First-year Head Coach Hugh Freeze leads Flames Football into new era as official FBS member

By Mitzi Bible, October 31, 2019

Every team needs a motto, a motivating catchphrase for coaches and players to rally behind as they take the field — especially a team that is about to make history for their school.

The Flames huddle to pray together after a Sept. 28 victory over New Mexico at Williams Stadium. (Photo by Andrew Snyder)

At Liberty University, the words “Tougher Together” appear on football posters and press conference backdrops. You can hear them chanted proudly in the locker room and see them used as a popular hashtag on social media.

Head Coach Hugh Freeze said he chose the theme to build on the program’s “Rise With Us” motto used the past two seasons as Liberty prepared to make its debut as a full-fledged FBS member this year. (Over the summer, Liberty received notification that it had become the 130th fully certified FBS team in the nation, after successfully completing a two-year FBS reclassification process. Liberty is now fully eligible for all postseason bowl games.)

“Tougher Together,” Freeze said, would be about humility.

Flames senior quarterback Stephen ‘Buckshot’ Calvert has set several passing records this season. (Photo by Andrew Snyder)

“Outside of our core values, my deal about ‘tougher together’ is being selfless,” he explained in a video filmed in his office just as fall camp began. “I’ve learned through the course of my life, and over the last few years, that the times when we make selfish decisions, they cause pain and difficulty and discourse and chaos. The times when I’ve been selfless and gave myself to something bigger than me, joy and peace have followed. That doesn’t mean success necessarily does, but man I tell you, you just feel good about the way that you went about things … and that’s what I will share with them, what I will bring to this team, to be tougher together.”

Only a few days after he first introduced the motto to the team, Freeze gave his players a very vivid, though unexpected, example — and it happened, ironically, when he and his team couldn’t technically be “together.”

Junior cornerback Jimmy Faulks (8) leads the Flames out of the tunnel for the Oct. 19 Homecoming football game against Maine at Williams Stadium (Photo by Gabrielle Calhoun)

The entire program was caught off guard when Freeze experienced painful back spasms and had to undergo emergency surgery, which was complicated by a potentially life-threatening staph infection. He took a leave of absence from fall camp. During recovery, he moved to a hotel overlooking the team’s indoor practice facility, where he watched a live feed of the practices and held his regular staff meetings. He sat out most practices before the first game of the season.

But even then, the team knew the motto still stuck — their coach was still behind them, still hard at work planning, preparing, and finding unique ways to offer encouragement. One day, he made a surprise, though brief, visit to practice. He rolled up in a golf cart as the team swarmed around and hugged him. He addressed his team, inspired them to continue to work hard, then blew the whistle to end practice early as the place erupted into cheers.

Then the time came for Liberty to host its first game of the season, a milestone for the program not only because it was the Flames’ first game as an officially certified FBS member, but also because it was the first time in school history a Power Five opponent — and a Top 25 team at that — would march into Williams Stadium.

Flames Football Head Coach Hugh Freeze addresses his players remotely from the coaches’ box at Williams Stadium, where he called plays during the Aug. 31 season opener against Syracuse.

The Aug. 31 game against No. 22 Syracuse attracted one of Liberty’s largest crowds ever. The energy and excitement was paramount. But it was also an unusual return to football for Freeze, a former coach at Ole Miss, and an unusual season opener for the Flames, too; the man at the helm was nowhere to be seen on the sidelines.

National news outlets, from ESPN to the Washington Post to USA Today, used words like “bizarre” and “most absurd” to describe the moment when Freeze appeared at the game. Yes, he had his coach’s headset on, but he was lying in a hospital bed in a press booth high above the field. He conducted a pregame interview with ESPN, looking up as a reporter stood over him. He spoke to his team via video feed before the game, during halftime, and afterward. A hole was cut in the wall so he could directly communicate with coaches in the adjoining booths. Photos of his unusual coaching location went viral.

Freeze coaches from a platform behind the Liberty bench during the Sept. 28 game against New Mexico. (Photo by KJ Jugar)

“I’m sure some people out there probably think I was doing it for attention, but I can promise you it’s not that,” he told ESPN. “It wasn’t any fun, but it was important to me to be there for my players, my coaches, and all of the people at Liberty who have done so much for me.”

Liberty lost against Syracuse and also lost its next game, against Louisiana, in its first road contest (Freeze coached from a medical chair in the press box). But when Freeze finally made it to the sidelines for the Flames’ second home game, against Buffalo, the team used the momentum of their coach’s presence to beat the Bulls and earn Freeze his first Flames victory. The players gave their coach the game ball.

Flames senior cornerback Bejour Wilson sprints past a Hampton player in a Sept. 21 home win. (Photo by Andrew Snyder)

“This one means a lot to me,” he said about the ball in a postgame press conference. “I don’t in any way think that I deserve a game ball from our players. … They are the ones that make the plays. What I do mean is that this university and this opportunity (has given me) the chance to be back doing what I love, in the fire. I have had a lot of first ones with these, and they are all mantled somewhere, but this one will mean a lot. It will have a lot of special memories to it. … I am happy for our kids, our coaches, our administration, and our university.”

As of press time for this issue, Freeze would witness his team go on to rack up four consecutive wins over Hampton, New Mexico, New Mexico State, and Maine. (Update: Liberty went on to lose against Rutgers and BYU and take a victory over UMass.)

On Nov. 23, the Flames will face inter-state rival UVA at 12 p.m., and the regular season will conclude at home on Nov. 30 at 2 p.m. against New Mexico State.

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Liberty and ESPN Events enter bowl agreement for 2020-25

Flames placekicker Alex Probert trots off the field at Williams Stadium after warm-ups for the second half of the Sept. 28 game against New Mexico. (Photo by Andrew Snyder)

Liberty University and ESPN Events entered a new secondary bowl game agreement in September that could place the Flames in one of at least six bowl games during the 2020 to 2025 bowl game cycle: Boca Raton Bowl (FAU Stadium; Boca Raton, Fla.), Camellia Bowl (Cramton Bowl; Montgomery, Ala.), Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (Albertsons Stadium; Boise, Idaho), Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco Bowl (Toyota Stadium; Frisco, Texas), Myrtle Beach Bowl (Brooks Stadium; Conway, S.C.), and New Mexico Bowl (Dreamstyle Stadium; Albuquerque, N.M.).

“Liberty enjoys a strong and vibrant partnership with ESPN Events, and this new agreement provides a wide array of attractive bowl opportunities in exciting destinations for future Liberty Football teams and Flames Nation,” said Director of Athletics Ian McCaw.

The agreement extends Liberty’s longstanding working relationship with ESPN, which has an exclusive, multi-year agreement to broadcast Liberty’s home football games. Over the past two years, Liberty has produced more than 250 live sporting events for ESPN+, including football. Liberty also has a broadcast agreement for all of its ASUN Conference events (home and away), as well as field hockey, ice hockey, and other Club Sports events, to be carried on ESPN+.

Freeze has coached five previous teams to FBS bowl games at Arkansas State and Ole Miss. (Photo by Joel Coleman)

The recent bowl agreement is Liberty’s second for its football program. Last year, Liberty announced an individual secondary bowl agreement with the AutoNation Cure Bowl (Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Fla.) for 2018 and 2019.

In the event that a conference affiliated with the aforementioned bowl games does not have enough deserving teams (six qualifying wins are required), the secondary bowl agreement allows ESPN Events and its bowl game partners to place a bowl-eligible Liberty team.

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