FAYETTEVILLE, Arkansas – Hugh Freese ran to midfield at SEC Stadium on Saturday as the winner for the first time in six years.

He hugged his wife Jill and their three daughters. He quickly kissed everyone on the forehead. They laughed. They shared inside jokes that only they could understand. Then they took pictures in front of the scoreboard to remember that, yes, it really happened.

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Liberty 21, Arkansas 19.

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The former Ole Miss coach is no longer a memory or a ghost and can no longer be ignored. The man who gave Nick Saban a nervous breakdown and beat Alabama in consecutive seasons at Ole Miss found his way, and as he celebrated another historic turn at Liberty, he heard a noise outside.

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Was this win a moment of redemption after six years away from the SEC? Or maybe it was an audition for another big job, like the one that opened earlier this week at the Auburn?

“I don’t know if Auburn wants me. I have no idea,” Freese told 247Sports outside the Liberty celebratory locker room. “I know this: I have won everywhere I have been, and my staff and children have been quick to launch programs. We instill our culture. I know we do it and the proof is in the pudding.”

If what happened here at Razorback Stadium wasn’t a redemption or an audition, it was at least the continuation of a career defined by program-changing victories, fueled by the coach’s high-flown, creative offense and his penchant for recruiting and developing quarterbacks into masters. from the statistics list.

No. 23 (8-1) Liberty is gaining momentum and her only setback came from a failed two-point drive away against nationally ranked Wake Forest. Perhaps it fits with the Flames beating the Sharp Guards here, scoring quarterback KJ Jefferson at the goal line during a two-point attempt in Saturday’s closing minutes.

Yes, the Flames are really good. Their offense scores points, and the system is as interesting as Freese’s Ole Miss designs, of course, but the defense is the best in the country for chasing quarterbacks (3.8 sacks per game), as well as No. 1 in tackles to lose ( 9.3). The lineup is deep and talented, and the wins – and Freese’s 34-12 record in the Liberty – should come as no surprise. Freese won 10 games at least once in all four stops as head coach (NAIA Lambuth, Arkansas State, Ole Miss, and Liberty) and broke numerous offensive records at each school. He once propelled Ole Miss to No. 3 nationally and was the darling of Oxford, Mississippi, but that meteoric rise equaled a quicker fall. An avalanche of hiring violations was uncovered in an NCAA investigation, and court documents showed that Freese contacted escort services on a university-issued cell phone. Freese retired under pressure in early 2017 and the NCAA voided 27 of his 39 high school victories.

Freese’s budding football career ended, but two years later he was given a second life at Liberty University, an evangelical institution in Lynchburg, Virginia founded by Jerry Falwell Sr. in 1971. He quickly turned the program into a winner, winning eight games in his rookie season and then 10 more in 2020. He beat Virginia Tech, Syracuse, BYU, and now Arkansas.

He also converted Malik Willis, an Auburn backup quarterback who nearly became a wide receiver in the SEC became a superstar in the Liberty, where he threw for over 5,000 yards and rushed for 1,822 yards, throwing 74 touchdowns in two seasons. In the spring, Willis was selected by the Tennessee Titans in the third round of the NFL Draft, leaving the Liberty without a quarterback and deceiving expectations.

“Nothing motivates me more than proving that I can do it again with another quarterback,” Freese said.

Liberty hires former Baylor and Utah quarterback Charlie Brewer in the off-season, but injuries and setbacks forced Freese to move to third quarterback Jonathan Bennett. Bennett needed time to adjust after being thrown to the edge of the bench in pre-season training. In desperation, he turned off Freeze, and then there was a moment of reconciliation. “I just put my pride aside,” Bennett said. “We are all proud people, and pride is our enemy. It used to show in the way I played. Coach Freese is a great coach and I learned that if you really listen to him, good things can happen.”

Bennett is now 5-0 as a Flames starter, with wins over favorites BYU and Arkansas. He threw for 224 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday after missing several practices with the flu.

“A couple of years ago, if we had lost a quarterback, we could have been in serious trouble,” said Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw. “Now we have a few guys who can help us win games.”

Those around Freese beamed with pride on Saturday, though Liberty administrators didn’t parade his resume in conversation. After all, there may be other suitors. McCaw said the interest in Freeze was “flattering” to Liberty.

Last week, The Flames signed Freeze to an eight-year, $40 million contract through the 2030 season. His average annual salary is the highest among the Big Five coaches. Other details of the contract have remained confidential, but the buyout will not be exceptionally large, which opens the door for other schools to continue with Freeze if they choose.

“I think we have a great situation for him, but obviously there are other really important things to do and we’re going to do everything we can to keep him at the Liberty,” McCaw said. “We certainly understand that there are others who are going to go after him.”

Money is not necessarily the reason Freese is lured. The stumbling block is whether major programs are ready to put aside their questions and concerns about Freese’s immoral history as quickly as they accept his on-pitch winning story.

Six Power Five programs are looking for head coaches and more positions will be open as there are still three Saturdays left in the regular season. Auburn is at the forefront and has the most attractive job on the market. The school has won two national titles, most recently in 2010, and contested for another after the 2013 season. Auburn is expected to pursue Ole Miss Lane Kiffin under newly hired sports director John Cohen, 247Sports sources told 247Sports, but Freese is also a popular name and has support among some boosters. Freese said he and his agent Jimmy Sexton had not contacted Auburn as of Saturday.

“It’s all speculation for me because, frankly, I’m as happy as I can be here,” Freese said. “I told my administration and told my players as directly as I could: if something interests me, I will tell them. without saying that those who called wanted me. They just call Jimmy and I say it really doesn’t work for me and Jill and the kids. But if someone comes up, you need to sit down and talk. This hasn’t happened yet. .”

Moments ago, on a field dotted with cheering Liberty players and staff, Freeze sought out his wife, Jill, and their three daughters. The five Freezes embraced as TV cameras and photographers captured the moment. The SEC Network team in the press box wondered on national television how much Freeze would be discussed on the Auburn message boards that night.

Freeze’s grip on her family has loosened. His daughter, Jordan, screamed at her father. “The best thing ever done Hugh FreeseShe raised her hands high above her head and her fingers formed the letters “L” and “U”.

It’s been a long time, but damn, it’s nice to win in the SEC.

“I don’t think I need to prove anything else,” Freese later said. “Three or four years ago I was saying stupid things like, ‘Well, maybe one day I’ll have a redemption story.’ And finally, the man, mentor and friend, said, “Dude, stop it. Your story is over. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone.” And they are right.”

Brandon Marcello is the national football reporter for 247Sports. You can follow him on Twitter (@bmarcello).