Few people in the coaching profession have experienced highs quite as high and lows quite as low as Hugh Freeze.
On Jan. 1, 2016, Freeze led Ole Miss to its first Sugar Bowl victory since 1970, and 18 months later he was out of a job after news of a previous affair went public. After spending the 2017 and ’18 seasons out of the game, Freeze returned as the head coach at Liberty, only to be flattened — literally — by a staph infection in his back that kept him off the sidelines for the first two games as the Flames’ coach.
After an 8-5 debut season and a Cure Bowl victory, Freeze is now dealing with the same adversity as the rest of us.
He took time in between meetings on Thursday to answer some questions from FootballScoop.
FootballScoop: What’s your day-to-day look like right now?
Freeze: Every day is kind of a new adventure of its own. I don’t think any of us have a roadmap for this. The priority right now is, No. 1, the safety and well-being of our players and families and staff. That’s the priority. Then is certainly the academic plan for success for our players, who are being asked to do something that they typically do not do. Fortunately, most of our kids have been involved in some of our online stuff that we’re very good at here at Liberty.
There’s also recruiting. You’ve got plenty of time to continue to build relationships with players that you’re recruiting because you can’t get them on campus, so you’re looking for unique ways to expose them to what you have to offer. Fourthly, coaches have assignments in regards to ball or research and development, game-planning for early games next year. That typically takes up every day. The rest of the day I’ve kind of set some benchmarks for me and my family, things that we want to accomplish in this time. We’ve done things together at night now that we probably haven’t done consistently in a long time, and now it’s every night we’re doing something. Whether it’s actually sitting down next to each together, reading a story together and talking about what we can learn from it, watching movies. That’s what pretty much every day consists of me right now.
FootballScoop: Is your staff scattered in different places?
Freeze: It’s a mixture. Some check in daily here. I have a staff member, Tanner Burns, whose wife has had two battles with cancer. It’s not smart for him to expose her to anything. I also have two young staff members whose wives just had babies, obviously they’re at home. We have Microsoft Teams or whatever it’s called. Those of us who come in for a portion of the day, we don’t get around each other, or if we have a meeting it’s in the team room where there’s only four or five people at a time. Every individual has their choice of how we’re going to honor the desire of the government to properly do social distancing.
FootballScoop: How are you feeling physically these days?
Freeze: Thanks for asking. Most days pretty good. I think I’m always going to struggle, according to the doctors that did my procedures. My energy’s great. I’m always going to struggle with some arthritic symptoms in my lower back. They come and go. Yesterday I had a great day, did some exercising and felt great. This morning I wake up and it’s a little tight, but nothing that’s prohibiting me from what I want to do. So I’m very, very blessed. This infection is out of my bloodstream. I get tested about once a month and they feel great about where that is. I’m always going to deal with a little tightness in my back.
FootballScoop: As an independent with a national profile, what is your recruiting strategy?
Freeze: We’ll go anywhere for a player, but I think we have to be wise about the time-money ratio that you would spend in an area that really has heavily trafficked recruiting in. But if we have a connection or a kid is a Liberty fit anywhere in the nation, we would certainly entertain that. The places we’ve decided to spend a lot of time covering are Georgia, North Florida, the Carolinas, Virginia, and the DC area, a little bit in Ohio and Pennsylvania. That’s where we think the home base is. We’re going to go to Texas if there’s a recruit but we’re not going to spend a lot of time (there), you just can’t do that and do a great job in my opinion. And then obviously JuCo kids in Mississippi, Texas, Kansas and California.
FootballScoop: What’s the ultimate goal for Liberty football?
Freeze: Our ultimate goal is to be one of the top — and I know people play on my words when I say Group of 5, I clearly understand we’re not in one of the five conferences — but we view ourselves at that level, if that makes sense. Our goal is to be one of the top five programs in the nation in the Group of 5, currently. I’m sitting in a brand new $30 million operations center that is off the charts, crazy good. We obviously had the $20 million indoor. Our facilities are going to rival any of those schools, it rivals many Power 5s. Certainly at the Group of 5 level I think it’s hard to find a place that is putting their money where their mouth is in regards to their commitment to grow the football program. I don’t know that anyone can say they’ve done any more than Liberty has in a short time, and so we’re thankful for that.
If one day down the road there’s a conference that makes sense for us, I know that we would entertain that, but in this current time there’s a lot of advantages to being independent — setting your schedule and giving your kids a lot of different environments to play in.
FootballScoop: How has your coaching philosophy changed over the years?
Freeze: I haven’t changed anything in my philosophy in regards to being a relational coach to my players and demanding that from our coaching staff. That’s what works for me, it’s worked everywhere I’ve been, we’ve won everywhere I’ve been and I think it’s because of that atmosphere we create. I really haven’t changed any of that. Have I changed personally some in regards to dealing with successes and failures? Yes. Have I changed in my offensive play-calling, having more of an understanding of playing complimentary football? Yes. But the philosophies and what we do have not changed.
FootballScoop: You mentioned changing your outlook on wins and losses. Can you expand on that?
Freeze: You get to a point in life where if you can’t truly enjoy a win because you’re worried about the next person says about you or the next game, how it defines you, I think that’s a sad state and unfortunately many of us get there. I would be guilty of that also. It really comes back to, man, every day, what is my identity found in? Is it found in what the scoreboard says? Is it found in what Zach writes about me? Is it found in what Twitter says about about me? Is it found in what my players think about me? All of those things have an effect on you. Some of them are important, some are not worth the paper they’re written on. I think we all set out to be one of the elite coaches in America, it’s what you want to chase when you get into college football, but if you make it to one of the Power 5 conferences and if you’re not careful, I can testify to the fact that you can let things define you that really have no merit in defining you, and it can affect the way you think of yourself, the way you operate, the decisions you make. This time, the two years off and then the blessing to come back to Liberty, I’m just determined that that won’t be the case. We celebrate wins now, a lot better than I used to. Don’t let the losses take as much out of you as I used to. It’s about perspective. I guess the older you get and having had success at a Power 5 conference, you’ve been there, done that, you find out that while it’s great and you love the attention, it’s not really lasting and probably not as significant as we made it out to be.
FootballScoop: I asked Mack Brown a similar question earlier this week and he had pretty much the same answer.
Freeze: That’s an honor I’m in Mack’s mindset.
FootballScoop: I meant to ask him this but didn’t get to it, but the same thought applies to you as well. Guys like yourself, Mack, Les Miles certainly are more than qualified for the positions you have, but the coaching market is a zero-sum game and every job a guy like you gets is one less job for a younger guy that’s paid his dues. Do you view that as a problem for college football, and if so, what’s the fix to it?
Freeze: I don’t see it as a problem. I haven’t studied it as much as you have. I think every school has the right — the football coach at a university is a huge hire. If you can hire one that has proven he can win and do well academically and graduate his players, I think that’s hard to pass up on some of those, because they get to decide what is the right fit for them. I do believe that young coaches, I was one one time also, and I think if they continue to do well, their opportunity will come. It’s not for me to put myself in the administration’s schools when there’s so many people that are dependent on that guy’s success. Who are we to say what is right for that university? I think they have the right to choose what is the best for them, and you nor I get to sit in on all those interviews. I would have to say they have that right to do that, and while there’s plenty of quality young coaches, there’s also something to be said for experience, and I do believe those quality young coaches who are like Mack Browns of the world will certainly get their opportunity.