The Liberty football team garnered national attention over the weekend — not through the defensive turnaround or the offense’s first shutout loss in nearly 14 years against No. 22 Syracuse, but for Hugh Freeze’s coaching debut coming in a hospital bed from the coaches' booth at Williams Stadium.
The move served as a precaution to allow the 49-year-old Freeze’s back to continue to heal following surgery for a herniated disc and staph infection Aug. 16. The Flames were able to accommodate Freeze in the hospital bed with the spacious coaches booth on the fifth floor of the tower behind the west grandstands.
But what happens now as Liberty is scheduled to play its first road game Saturday at Louisiana?
The next three days will determine how Freeze approaches the Flames’ contest against the Ragin’ Cajuns. He is slated to meet with his doctors throughout the week with the hopes his back continues to heal and he is cleared to travel with the team and coach in Lafayette, Louisiana.
“Ian [McCaw, athletic director] and I are going to talk. I love his approach and he wants me to do what’s best for me,” Freeze said at his Monday press conference, “and I’m going to let the doctors kind of guide me knowing that going to an away game, I’m going to have to be able to sit up — at least, that’s the best case — for four-plus hours probably to call a game. I think the next few days are going to be critical in deciding that.”
Freeze’s back continues to heal after undergoing surgery more than two weeks ago at the University of Virginia Medical Center. He said Monday he underwent an MRI this past Wednesday after feeling some discomfort in his back, and the results revealed “an extreme amount of fluid that had gathered on the nerves where they did the operation,” he said.
“I do not have that right now,” Freeze said, noting he turned on his side while sleeping Sunday night and did not have any issues. He added sitting didn’t feel great and walking with his walker felt better than it did last week.
The long recovery process has necessitated his stay in a hotel located on campus overlooking the football complex (Williams Stadium and the indoor practice facility), and he has watched practice live from his room through a live feed.
Saturday’s game was the first time he watched the team in person since the first scrimmage Aug. 10. His original hope following surgery was to be able to attend practices while on a golf cart, but the need to maintain stability in his back has necessitated his stay in the hotel for the practices.
“The most frustrating thing for me right now is I haven’t been on the practice field with these kids in 15, 16 days, and I think it shows,” he said. “I don’t mean that to say … I just am ready to be back on the practice field. So this week my goal is to do whatever the doctors say so that I can be back on the practice field. Whatever that means come Thursday or Friday with Lafayette, that is what it is. I’ve got a great staff; they obviously have handled it very well.”
Freeze joked with the media after Saturday’s game — through the same video conferencing software that allowed him to speak to the team before the game, during halftime and after the Flames’ 24-0 loss — that it was probably a first in college football for a coach to be in a hospital bed in a coaches booth for a game.
He said at the time he had no pain in his back, and the bed was used as a precaution because the doctors’ recommendation was for him to remain off his feet throughout the weekend.
He planned to meet with the doctors Monday afternoon after going through his normal daily activities to see how his back was feeling. It served as the first step toward getting him prepared for possibly flying with the team for a road tilt against one of the Sun Belt Conference’s better programs.
“I will say this, there is no question in my mind that my back is better,” he said.
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.