This past weekend was all about Hugh Freeze. Somehow, it also became about Dabo Swinney (in a roundabout fashion) and that’s pretty crazy.
As you likely know by now, Freeze was dismissed by Ole Miss after some indiscretions involving at least one phone call made to a Tampa-area escort service, as well as potentially more related activity if you read between the lines a little bit. Ole Miss stood by him after multiple NCAA inquiries and confirmed violations of recruiting rules, but this was apparently too much.
The backlash was significant, and swift, and deservedly so. I’ve been among the harshest critics of Freeze as a person because of questions I’ve had since the 2013 recruiting class—the one that included Robert Nkemdiche—began to come together in seemingly impossible ways.
It seemed fishy, and it was. They cheated. They got caught. End of story.
The cheating wasn’t my main beef with Freeze, though. Plenty of coaches cheat. What made Freeze so detestable was the way he used faith to try to deflect criticism and to garner support for his misdeeds from the religious community.
Just after he put together the highly questionable 2013 recruiting class, Freeze graced the cover of FCA magazine. That made him the face—if only for a brief time—of one of the most popular Christian organizations in the nation, especially among school-age students and their parents.
I donate to FCA. I’ve spoken at FCA fundraisers and participated in events. I was active in FCA during high school. I love that organization. It made me sad that the group chose to associate itself with Freeze, but it really wasn’t FCA’s fault. Freeze was fooling (mostly) everyone.
Check Freeze’s Twitter account, and you’ll find Bible verses. You’ll find retweets of prominent pastors. You’ll find language specifically designed to sound religious. None of this is wrong, but it always struck me as phony—especially given things I’d heard and assumed about how Freeze was able to compile his talent at Ole Miss, as well as the nature of the program he appeared to be running.
To say I was taken aback by Freeze’s demise would be incorrect. I completely and totally expected it. In fact, I was a little surprised it took this long, based on the way he flaunted his innocence so prominently in the most arrogant, narcissistic fashion imaginable. He was asking to be caught.
In the aftermath, though, Freeze’s demise has caused a problem. Because he was so good at tricking people into believing he was something he wasn’t, now we view all those who speak and act like he does with a certain degree of skepticism. This is where Swinney appears.
More specifically, he appears here, alongside Freeze in a photo atop a story discussing the future of so-called “Christian coaches” in college football. The piece is very loosely about Swinney, sticking more to the general question at hand than diving into Clemson’s coach’s public faith.
To the naked eye, putting Freeze and Swinney into the same category makes sense. I don’t really blame anyone who does it, because we don’t know what we don’t know. Freeze was preachy on Twitter. Swinney watched a player get baptized after a practice. It seems like the two share the same values.
But it’s not the same, not even close, in any way. Freeze’s public testimony and Swinney’s are manifested in virtually polar opposite ways.
Freeze wanted people to know that he read the Bible. He wanted people to know that he knew some verses. He wanted to align himself directly with religious leaders and pastors. None of this is bad on the surface. It is what it is.
Check Swinney’s social media footprint. Look around the palace Clemson just constructed to house his program. Listen to his players and coaches speak, or to the head coach himself. Notice what you find, and what you don’t.
You won’t find chapter-verse citations, but woven into the fabric of Swinney’s program are numerous biblical principles. His laundry list of clichés—bloom where you’re planted, you reap what you sow, etc—derive from biblical principles. The expectations for conduct for Clemson football team members are expressly Judeo-Christian. He treats people with the Golden Rule—do to others what you would have them do to you—without telling people where it’s found in Scripture.
I am an unashamed follower of Jesus Christ. I don’t mind quoting verses or retweeting pastors or any of that. However, perhaps the greatest compliment I’ve heard came from a gentleman I met in a press box last baseball season. He told me he appreciated how my faith comes across when I’m on the radio, even though I don’t “say” anything about it. He said it with tears in his eyes, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a bit emotional during the exchange.
There’s something to be said for living in such a way that you don’t have to convince anyone about who you are. LeBron James doesn’t have to go around telling people he’s good at basketball. You see it. Seth Beer doesn’t have to tweet out his stat line. People know he’s a stud.
Dabo Swinney doesn’t have to bend over backwards to try and convince the world about what he believes. He just “is” what he says he is. The words written in his sacred text pour from his mouth as naturally as saying “hello” in the morning. He does it almost by accident, without trying, without pretense or purpose.
Freeze never came off that way. He always seemed to have an angle, a reason for drawing the attention of the masses to his professed faith. Other coaches knew he was a fraud—not a man who tried his best and failed just like the rest of us, but a fraud who paraded a holier-than-thou persona in front of the public while living a duplicitous life in practice.
If Hugh Freeze is a Christian coach, we need to clean house. If Dabo Swinney is a Christian coach, we need to find more of them. Let’s be sure not to lump the two together.