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Driver's seat: Freeze driving profession in Liberty reboot

Hugh Freeze is different.

Certainly now as a coach but also as father, friend, husband.

Hugh Freeze is exactly the same.

Actually, Freeze tells FootballScoop, he is entirely different because he is more of who he always has been.

Changes, borne of embarrassment and necessity after resigning at Ole Miss in July 2017, actually are a return to Freeze's roots, he believes.

“I'm so different,” says Freeze, days after guiding Liberty to a 6-0 start and its 14th win in its last 17 games. “When I was at Lambuth and Arkansas State and my first three, three-and-a-half to four years at Ole Miss, at Lambuth, Arkansas State and Liberty, I have that peace that overrides the circumstances. I think I drive the profession right now, instead of the profession driving me.

“Which I think I've always been pretty good at that, except for about a year-and-a-half at Ole Miss. And so I know I'm back to that, which makes me so much better of a husband, father, friend, coach, mentor. Whatever you want to call it. Because I have that peace.”

Freeze thinks he's always had that mindset and had it more than he did not during his supernova-run in Oxford, Mississippi.

“I had it some of the time at Ole Miss,” Freeze says, “but I certainly lost sight with ego and pride and the stuff that makes you make foolish and selfish decisions. So in that way, I'm back to who I have been most of my life.”

Hugh Freeze is an entirely different football coach these days on the field. His Flames are 6-0 because they have a potentially transcendent program-changing quarterback in Auburn transfer Malik Willis and because Freeze is leaning on Liberty's defense, taking a macro approach to game management.

“Me and Hugh are really good friends,” says Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. “Malik's a wonderful person. I think that offense is really a perfect fit for him. It really doesn't surprise me how good Hugh is doing. Hugh's a winner. He's won everywhere he's been. It's been fun to watch.”

The coach as responsible as anyone for Alabama's current turf-scorching offense, whose own team's one-play scores always could be faster, now relishes the games when his team methodically controls games.

“Football-wise, I manage the game so much differently than I did and I wish I would have then,” says Freeze. “When you're raised as an OC, it's how many plays can I get and how many points can I score. And when that was your calling card, it's hard to change that mentality when it's worked for you. And it worked for me as a head coach, too.”

Freeze knows that his old score-first, score-more, score-again mindset also likely is responsible for a couple of losses on his ledger that should not be there.

“Those first four years at Ole Miss, that's who I was and it probably cost us a few games,” Freeze admits. “But we go to the Sugar Bowl and we win it. But Year 5, it cost me dearly. If I was the coach I was now … I don't know the final outcome, so I don't want to say, but I honestly believe we had a … we're up 24-3 on Alabama (in 2016). If I just manage that game like I do now, we might've gotten three in a row over them. Same thing with Florida State (to open that '16 season), we were up three scores. I just manage the game differently.

“My defense right now, we've had six games, and I think five of the games we've had around 60 plays instead of 85.”

Still, the frenetic tempo from offenses once scoring 43 points in consecutive games against mighty Alabama lurks beneath the surface.

“I can still go fast when I want to, but I manage it differently,” Freeze says. “Those two years I sat out, there's no question in my mind, you think through everything. When you're going through a time when you think I've let a season of my life, and it's not who I am and it's not who I was for the many, many other years, but unfortunately I put myself in position where you may have lost your career. So you evaluate everything. You go through every game you ever coached, because I had nothing but time, and I just think I've really had an awakening to ... is it possible that complementary football might be more important than the No 3-rated offense in the country?”

Liberty's greatest challenge this season, and perhaps in Freeze's brief tenure, comes Saturday at Virginia Tech. The Flames are ranked 25th nationally and trending toward a second bowl berth in as many years under Freeze; the Hokies are two-touchdown favorites, even though they're unranked and own road losses at North Carolina and Wake Forest.

Vegas cares not about redemption; only rosters. Liberty's is not complete. Not close. Freeze admits as much without prodding.

“We've still only had one recruiting class here,” Freeze says. “It's nobody's fault, but it's still primarily a 50% FCS roster, and you're looking at that schedule, to come off a bowl win and be 6-0 today, I'm overjoyed. Thankful.

“There are so many people that have played a role in this, from our training staff to nutritionists to our strength staff to our administration and, obviously, our coaches and players. I'm thankful, and no one has ever flinched.”

It's impossible to know what else Freeze might do with Liberty; opportunities for more signature moments await, both this week as well as later this season with games remaining against North Carolina State and No. 15 Coastal Carolina.

Freeze feels healthy, mentally and physically.

The staph infection in his spine, responsible for those metaphor-filled photos of Freeze attempting to coach Liberty from a hospital bed while beginning a career resurrection, is gone.

His golf game, from too much spare time during the COVID-19 pandemic, is much better.

College football, nay sports in general, almost always gives second chances. Winning usually begets third chances.

Maybe that's Freeze's future. He insists it isn't now his focus.

“After sitting out Year 1, dealing with all the fear and your family having to walk through hell and back, dealing with everything people would wrote and say, whether it was true or not true, the fact remains I caused that, that was a very difficult time,” Freeze says. “Year 2, you see time kind of heals things. I'm so thankful for so many good friends who know me for who I am, both in the coaching world and just friends, and obviously my family. The people that you get really thankful for when you go through a difficult season of life are the people who get to know you and take the time to hear your story. But my wife was so certain when we visited here that this was right for me and for our family at that time. It kind of got you out of the spotlight, which was good for me. Got us to a place that took the time to get to know us and loved us and believed in us.

“When you go through this, I don't want to waste a day ever again, I don't want to take for granted the opportunities that you're blessed with and I don't want to this profession to ever drive me again. I want to drive it. I'm just very blessed and at peace. I know we're making a difference in young men's lives in our program, not only because we're winning games but because of the way we go about handling them with all the issues they have to deal with in life.”