‘The proof is in the pudding’

Fayetteville, Arkansas- Hugh Freeze ran in the middle of a field inside an SEC stadium on Saturday as the winner for the first time in six years.

He kissed his wife, Jill, and their three daughters. He gave everyone a quick kiss on the forehead. They laugh. They shared inside jokes that only they could understand. Then they posed for photos in front of the dashboard to remind themselves that this, yes, was real.

Freedom 21, Arkansas 19.

The former Ole Miss coach is not a memory, nor a ghost, and he can no longer be ignored. The man who gave Nick Saban tantrums and brought down the Alabama powerhouse in back-to-back seasons at Ole Miss has found his groove, and as he celebrated another historic turning point at Liberty, he heard outside noise.

Was this victory a moment of redemption after six years of absence from the SEC? Or maybe it was an audition for another big job, like the one that opened earlier in the week in Auburn?

“I don’t know if Auburn wants me. I have no idea,” Freeze told 247Sports outside Liberty’s celebratory locker room. “I know this: I’ve won everywhere I’ve been and my staff and kids have quickly transformed the programs. It’s our culture we instill. I know we do and the proof is in the pudding. “

If what happened here at Razorback Stadium wasn’t redemption or an audition, it was at least the pursuit of a career defined by program-changing victories fueled by the creative high-flying offense of a coach and his penchant for recruiting and developing quarterbacks into masters. of the statistics sheet.

The No. 23 Liberty (8-1) rolls and his only setback came on a failed two-point attempt on the road against nationally ranked Wake Forest. It may be fitting that the Flames beat the Razorbacks here by putting quarterback KJ Jefferson on the goal line on a two-point attempt in the final minutes on Saturday.

Yes, the Flames are legitimately good. Their offense scores and the system is as entertaining as Freeze designs at Ole Miss, sure, but the defense is also among the best in the nation at harassing quarterbacks (second nationally in sacks). The roster is deep and talented, and the wins — and Freeze’s 34-12 record at Liberty — should come as no surprise. Freeze won 10 games at least once at all four stops as a head coach (NAIA Lambuth, Arkansas State, Ole Miss and Liberty) and broke numerous offensive records at each school. He once led Ole Miss to a national No. 3 ranking and was the toast of Oxford, Mississippi, but that meteoric rise was matched by a faster fall. A flurry of recruiting violations was uncovered in an NCAA investigation and documents in a lawsuit revealed that Freeze contacted escort services with a university-issued cell phone. Freeze resigned under pressure at the start of 2017 and the NCAA reversed 27 of his 39 school wins.

Freeze’s promising high-level football career was over, but two years later he was given a second life at Liberty University, an evangelical institution in Lynchburg, Virginia, founded by Jerry Falwell Sr. in 1971. He quickly turned the program into a winner, winning eight games in his first season and then another 10 in 2020. He beat Virginia Tech, Syracuse, BYU and now Arkansas.

He also transformed Malik Willis, a backup quarterback at Auburn who came close to becoming an SEC receiver, became a superstar at Liberty, where he threw for more than 5,000 yards and rushed for 1,822 yards to go along with 74 total touchdowns in two seasons. Willis was selected by the Tennessee Titans in the third round of the NFL Spring Draft, leaving Liberty quarterbackless and their expectations falsified.

“Nothing motivates me more than proving I can do it again with another quarterback,” Freeze said.

Liberty landed the former Baylor and Utah quarterback Charlie Brewer in the offseason, but injuries and setbacks forced Freeze to turn to third-string quarterback Johnathan Bennet. Bennett needed time to adjust after being thrown off the bench during pre-season training. Frustrated, he cut Freeze, then came a moment of reconciliation. “I just put my pride aside,” Bennett said. “We are all proud people and pride is the enemy. It showed earlier with the way I was playing. Coach Freeze is a great coach and I understood that if you actually listened to him, good things can happen.”

Bennett is now 5-0 as a Flames starter, with wins over favorites BYU and Arkansas. He threw for 224 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday after missing several practices with the flu.

“A few years ago, if we had lost a quarterback, we could have been in big trouble,” Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw said. “At the moment we have several guys who can step in and help us win games.”

People around Freeze were beaming with pride on Saturday, although Liberty administrators did not post his resume in the chats. After all, there might be other suitors. McCaw said the interest in Freeze is “flattering” for Liberty.

The Flames last week signed Freeze to an eight-year contract worth $40 million through the 2030 season. His average annual salary is the highest among Five Fives coaches. Other contract details remained private, but the buyout would not be exceptionally large, which opens the door for other schools to sue Freeze if they choose.

“I think we’ve got a great situation for him, but obviously there’s other really big work going on as well and we’re going to do everything we can to keep him at Liberty,” McCaw said. “We certainly understand that there are others who will pursue him.”

Money isn’t necessarily the issue in attracting Freeze. The roadblock is whether a high-profile program is willing to set aside its questions and concerns about Freeze’s immoral history as quickly as it embraces its winning history on the court.

Six Power Five programs are looking for head coaches and more jobs will be open with three Saturdays remaining in the regular season. Auburn leads the pack and has the hottest job out there. The school has won two national titles, most recently in 2010, and played for another after the 2013 season. Auburn is expected to pursue Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin under newly hired sporting director John Cohen, sources told 247Sports, but Freeze is also a hot name that has some backing from some boosters. Freeze said he and his agent, Jimmy Sexton, were not contacted by Auburn on Saturday.

“This is all just speculation to me because, truth be told, I’m as happy as it gets here,” Freeze said. “I told my administration and I told my players as clearly as possible: if something interests me, I will tell them. So far nothing has (interested me) that has called – and I’m I’m not saying those who called wanted me They just call Jimmy and I say it’s really not good for me, Jill and the kids But if so, you have to sit down and have a conversation. That hasn’t happened yet.”

Moments earlier, on a field littered with jubilant Liberty players and staff, Freeze was reunited with his wife, Jill, and their three daughters. The five Freezes embraced as TV cameras and photographers documented the moment. The SEC Network team inside the press box wondered on national television how much Freeze would be discussed on Auburn’s message boards that night.

Freeze’s hold on his family loosened. His daughter, Jordan, yelled at her father. “The best to do it, Hugh FreezeShe raised her hands above her head and her fingers formed an “L” and a “U”.

It’s been a while but, boy, winning in the SEC feels good.

“I don’t think I have anything else to prove,” Freeze said later. “I used to say stupid things three or four years ago like, ‘Well, maybe one day I can have a redemption story.’ And finally, man, a mentor and friend said, “Man, stop it. Your story is over. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone.” And they’re right.”

Brandon Marcello is a national college football reporter for 247Sports. You can follow him on Twitter (@bmarcello).