When former Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze moved to Auburn, the attention turned to his work with the Tigers.
Freeze’s decision to retain interim head coach Cadillac Williams was a big focus, as was his work on the recruiting trail. People naturally wondered who Freeze would hire as his offensive and defensive coordinator and who he’d bring in through the portal.
Liberty’s end of the season almost became an afterthought in the national discussion. No one talked about Liberty’s wait for a bowl game, and most people outside Liberty’s circle wondered how the process would continue.
On Tuesday, that process will culminate in the Boca Raton Bowl against Toledo. Interim head coach and all, Liberty will play one final game, looking to finish the season with a 9-4 record and their “conference championship.”
“Being independent, we don’t play for a conference championship. This is our conference championship, this is the game we talk about all year long,” interim head coach Josh Alridrige said. “Being here and in this moment is going to be a big deal for our team, so we’re excited about going out there and winning it.”
Following Freeze’s decision to take the Auburn job, Liberty moved quickly to name Aldridge the team’s interim head coach. Aldridge, Liberty’s co-defensive coordinator, learned of the decision to make him the interim coach about a day after Freeze’s announcement.
For Aldridge, the process allowed him a hands-on opportunity to be a head coach, a dream of his.
“Being a head coach is always a goal of mine, but it was more so, I was excited about being with these guys one more time,” Alridge said. “Really excited about being the one standing in front of them and getting them fired up.”
Aldridge was an easy choice to take over the interim head coach position. Not only has Liberty’s defense been playing at a high level, allowing under 25 points per game, but Aldridge has been a critical part of building Liberty’s current culture.
“It helped us out a lot because we’re more of a player-led team with the leaders and stuff. … It was still really easy for us to keep the culture up and not have everything change. He didn’t crash the ship,” linebacker Aakil Washington said. “It was pretty cool having Coach Aldridge because he did help out with a lot of the player culture stuff and having specific leaders in different groups. It wasn’t really a big difference. You can’t prepare for something like that to happen but we were as ready as anyone could be.”
Washington has been tied to the hip with Aldridge. Washington was part of the defensive line room when Aldridge was the position coach. Aldridge moved to linebackers coach prior to the start of this season, and Washington followed, switching positions to linebacker.
“He’s usually the coach who brings most of the energy, so when he switched over, everybody still had high respect for him,” Washington said of Aldridge. “ He knows how to hold his authority with everybody, but he definitely keeps the train moving. And everybody loves him, so it wasn’t really a big change.”
The switch to head coach wasn’t too difficult, according to Aldridge. Aldridge’s role on gameday will remain mostly untouched, and setting up practice schedules was really the big focus of this transition.
“I think being the interim head coach, my role on gameday isn’t going to be that much different because then it goes to the offense, defense, special teams. It’s been more so just the structure of practice and organizing our schedule and what it’s going to take to prepare our team to win,” Aldridge said.
“I think the hay’s in the barn in that sense and that role. When the game starts, our offense is going to do what it takes to wi, and our defense is going to do what it takes to win. I think the majority of that work is done and I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Aldridge says that the practice schedule has remained similar outside of a few tweaks to keep players fresh and that the whole process has been more of an “adjustment” than anything else.
“It was just more of an adjustment. You just don’t tick that way, if you’re not in charge of something like that but we’ve kept a lot of the schedule the same. It was more so just tweaking things here and there that the players might want, and to help them stay fresh,” said Alridge. “It was not been overwhelming by any means, it’s just my biggest focus has been just to keep these guys together and spend a lot of time together.”
For the players, the process from Freeze to Aldridge has almost been a rollercoaster, with some ups and some downs that they have to work through.
“It’s had its ups and downs. I think you just got to fall back on your why and why you play football. I don’t really believe that one should play football for another man, I think you should play this sport that you love for yourself and for whatever motivation internally,” defensive lineman Dennis Osagiede said. “We’ve had some ups and downs as a team, we’ve had some guys walk away and come back but we got pretty much everybody back and on the same page and we’re ready to go out there and compete.”
Osagiede has a close relationship with Aldridge dating back to his time in the transfer portal. When the former Stephen F. Austin standout entered the portal, Aldridge was one of the first coaches to call him and recruit him.
“When he was recruiting me, he was one of the first coaches to call me. He was probably the first coach to facetime me when I was in the portal,” Osagiede said. “He did his homework, he pursued after me and I just felt like the energy was genuine and I feel like he had good intentions for me. I soon found out that he has good intentions for his team too.”
While Aldridge will be leading the ship against Toledo, Osagiede feels like the players have been a crucial part of this transition. Alridge echoed similar sentiments, saying that the senior leaders “make it really easy to be a coach on our team.”
“At the end of the day, the players make up the team. In these times, leadership really shines bright. You got to have your leaders pull everyone in together, keep everybody on the same page and ultimately, get everybody ready to go out and go to war,” Osagiede said.
“With the change in coaching and leadership within the program, the players got to step up for themselves and hold each other together. I think we’ve done a good job of that, I think our leaders on our team have done a good job of staying focused, staying on track, and keeping everybody together.”
According to Aldridge, the players have responded to the switch well, and have made this process easier.
“I’m very proud about how resilient our players are to having an interim head coach and still operate the right way,” he said. “They got every excuse in the world to throw their hands up and say this stinks and all that kind of stuff but they’ve done a great job in how they’ve responded.”
Although Osagiede admits that he’s excited for a defensive coach to be taking the reigns, he admits that any coach on the staff could take over during the transition.
“We all love Coach Aldridge, and we’re glad he’s the interim head coach leading us into this bowl game,” Aldridge said. “He’s done a phenomenal job these last couple of weeks getting us ready and most importantly, getting us fired up, getting us hyped.”