Hugh Freeze is fine with his own redemption being part of the story as Liberty’s football team makes school history. The coach also knows the very public legal battles engulfing the school's administration drives much of the narrative about the university.
He just hopes the success the Flames have had in earning their first national ranking in the Top 25 is isn’t overshadowed by his past or any other off the field news — and that the team's success offers those connected to the embattled school some respite.
“This is something you’re going to remember and set on the rocking chair or the swing or your back porch and you’re going to tell your kids about. You’re going to tell your grandkids about,” Freeze said he told his team while displaying a photo of the poll.
“And so if I were you, I would take this and get it framed. It’s special.”
The Flames (6-0), despite having played opponents with a combined 4-28 record, slipped into the Top 25 in only their second full season at the Bowl Subdivision level. It's a lofty perch that will be tested when they play at Virginia Tech on Saturday.
But no matter what happens going forward, nothing can take away the milestone, Freeze told his team on Monday — the first time they were together since the ranking was announced.
It was some good news for the evangelical school in Lynchburg, Virginia that in recent months has been at the center of so much negative attention. Former school president and chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr., the son of the school's founder, was placed on leave this summer after a questionable Instagram post. He then resigned after a business partner said he'd been involved in an extramarital affair with the younger Falwell's wife.
Falwell has denied details of the story and is suing the school for defamation and breach of contract, saying the university “moved quickly” to destroy his reputation.
The football team's success, Freeze hopes, shines a different light on the university.
"I do hope in some way for those that are experiencing whatever negative things that could go on in life in general that, I would hope that if they’re a Liberty fan, that our football team certainly gives them something to have some joy about,” Freeze said.
“As far as being some beacon, I don’t know if we’re that, but I do think we’ve played in such a way that gives the Liberty family something to be proud of and receive joy from.”
For Freeze, a surprising hire after personal indiscretions involving an escort service cost him his job at Mississippi in 2017, the year so far has been “a blast.” The toughest part of Liberty's schedule lies ahead with upcoming games against the Hokies, at North Carolina State. and at No. 15 Coastal Carolina.
Being back in coaching, though, and having already helped the Flames achieve a series of firsts — first bowl victory last year in the Cure Bowl, first victory against an Atlantic Coast Conference school (Syracuse, this year) and now, the Top 25 ranking — has Freeze looking forward and celebrating that he didn't let his darkest days deter his journey.
“People sometimes write things about this being a redemptive story, however you want to phrase that, so I don’t want to make it about that entirely because that’s such a small part of it,” he said. “But I do think failures are probably a very, very, very close kin to successes.”
Few who succeed, he surmises, haven't handled some “gut punches” along the way.
At Liberty, Freeze's plan has been ambitious from the start, and earning a spot in the Top 25 was “on my list of things to do in building a program,” he said. Now he said the question for the Flames is, “How hungry are you to stay there and be relevant and be talked about?”
They will begin answering that on Saturday.
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