Hugh Freeze and Liberty University host Southern Miss on Saturday. (Taylor Irby/The News & Advance via AP, File)

Nearly 14 months ago Hugh Freeze made his coaching debut at Liberty University, watching the game from a hospital bed in the Liberty press box.

He was experiencing excruciating back pain that all but paralyzed him. Making matters all the worse, the Liberty Flames were pretty much doused 24-0 by Syracuse. That’s right: Liberty scored as many points as you and me.

Now then, fast-forward to his past Saturday. Freeze’s Flames traveled to Syracuse to play the Atlantic Coast Conference Orange in a return match. Freeze’s back has long since healed. Final score: Liberty 38, Syracuse 21. It was not that close. Liberty, missing its starting tailback and two starting wide receivers, rolled up 520 yards, 338 of that on the ground, in controlling the clock and the game. The victory moved upstart Liberty to a perfect 5-0 record. It was Liberty’s first-ever victory over an Atlantic Coast Conference team.

Rick Cleveland

And all that just reinforces what we have known here in Mississippi for a while: Whatever else you may think of Freeze from his mercurial five seasons as Ole Miss head coach, the man can ever more coach football. He’s a ball coach. His players play hard and his plays work. No lesser an authority than Nick Saban largely credits Freeze for transforming the Southeastern Conference from a power-oriented league to a spread-the-field, fast-break offensive style. “If you cant beat ’em, join ’em,” is the way Saban put it.

Whether Freeze has been the head coach at Lambuth, Arkansas State, Ole Miss and now Liberty, many, many teams can’t beat him. Nevertheless, this turn-around at Liberty has been impressive.

Freeze recovered from the bad back and an 0-2 start last September to guide Liberty to an 8-5 record and a bowl victory last year. The Flames are 13-3 since last season’s 0-2 start.

Next on Liberty’s schedule: a home game with Southern Miss this Saturday, and there are more angles at work here than in an octagon.

You see, Freeze graduated from Southern Miss. So did his wife Jill. Hattiesburg is where they met.

That’s just part of it. When Jay Hopson resigned at Southern Miss after the first game of the 2020 season, immediate speculation on his immediate successor centered on Freeze. Never mind that Freeze reportedly makes four times as much at Liberty as Hopson made at Southern Miss. Many, including Paul Finebaum, called Freeze a perfect fit at USM. Finebaum went so far as to say, “My gut feeling is that he would take the job… .”

Freeze, as you might expect, publicly pooh-poohs any suggestion that he would leave Liberty to come back to Mississippi and to his alma mater.

“I have an awesome job here at Liberty,” he said by phone Monday afternoon. “I am so thankful to have the opportunity to coach here. My sole focus professionally right now is to help Liberty have the best football team we can possibly have. Besides that, I make it a habit not to talk about other people’s coaching jobs.”

My educated guess is that Freeze, at the least, is mightily intrigued by the idea of returning to Mississippi and to his alma mater.

But the Southern Miss job currently belongs to 30-year-old Texan Scotty Walden, the youngest Division I coach in the nation. Walden’s Golden Eagles are 1-3 in this craziest of seasons, having won for the first time Oct. 3, 41-31, at North Texas. Since then, USM has had consecutive games postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. All in all, Walden, who coaches as if he just downed a case and a half of Red Bull, has done an admirable job in holding things together amid the coaching change, COVID and the turmoil of an 0-3 start.

Freeze said Monday he has had little time to watch tape on Southern Miss but that his first impression was how athletic the Eagles are, especially at wide receiver and in the defensive secondary.

“Those wide receivers, man, those guys are big-time,” Freeze said. “They are a challenge. And Jack Abraham, the quarterback, I had him in a bunch of camps at Ole Miss. He’s accurate, he’s competitive and he’s a leader. I have all the respect in the world for him.”

Freeze also respects the Southern Miss football program, dating back to his days as an undergraduate, when he tried out unsuccessfully for Hill Denson’s baseball team. “I just wasn’t good enough,” he said.

Freeze instead concentrated on his studies and his position as the president of the Baptist Student Union. Yes, he said, he did attend football games when Curley Hallman was the head coach and Brett Favre was the quarterback and Southern Miss defeated the likes of Alabama, Auburn and Florida State, all on the road.

“I remember that big sign over the practice field that said, ‘Southern Miss football: Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime,’” he said. “And they meant it, they weren’t scared of anybody.”

Freeze said he got to know Favre back then and they have become friends.

“I expect to get a text from Brett this week because he loves to needle you,” Freeze said.

Otherwise, Freeze said he doesn’t expect any special feelings Saturday other than the one he always feels on a football Saturday.

“I want to win,” he said. “I want to beat Southern Miss. That’s my mindset. Heck, I love to beat my brother or my cousins at anything we play. I have lots of dear friends down there, but this week, I just want to win. That’s it. I want to win.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.