Hugh Freeze’s recovery from back surgery in the middle of August landed him in a unique position during Liberty’s season opener against No. 22 Syracuse: Coaching in a hospital bed from the coaches booth.
Freeze, coaching for the first time since the end of the 2016 season at Ole Miss, was brought into the stadium in a wheelchair and taken to the coaches booth about 80 minutes before kickoff. The university set up a hospital bed in the coaches booth for him to use and support his back as he recovers from Aug. 16 back surgery for a staph infection.
“This is a wonderful idea,” Freeze said. “ … It’s probably a first nationwide, and it will be a trivia question someday. It was a pretty remarkable idea, and I’m thankful for it. Really disappointed that we didn’t do better offensively.”
Freeze remained in the booth during halftime and communicated with the team through a video feed in the locker room. He did the same thing with the team after the game, and again used a video feed to conduct his postgame press conference.
Freeze primarily called the first- and second-down offensive plays, and co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kent Austin called the third-down plays. Freeze also assisted defensive coordinator Scott Symons with third-down defensive calls when needed.
“Hopefully I’ll be back down there [on the sideline] very, very soon,” Freeze said.
Freeze said his surgically repaired back doesn’t hurt at the moment, and he remained in the hospital bed at doctors’ advice to stay off his feet Saturday and Sunday. He plans on meeting with doctors Monday morning to determine the next steps in his recovery.
Freeze, 49, hadn’t led a program onto the field since his fifth and final season at Ole Miss in 2016.
He was forced to resign from his head coaching position at Ole Miss in July 2017 after school officials discovered he used his university-issued cell phone to call numbers associated with escort services. Earlier in the year, the school issued a self-imposed one-year bowl ban for the 2017 season after receiving an NCAA notice of allegations that accused the Rebels of a lack of institutional control and Freeze for failing to monitor his coaching staff.
The NCAA delivered sanctions on the program in December 2017, which included a postseason ban for the 2018 season.
Johnson reunites with best friend
The friendship between Liberty running backs coach Bruce Johnson and Syracuse defensive coordinator Brian Ward isn’t the typical one heard in the football fraternity. They weren’t roommates during their time at Phoenix College and haven’t coached on the same team.
But by catching up at various coaching conventions and discussing how to attack a slew of offensive and defensive schemes, Johnson and Ward have become best friends over time.
The two finally caught up in person at the same game Saturday night as Ward’s defense slowed down Johnson’s running backs at Williams Stadium.
“I think it’s awesome because we’re friends and we get to compete against each other,” Johnson said. “ … I think the competitive drive is awesome.”
Johnson said during training camp that he and Ward have known each other for more than 20 years, and the relationship developed through their professions and shared interests. The two catch up when they are in Phoenix and at the yearly coaching conventions.
“I think it’s going to be awesome having the chance to go out there and us compete against them and they’re competing against us,” Johnson said, “and see where it falls at the end.”
Johnson also had another tie on the Syracuse sideline in coach Dino Babers. Johnson transferred to Arizona and spent two seasons there as a fullback. Babers was his position coach in Johnson’s second season.
“When he was coaching receivers and then when we moved over to running backs that year, you definitely could see the competitive drive, the head coaching drive, the way he ran his room,” Johnson said of Babers, “from a position coach that obviously had aspirations of being a head coach at some point. Just witnessing him impacting lives over time and what not, and seeing him now where he’s at is pretty cool.”
Seven Liberty freshmen made their collegiate debuts during Saturday’s game against Syracuse.
Quarterback Johnathan Bennett, a true freshman who enrolled in the spring, entered the game with less than three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Chris Megginson, a freshman from Heritage High School, replaced starter JaVon Scruggs (Appomattox) for a couple of plays at free safety in the first quarter and played late in the fourth quarter at the position, as well.
Defensive ends Treshaun Clark and Brayden Monday rotated in on the line throughout the game with starters Jessie Lemonier and Austin Lewis, and cornerback Kei’Trel Clark received second-string reps.
A pair of redshirt freshmen who didn’t get on the field last season, tackle Jonathan Graham and running back Troy Henderson, got their first game action in the fourth quarter after Syracuse took a 24-0 lead.
Graham replaced starter Tristan Schultz at left tackle. Henderson got three carries for 5 yards on the Flames’ final drive of the game.
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.