Hugh Freeze, who resigned as Mississippi’s football coach in July 2017 amid an NCAA investigation into impermissible benefits given to the Rebels’ players and a school probe into his personal conduct, is expected to be named head coach at Liberty, according to reports Thursday night and Friday morning from Fox Sports Knoxville’s Jon Reed, Football Scoop’s Scott Roussel, USA Today’s Dan Wolken and ESPN’s Chris Low. He’ll replace Turner Gill, who announced his retirement on Monday.
Freeze led Ole Miss to its highest national ranking in 50 years, reaching No. 3 in both 2014 and 2015 and finishing 10-3 with a Sugar Bowl win in the latter season. But the NCAA found that the Rebels’ football program “lacked institutional control and fostered an unconstrained culture of booster involvement in football recruiting,” adding a one-year bowl ban (served this season) to the self-imposed postseason ban the school served in 2017. The NCAA found that a dozen boosters and six former staffers had given players cash payments, free car rides to campus, free hotel rooms, food and Rebels apparel from an Oxford-area sports merchandise store. Two former staffers also were implicated for arranging fraudulent standardized test scores for three recruits. Freeze would have had to serve a two-game conference-play suspension had any school hired him as head coach for the 2018 season.
Freeze almost certainly would have survived the NCAA violations, but a defamation lawsuit filed by former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt against the school indirectly led to his downfall. Nutt alleged that Freeze and others in the school’s athletics department had spread rumors that most of the violations had occurred under Nutt’s watch and, as part of the discovery process, demanded that the school turn over the call records for Freeze’s school-issued cellphone. Freeze was allowed to redact the personal calls he made from the phone but failed to hide a call made to a number with a Detroit area code that was connected to escort services. He resigned soon after Ole Miss told him it would release a statement on the phone call.
A born-again Christian who often espouses his faith on his Twitter feed, Freeze spoke of forgiveness in a speech given at Liberty in January, an address made alongside his wife, Jill. Hugh Freeze said in the speech that he had confessed his infidelities to his wife in 2016, before they became public knowledge.
“This man is the godliest man that I have ever known,” Jill Freeze said at Liberty after her husband’s remarks. “I am who I am in Christ because of this man and the impact and influence he has had on me. . . . I know he’s going to do what it takes to get right with God. And so for that, it was easy enough in that moment to say, ‘I forgive you.’ Like, immediately.”
Liberty, the largest Evangelical university in the United States, played its first season as a top-level college football program in 2018, going 6-6 as an independent. The 2019 season will be the first in which the Flames will be eligible for a postseason bowl. The school’s athletic director is Ian McCaw, who resigned from the same position at Baylor in May 2016 over his involvement in a scandal involving the school’s football team. According to various reports, McCaw and Baylor football Coach Art Briles were both informed of a gang rape that involved the school’s football players, but they failed to report the allegations.
Freeze, who in October was hired as offensive coordinator for the Arizona Hotshots of the yet-to-play Alliance of American Football, was something of a hot commodity in this year’s coaching carousel. According to Low, he had interviewed with Auburn, Florida State and Tennessee for their vacant offensive coordinator positions and “was on Nick Saban’s radar” at Alabama, which just saw offensive coordinator Michael Locksley depart to take the head coaching job at Maryland.