The Hugh Freeze era at Liberty is over. On Monday, Freeze accepted the head coaching job at Auburn, marking his return to the SEC.
The move comes after Lane Kiffin opted to stay at Ole Miss, and despite Liberty’s 49-14 loss to New Mexico State to finish with three straight losses. In the end, Freeze’s 34-15 four-year tenure and past Ole Miss success was enough to land Auburn the job. Liberty is 8-4 this year and the Flames have won at least eight games in Freeze’s four seasons. It is a program that knows how to win. His last losing season was in 2005 and he won eight conference championships at the FCS level from 2007 to 2016.
This is a major transition moment for Liberty. The Flames will enter an FBS conference for the first time next season, and now there’s a coaching change on top of that.
So how good is Liberty’s work? What names could get into the mix? Here are the factors to keep in mind.
This work has all the resources
Before leaving for Auburn, Freeze signed an extension that would earn him an average of just under $5 million a year. That would have been by far the highest salary of the future Group of 5. Liberty has more than enough money to pay big for a manager and his staff, plus they have some buyout money to come.
The facilities are also top notch. The school has invested heavily in sports facilities in many sports. The football program opened a $29 million indoor training ground in 2017, and the football operations building was renovated in 2020, expanding to over 65,000 square feet.
It is perhaps the best-funded program in the Five Eyes today.
Liberty moves to Conference USA
The Flames moved from FCS to FBS in 2018, but without a conference invite, which is normally required. Conference USA, Sun Belt and others have shown interest, although the Flames have apparently offered tens of millions of dollars for a spot. Liberty was eventually granted a waiver to be independent from FBS due to its resources. There were two reasons for the lack of an invitation: the outspoken politics of a school run by Jerry Falwell Jr. and those resources, which allow the school to spend considerably more than everyone else at a conference.
Things have changed. Falwell was ousted and Conference USA desperately needed to join amid an exodus of schools last year. Now, Liberty will join C-USA next season.
The timing couldn’t be better for both parties. For Liberty, a conference invite was needed when the college football playoffs expand to 12 teams. The G5 are guaranteed at least a spot in the expanded CFP, and with UCF, Houston and Cincinnati in the Big 12, that offer could be wide open. Liberty has reached the AP Top 25 in two of the last three seasons. People around Liberty believe an undefeated season could take the Flames to the playoffs. For everyone in the G5, a path is finally here.
The school’s religious focus and politics are unique
Freedom is a polarizing school. The Evangelical school has a strict code of honor, and although the outspokenly political Falwell has died out, the school has always tried to play a role in political change. A number of black athletes have also dropped out of school in recent years.
The school expects its coach to be outspoken and outspoken about Christianity, the mission of the university. Sure, many college coaches are open about their religion, but it’s something that will be taken into account. The job is very similar to BYU in that sense. It’s not for everyone.
“We need to have someone who is perfectly suited for the job,” sporting director Ian McCaw told reporters on Tuesday. “Someone who wants to build Champions for Christ and is a good fit for our university. We are also looking for someone who is a strong leader, CEO, culture builder of our program. We need someone who is tactically very skilled and a strong recruiter, so those are the main criteria for our search.
So what names could get into the mix?
Liberty is expected to make jumps to some active head coaches, due to his resources. Carolina Coast Head Coach Jamey Chadwell was unable to get Power 5 bites, despite his huge success at Coastal, opening up the possibility of other Group of 5 jobs that pay much more, like USF. (And unlike USF, Liberty won recently.) Chadwell is 31-5 the last three years at Coastal, and he’s won everywhere he’s been. He was FBS’ lowest paid head coach before the breakout season in 2020, later doubling his salary to over $1 million. Liberty can offer him much more. But would leaving the Sun Belt for Conference USA be a step forward? Liberty could also push for other Sun Belt names like Georgia Southern head coach Helton clay and head coach James Madison Curt Cignetti.
Indiana head coach Tom Allen has had two tough years since the 2020 breakout season. After a top 15 finish that year, the Hoosiers have gone 2-10 and 4-8 the past two seasons, including 2-16 in Big Ten play . Could a break be beneficial for both parties? His buyout is massive, at $20 million if Indiana wanted to fire him even after the 2023 season. But the buyout from Allen’s side to drop to $4 million on Dec. 1 is totally manageable. His salary is around $5 million, which we know Liberty could pay, as was the case for Freeze. Allen and Freeze also go back over a decade together. Of course, leaving a job in the Big Ten for a job at Conference USA would be fundamentally unprecedented, but multiple industry sources have mentioned Allen’s name as potentially one to watch.
Clemson Offensive Coordinator brandon rueter served as Liberty’s assistant from 2006 to 2011, including three years as offensive coordinator before returning to Clemson. He was Trevor Lawrence’s post coach and has a strong recruiting background. Streeter has been promoted to offensive coordinator this season, and while the offense has struggled at times, Clemson has still improved to 27th in scoring, up from 82nd in 2021.
Arkansas Offensive Coordinator Kendal Briles has a previous relationship with McCaw since their time at Baylor, where Briles coached from 2008 to 2016 under his father. After Baylor and the school sexual assault scandal, young Briles never left FBS football, serving as an offensive coordinator at FAU, Houston, Florida State and now Arkansas for the past six years. He improved the Razorbacks offense outside the national top 100 by scoring in the top 50 as the program rebounded, although that 6-6 season was a disappointment. As for his father, Briles d’art shouldn’t be shortlisted or in the mix for Liberty.
EMS defensive coordinator Scott Symons served as Freeze’s defensive coordinator at Liberty from 2019 to 2021. The scoring defense ranked 117th the year before his arrival and became a top 25 unit by the time he left. He was named to Dave Campbell’s Texas Football 40 Under-40 this summer, but this year’s SMU defense ranks 123rd nationally in points allowed.
After losing a coach to Auburn, how about a former Auburn coach? North Carolina defensive coordinator Gene Chizik won a national championship with Cam Newton in 2010. Chizik spent three years at UNC over two stints around periodic breaks from training. North Carolina’s defense has struggled this year, but he would bring head coaching experience.
Florida State tight ends coach Chris Thomson went 51-21 as head coach of Abilene Christian for seven seasons from 2005 to 2011 when it was a Division II school. The Texas native has coached at Texas Tech, Arizona State, TCU and FSU since then.
Could Nick Rollovich be an option? Liberty had no problem hiring someone with a controversial Freeze past. Rolovich was fired in Washington State due to the state’s vaccine mandate. The coach did not receive the COVID-19 vaccine and his request for a religious exemption linked to his Catholic background was denied. As a coach, Rolovich went 28-27 in Hawaii, including 18-11 in his final two years with a division title, behind an explosive and creative offense. He was 5-6 in Washington State before being fired. Rolovich is also in the process of suing Washington State and officials for his dismissal, which makes him a non-starter at most schools.
As for inside options, Liberty offensive co-coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kent Austin made Malik Willis a third-round pick. Austin has been at Liberty since 2019 and was previously the head coach of the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats from 2013-2017. Co-Defensive Coordinator Josh Aldridge was named interim head coach following Freeze’s departure. He joined the staff in 2019 and was nominated for the Broyles Award in 2021. Aldridge was promoted to co-coordinator after Symons went to SMU, and the two previously worked together at South Georgia.
(Top photo: James Guillory/USA Today)
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