The congratulations and pleasantries were dispersed among the throng of players and coaches around midfield. His family members found him in the fracas and joined in on the celebration. And the fireworks were freely being set off high into the clear Saturday night sky.

Hugh Freeze, amidst his jubilant players, afforded himself the opportunity to stop on the Williams Stadium turf and let the moment sink in. He listened to his coaches celebrating Liberty’s 35-17 victory over Buffalo, observed the players’ ecstatic reactions, and then glanced up to the monstrous video board just above him.

It wasn’t a dream. He was back in the win column as a college football coach.

“It’s been a long time,” Freeze said, “and that’s kind of what you think about.”

The Flames delivered the type of resounding performance, particularly on the offensive side, fans envisioned when Freeze was hired to lead the program nine months ago following Turner Gill’s abrupt retirement less than 48 hours after the conclusion of the 2018 season.

But Freeze’s return to the coaching ranks was anything but smooth. An Aug. 16 back surgery for a staph infection relegated him to overseeing practice from a nearly hotel room, and coaching the season’s first two games from a hospital bed against Syracuse and a medical chair at Louisiana in the coaches’ booth.

He was back on the sideline Saturday night, albeit on a raised platform behind the Liberty bench, but it was a welcomed sight for the coach who was thankful to be back in the business after spending two seasons in coaching purgatory.

Freeze was forced to resign from Ole Miss just months before the 2017 season after university officials found a “pattern of personal misconduct” that started with an internal investigation into a call to an escort service. The program also was hit prior to his resignation with a notice of allegations from the NCAA that accused the Rebels of a lack of institutional control and Freeze for failing to monitor his coaching staff.

“I try not to be emotional, and I learned a lot in those two years, a lot of good things,” Freeze said as he did his best to hold back tears during his postgame press conference. “I became different in some ways and also not different in some. I still have a fiery side on the sideline, and I get a little too emotional with some things.

“When you go through kind of what we’ve gone through — and I am saying me, my wife and kids — from the mountaintop experiences in college football to being written about in ways that are not flattering. Some of it, obviously, I caused, and much of some is not exactly accurate, but I caused it. When you just go through all that together, and my wife and kids have just been my backbone, and they’re probably celebrating this more than I am.”

Freeze proudly displayed the game ball the team gave him following the triumph. He said his wife, Jill, will keep the ball after serving him for the past three weeks following his surgery.

Senior wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden, who enjoyed yet another stellar performance in his Liberty career, handed the game ball over to Freeze.

Gandy-Golden had eight catches for 174 yards and two touchdowns. The first came midway through the second quarter to put the Flames (1-2) ahead 21-7. The second was on a 55-yard sideline route late in the third quarter that put LU ahead 35-10 and served as the knockout blow to the Bulls (1-2).

“It was nice. I feel like he really appreciated it,” Gandy-Golden said of Freeze. “This was a big day for him, too, and we owe him a lot. Giving him the game ball was just a small token.”

Freeze’s presence on the sideline allowed him to better communicate with quarterback Buckshot Calvert, who returned to the efficient and lethal signal caller many at Liberty grew accustomed to seeing during his first two seasons on campus.

Calvert completed 23 of 30 passes for 325 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. It was his first game without an interception against a Football Bowl Subdivision team since the 2018 season opener against Old Dominion.

“Seeing him out there is definitely a good feeling, knowing your head coach is right there,” Calvert said. “He sees the field pretty well from the spot he was at, so he was making a lot of good calls.”

The offense picked up a season-high 401 yards of total offense and was buoyed by a defense that generated pressure on Buffalo redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Myers.

Myers was sacked three times — all by senior defensive end Jessie Lemonier — and the Flames defense recorded seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage to consistently force the Bulls to go to the passing attack and away from their reliable running offense.

The Bulls finished with 206 rushing yards, about 200 yards fewer than the Flames surrendered last weekend at Louisiana.

“It was really good for us. We knew we had to make them one-dimensional,” said Lemonier, who also had nine tackles and a quarterback hurry.

“They like to run the ball ... and we knew we had to limit their runs and step out of their comfort zone and really pass the ball. We knew there was fresh meat back there in No. 10 [Myers].”

Freeze admitted after the game he called the offense more conservatively than he would have in the past, but he did so to secure his first victory with the program, the one that took a chance on him as a head coach when others saw him as a potential offensive coordinator.

“I just wanted to get that first win,” he admitted.

Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.

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Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.

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