It was January 2018, and Jill Freeze was talking about forgiveness.
Plenty had been revealed about her husband Hugh's behavior in the previous months, some of the news involving him calling escort services. Jill spoke about "healing" and the relationship with her husband to a crowd of 15,000 at Liberty University in the couple's first public appearance since he had resigned as head coach at Ole Miss.
It was raw and revealing. And nearly a year later, it was looked at as the Lynchburg, Va., school's introduction to its new football coach.
Last December, the Flames hired Freeze as their new coach, replacing Turner Gill, who had retired after squiring the school into the FBS ranks toward the end of his seven-year tenure. Liberty is hoping that Freeze's success building Arkansas State and Ole Miss into contenders will translate to the Flames, who are attempting to build a thriving gridiron program as an independent. "I have always felt one of my skills is building," Freeze says. "I can push through perceived ceilings to success."
The 2018 Flames went 6–6 in their first FBS campaign. Freeze must take a roster that includes many players recruited to play in the Big South Conference and prepare them for a '19 schedule that includes Syracuse, Virginia, BYU and Rutgers. It's an ambitious schedule, but Freeze is confident that the school's expectations are realistic and its future is bright.
Meanwhile, Liberty is betting that Freeze's reputation as a builder will produce results and make people forget the end of his five years leading the Rebels. His failure to monitor the program resulted in NCAA sanctions, and his personal behavior brought scrutiny as well. It all led to his resignation in July 2017.
"I interviewed Hugh and researched him fully," Liberty AD Ian McCaw says. "I feel confident we have been able to hire a godly man and a good football coach."
Both Freeze and McCaw admit that this is a transition period. There are depth concerns, even though Liberty is at 85 scholarships for the first time, and no amount of coaching can turn every player brought in to play FCS football into a significant contributor on an FBS team. But Freeze is confident that he has assembled a good staff and will be able to lure strong performers to campus in the coming years. A stadium expansion has boosted capacity to 25,000, and a football building scheduled to open in 2020 will be competitive with those at top Group of 5 programs. A pair of bowl tie-ins will assure a postseason destination if the Flames can win six games.
It's a new start for Freeze, who turned down coordinator jobs at Power 5 schools to take on the Liberty challenge.
"I'm a glass-half-full guy," he says. "That's tough when you're getting the heck beaten out of you by people who don't know you and don't have everything right. It's a restart. It's what I wish for people who are going through tough times."
— Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports' 2019 SEC Football preview magazine.
(Top photo by Lee Luther Jr./AP)