Liberty coach Hugh Freeze is recovering from surgery he underwent Friday at the University of Virginia Medical Center after a potentially life-threatening strand of staph infection entered his bloodstream and complicated what was already severe pain he was experiencing from a herniated disk in his back.
Freeze, in his first season as the Flames’ coach, will remain in the hospital through at least sometime next week while doctors continue to run tests. He said the outpouring of support from Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr. and others at the school and the lengths so many people have gone to in order to make sure Freeze received the best care has been humbling.
“The doctors told me if it had been another 24 hours, that strand of bacteria could have gotten to my heart and that I would have been fighting for my life,” Freeze told ESPN. “It’s the way God works because there’s no doubt that bacteria would have killed me if President Falwell wasn’t so quick to make sure we got the right people involved.”
When Freeze first told Falwell about the excruciating pain he was experiencing in his back, one of the first calls Falwell made was to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, one of the leading pioneers in neurosurgery. Carson spoke with Liberty professor Anthony Nobles, renowned in the medical device field, and the decision was made to transport Freeze from the hospital in Lynchburg to UVA Medical Center.
Falwell sent the Liberty plane to Scottsdale, Arizona, to bring in Dr. Dilan Ellegala, another leading neurosurgeon who developed his own ultrasonic technology (Sonospine) for spinal surgery, and Ellegala was the one who performed Freeze’s surgery at UVA Medical Center in Charlottesville.
“Right away, after they all consulted, they told me I had a lot more going on than just a disk when they saw how much pain I was in. I was crippled, I couldn’t stand up,” Freeze said. “I’m blessed that I had so many brilliant medical minds coming together to help. I didn’t even know at the time how much trouble I was in.”
Freeze, 49, said he’s struggled with lower back issues for years. But the pain went to a whole different level last Saturday, the day of Liberty’s first scrimmage.
“I pushed through the day and watched film with the staff and players and walked through that night, and it was getting tighter and tighter,” Freeze said. “By the time I got home, I could barely get up the stairs. And by mid-morning the next day, I couldn’t walk or do anything, and we had to call the ambulance to come get me.”
Freeze has been communicating with his staff by phone and plans to address the players via Skype on Sunday to fill them in on the seriousness of his condition. He acknowledged that he’s “still not out of the battle” and will have to coach from a golf cart when he returns to practice. He may also have to coach the first game from the booth when Liberty hosts Syracuse on Aug. 31.
“It all happened so fast. I was all excited for camp, and then all of a sudden, here I am in the hospital,” Freeze said. “The Liberty people have been incredible, and my staff has been incredible. I don’t think God wastes anything. I was miserable sitting here in this bed, but it reminded me how grateful I am to have this opportunity.”
Freeze was out of coaching for the past two years. He resigned at Ole Miss in July 2017 after school officials discovered that he had made a series of calls to a number associated with a female escort service. In five seasons as Ole Miss’ coach, Freeze led the Rebels to four winning seasons, including a 10-win season in 2015 capped by the school’s first Sugar Bowl victory since 1970. Ole Miss beat Alabama in back-to-back seasons in 2014 and 2015 under Freeze, and Nick Saban has lost to just one SEC opponent since.
Ole Miss was placed on NCAA probation in 2017 for violations that occurred in part under Freeze, and the sanctions included a two-year bowl ban.