Hugh Freeze made his first public appearance Wednesday since resigning as Ole Miss head football coach last year in a scandal involving phone calls to an escort service.
Freeze spoke during an hour-long convocation at Liberty University Jan. 24 along with his wife Jill and his pastor, Chip Henderson of Pinelake Church, a five-site Southern Baptist congregation in Mississippi.
Screen capture Liberty University, YouTube
Former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze listens as his wife Jill speaks of forgiveness during a Liberty University convocation Jan. 24.
Freeze said it was “really the first day I can tell the faith family, ‘I am sorry, please forgive me.’” Known on Twitter as a coach with a fervent faith, Freeze said he had admitted the moral impropriety to his wife in 2016 before it became public last summer.
He wrote on Twitter Wednesday, “We are humbled to be here” at Liberty. “Hopeful our story can help someone!!”
The Liberty visit also followed the Dec. 1 report of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rulings regarding Ole Miss football infractions. The NCAA did not delve into Freeze’s personal conduct; however, for supervisory issues at Ole Miss he received a two-game suspension if he is hired as head coach by another university but no penalties if he assumes a lesser position.
Freeze told a convocation crowd of 13,000, “Failures are not final. … “You can move forward by the grace of God. … You can have the mental toughness [to say], you know what, ‘I am going to get up today and surrender again [to God]. And surrender again.’
“I cannot control what people say, what people think, nor can you,” Freeze, 48, continued. “But I can make up my mind and my mind is set. It is settled, my eyes are clear. My heart is full. My feet are pointed forward and I am looking forward with thanksgiving to what God has for me and my family next because of His great love and His great forgiveness.”
He told the collegians that with God “you can do the same in 2018.”
Freeze spoke of one of his three daughters being angry over what she had seen in social media and online media outlets.
“I tell her ‘Baby, your dad did something wrong and he has to be accountable.’”
When his wife spoke after Freeze’s 20-minutes of comments, a reporter for the SEC Country website noticed that Freeze teared up.
“I can remember that moment of just screaming in my head,” Jill Freeze said in recounting her husband’s 2016 confession of his marital sin. “My prayer was this very eloquent prayer – ‘God, help me.’ That was it. And immediately it was like, are you going to focus on your hurt or are you going to focus on your healing? And I was like, ‘I want healing.’
“Immediately in that I was able to see him. His heart. I mean, I’ve lived with [Hugh] for 25 years. This man is the godliest man that I have ever known. I am who I am in Christ because of this man and the impact and influence he has had on me. … I know he’s going to do what it takes to get right with God. And so for that, it was easy enough in that moment to say, ‘I forgive you.’ Like, immediately,” Jill Freeze said.
“That was the beginning of my healing and it was instant forgiveness for him. It led me to ‘I can see that he had some bad traits. You know? He had some bad traits.’ And God, in His greatness, instead of me focusing on [Hugh’s] bad traits He said ‘Jill, what are your bad traits?’ I’ve got a whole lot of bad traits, and [Hugh’s] forgiven me a whole lot more than I’ve had to forgive him over 25 years.”
She noted, “I want [God’s] power. I want His peace. I want His provision. I want His protection. But the only thing I need is His presence. There are times when I’m seeking His presence, and I feel God, the angel armies, and I am ready to go. … And there are times I am broken on the floor. And He is picking me up, and He is putting me in His father-lap, and He is rubbing my hair, and He is pouring His love over me and singing over me in His presence. And I walk out of there with peace and rest.”
Henderson told the convocation audience that in the valley of brokenness, it is important to show people they are loved.
“There is going to be a moment in your life where you need the grace of God to be tangible and real,” Henderson said. “Because a lot of people who are your best friends when everything is great will walk smooth out on you whenever stuff starts hitting the fan.”
It is also important that “the fullness of what brokenness really looks like” is realized.
“The win is to shepherd [Freeze] through this valley,” Henderson said. “To really keep bringing him back to the core values of his faith, his love for Jesus, true to himself, love for his wife, honoring his family. … Whatever God may or may not do, it will rise and fall on the genuine repentance and brokenness and walk that he has with Jesus.”
Freeze coached Ole Miss to a 39-25 record during five seasons, 2012-2016, including three bowl wins in four appearances and two regular season wins over Alabama. The 2015 victory was Alabama’s only loss in its drive to the national championship. In mid-January, Freeze was in the media limelight over the possibility of joining Alabama coach Nick Saban’s staff but no announcement had been made as of Jan. 25.
His overall coaching record is 69-32, including a 10-2 record at Arkansas State University in 2011 and a 20-5 record at the former Lambuth University in Jackson, Tenn., in 2008 and 2009. He also coached at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis from 1992-2004, including nine seasons as head coach, winning state championships in 2002 and 2004.
In the NCAA investigation of Ole Miss, apart from Freeze, the university was accused of lack of “institutional control” over 15 infractions, placed on probation for three years and banned from 2018 postseason play, among other penalties.
“Off the field, [Freeze] promoted an atmosphere of compliance and expected his staff to abide by the rules,” the NCAA stated. “However, throughout his tenure, the head coach also violated NCAA head coach responsibility legislation because he failed to monitor his program’s activities surrounding the recruitment of prospects. Members of his staff knowingly committed recruiting violations, submitted false information on recruiting paperwork and failed to report known violations.”
Freeze has been on Twitter only sporadically in recent months, but on Jan. 7 he took note of that day’s sermon at Pinelake Church, tweeting, “I need corporate worship today to remind me there is a great Savior whose grace has the power to rescue the lost, rebels, the proud, the weak, the weary and the foolish from themselves.”
Video of the Liberty University convocation service can be viewed at youtube.com/watch?v=T4zq1KO7qII.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Art Toalston is senior editor of Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention. With reporting by Drew Menard of Liberty University News Service.)