I was driving back to the hotel after speaking at a church about my book In the Arena, which is about the relationship of sports to Christianity, when a sports talk show on the radio broke the news that almost made me physically ill. Hugh Freeze, head football coach of the Ole Miss Rebels, had resigned in the wake of the news that he had used his school-issued cell phone to call an escort service. According to athletic director Ross Bjork, school officials found “a pattern of personal conduct inconsistent with the standard of expectations for the leader of our football team.” He added that if Freeze had not resigned, he would have been fired for violating the moral turpitude clause in his contract.
This scandal would have been newsworthy no matter the coach, but it was much bigger news because Freeze is as publicly identified with his Christian faith as any coach in our football-crazed nation. Reaction to the news about Freeze drifted toward two extremes. Some Christians have suggested that since we are all sinners, our only response should be to pray for him and his family. Others have suggested that this proves that Freeze was a fraud all along and the Christian stuff was merely a recruiting strategy. Both of these responses are woefully inadequate for Christians.
The story of Hugh Freeze becoming the head football coach at Ole Miss is the stuff of Disney movies. From 1992 to 2004, Freeze was the girls’ basketball coach at Briarcrest Christian High School in Memphis, TN. He was on the football coaching staff as well, but most of his success was as the girls’ basketball coach. I have heard him say that becoming the women’s basketball coach at Memphis University at that time was his dream job. In 1995, Freeze was promoted to head football coach at Briarcrest and twice won a state championship. At Briarcrest, he coached Michael Oher of Blindside movie fame and was 94-30 as a high school head football coach. In 2005, Freeze took a job at Ole Miss as assistant athletic director. The following year he became a position coach on the football team.
In 2008, he took the head football coaching position at Lambeth University, a small NAIA school. In 2010, he became the head coach at Arkansas State University, and in 2011 he was hired as the head coach at Ole Miss. His pathway to the head coaching role at Ole Miss is about as improbable as any I have heard. Seven years after being a high school girls’ basketball coach he was the head coach of an SEC football team. The story only gets more incredible because Freeze had amazing success at Ole Miss, turning them into a national power. Hugh Freeze led the Rebels to do what has been virtually impossible, beat a Nick Saban-coached Alabama Crimson Tide football team two years in a row. The only other name on that list is Les Miles.
On top of the improbability of Freeze’s rise to become an SEC head coach was his “aw shucks” personality, country charm, and Southern drawl. He immediately had recruiting classes at Ole Miss that few thought possible. If you followed Hugh Freeze on Twitter, almost every day included a Bible verse or a quote from a Christian book. If one were to summarize Freeze’s Twitter feed, it would be Jesus, family, church, Ole Miss football, and fishing. Freeze would say he was not just running a football program; he was building men and saving souls.
Things were in a mess at Ole Miss before the escort call was found. They are mired in an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations. My sportswriter friends, personally sympathetic to Freeze, told me they were troubled by what they found out about Freeze while investigating the recruiting story.
So, what is the real story about Hugh Freeze? What should Christians say and think about it? First, we should not simply say that we are all sinners and ignore it. The truth is, based on the evidence, Ole Miss was right to fire Hugh Freeze. He abused his position, harmed his family, and brought disrepute to his church and his Christian witness. As a highly paid employee of the state of Mississippi, his lack of personal integrity in this matter rightly warrants public comment and rebuke. It is wrongheaded for Christians to act as though we should look the other way at his egregious behavior simply because of his faith in Jesus Christ. No, we should hold him to a higher standard, not a lower one, because of his faith commitment.
Second, does this mean that Hugh Freeze has been a fraud all along? Absolutely not. It is possible that time will bear out that Freeze lacked integrity his entire career and was always play acting regarding his faith, but that certainly is not probable. It is clear that he had fallen into some destructive patterns of sin and harmed people along the way, most importantly his family. Nevertheless, I bet that Freeze helped far more than he harmed in his coaching career. Also, after being in pastoral ministry for over two decades, I can assure you that genuinely godly Christian men and women do sometimes fall into horrifying sin for a time. The truth is that being found out, publicly exposed, and fired could be the best thing that ever happened to Hugh Freeze for the sake of his soul.
The final chapter of the Hugh Freeze story has not been written. Every Christian should grieve over this situation and pray, first for his family, but also for Freeze’s repentance and reconciliation. Freeze would often tweet out the slogan “Win the Day!” I am praying that he would live that out, outside of the public spotlight, one day at a time. The challenge Freeze is now facing is far more significant than Alabama and LSU. It is spiritual war, which makes gridiron battles look like child’s play. I said earlier that if one were to summarize Hugh Freeze’s Twitter feed, it would be, Jesus, family, church, Ole Miss football, and fishing. Now that we can take Ole Miss football out, let’s pray that Freeze sticks with the other priorities and does indeed “Win the Day” every single day from now on.