports programs going."

To those who point to the AD and his new coach as men who have retreated to Liberty Mountain because it is the only place that will have them, McCaw's response comes with a pleasant smile that belies the firefight in which he remains entrenched back in Waco, Texas.

"I would say, first of all, do your homework on the Baylor situation. That was an institutional problem, not a football problem." He points to the current Jane Doe Title IX lawsuits against Baylor. "The more of that that comes out, I think the better it's going to be for everyone."

For those suits, McCaw gave a scathing deposition in Lynchburg last year, raising accusations of racism among the school's board of regents and police force, eager to burn down the football program to cover up their shortcomings elsewhere. Shortly after this interview, McCaw emailed a link to a PDF of that deposition. Baylor has described his allegations as "numerous, factually baseless assertions."

No matter if it was merely a piece of a larger pie or ends up being the entire menu, the Baylor mess was indeed a football problem. It was a pair of football cases that first ignited the investigations that led to McCaw's dismissal and continues to fuel the Jane Doe trials as well as the ongoing NCAA investigation into Briles, which is likely to wrap up this fall.

None of that is going away for McCaw anytime soon. Just as every conversation about every win or loss for Hugh Freeze's new team will be punctuated by talk of where the coach failed off the field while so successfully leading his previous teams on it.

Jerry Falwell Jr. is nowhere close to the football devotee his father was. His chosen arena has always been politics. But he has always subscribed to his father's belief that football was the key to carrying Liberty to a higher status in the national collegiate consciousness, just at it had done for Notre Dame, BYU and, yes, Baylor. In the university's welcome center there is a photograph of an 11-year-old Jerry Jr. standing with his father on the sideline during Liberty's inaugural 1973 season as an NAIA program. As an adult, he had lobbied multiple Group of 5 conferences to find a place for Liberty, but to no avail. So, McCaw's first task was to petition the NCAA to allow the school to become an FBS independent alongside a small group of schools, including Notre Dame and BYU. After presentations on stadium capacity (25,000), game attendance (16,426 over two seasons), an increase in 22 scholarships to 85 and a commitment to facilities, the waiver was granted.

McCaw then worked the phones to piece together an FBS-worthy schedule for 2018 and beyond. Incredibly and creatively (see: in-season home-and-homes against New Mexico State), he has pulled it off, with full slates set until 2022 and at least a handful of FBS-level games booked all the way through 2031. This season's schedule opens with a sold-out home game versus Syracuse that McCaw describes as a "preseason bowl game" and includes trips to BYU and nearby Virginia. Next season adds Virginia Tech and NC State. And if Freeze is still with the Flames in 2021, be sure to keep an eye on Nov. 13, when Liberty travels to Ole Miss.

McCaw and Freeze first met on Jan. 24, 2018. Liberty had booked Freeze, then still in coaching purgatory, to speak at one of its Convocations, mandatory midweek assemblies attended by all 15,000-plus on-campus Liberty students. Freeze spoke about the trappings of fame, "not honoring my wife" and compared his plight to the biblical characters of Peter, Paul and King David, as well as 1929 Rose Bowl goat Roy "Wrong Way" Riegels, who nearly scored a touchdown on his own team when he carried a recovered fumble 69 yards toward the wrong end zone. When Jill Freeze took the stage to explain how she and her three daughters had managed to forgive their husband and father, Freeze wept openly onstage.

The experience stuck with McCaw, especially when Freeze talked about the pain of public humiliation and being abandoned by people whom he'd believed were thick-or-thin friends. That fall, when Turner Gill abruptly announced his resignation after a 6-6 season to take care of his ailing wife, McCaw's first call was to Freeze, who was in the Charlotte airport traveling between interviews at SEC schools to become an offensive coordinator.

"We met on Wednesday and we had the press conference on Friday. It moved very quickly," McCaw recalls, saying he felt a connection with Freeze because of their shared public firings. "I think it strengthens you. I think I'm a better AD today than I was four or five years ago. I think he's a better football coach than he was three of four years ago. So, I think all of your life experiences help you grow and strengthen you."

McCaw confesses some surprise he hasn't experienced more public pushback for the Freeze hire. There are the occasional questions, but it has never come close to the outcry that came with his hiring by Jerry Falwell Jr., and it hasn't affected his bottom line. McCaw doesn't have the daily uphill fundraising challenges faced by most athletic administrators. All of those massive athletic construction projects? Most are funded internally from the school's operating budget. After decades of financial struggles, Liberty now openly boasts about its financial well-being, powered by nearly 100,000 online students and a claimed endowment of more than $1 billion.

Any additional money Freeze and McCaw can raise is a bonus, but that doesn't stop them from trying. Freeze's photo is seemingly on every billboard and bus stop in Lynchburg and he has introduced personalized fundraising programs such as Freeze's 40, promising behind-the-scenes access to 40 donors. McCaw says season-ticket sales are up 50 percent since the new coach came on board. The Syracuse opener is expected to be a sellout, a 25,000-plus crowd made up of Flames fans, new and old, and no doubt more than a few curious onlookers, eager to catch a glimpse of the once-fallen man.

It will be the quite the contrast to Freeze's first nights on the Liberty campus, eight months ago. Jill and the girls weren't there. They were still in Mississippi, starting the process of packing up the house. The coach was given on-campus living quarters while he worked to recruit his first class of Flames, a room in Montview Mansion, the beautiful stonework home where Jerry Falwell Sr. and wife Macel lived, located in the center of a campus that grew around them. On May 15, 2007, Falwell was found in his office on the main floor of that house, having died from a heart attack at the age of 73. That office has not been touched since, glassed off, sealed and preserved to remain just as it was the morning of the founder's passing.

Every night, Freeze would walk past that office on the way upstairs to his room that overlooked the flicker of the eternal flame over Jerry Falwell's final resting place. Every night, Freeze would pause to look into that time capsule, the hairs standing up on his arms as he thought about "God's providence that put me here right now." And every night, the coach's eyes looked past all of the books, photos, yellowing newspapers and the bust of Thomas Jefferson, drawn to one item forever frozen in the room, sitting on the floor by the reverend's desk.

A Liberty football helmet.

"Everyone's got challenges that they work through," McCaw says of his new head football coach, and of himself. "And Liberty is a very forgiving environment."

Call it forgiveness, call it grace or call it indifference. Just don't call it resistance. Because, so far, there has been nearly none for Freeze and McCaw. Not in Lynchburg.

The season opens soon for the football program that was built upon the college that was built upon the church that was built upon the mountain. College football is waiting to see what kind of man emerges from it.