Auburn’s sporting director John Cohen is set to sign the contract for new football manager Hugh Freeze with open eyes.
If anyone knows the benefits and risk of hiring the former Ole Miss coach, it’s the former Mississippi state athletic director. They not only shared a state for five years, they shared a conference. Cohen would have attended AD level meetings and heard all about why Freeze left Oxford under a dark cloud in the summer of 2017 (all questions that would have shed more light on this process.)
Freezing was once Ole Miss’ toast. He ripped it up on the recruit route and had a high-flying offense, picking up the pace and firing shots into the field. He brought the rebels to their first Sugar Bowl in 45 years. He beat Alabama and Nick Saban twice.
But the fall from grace was swift and scandalous. There were NCAA recruiting violations that resulted in a bowl ban and scholarship cuts, and there were calls to an escort service that ultimately led to Freeze’s resignation. If he hadn’t resigned, his former sporting director said he would have been fired. (After Freeze left Ole Miss, USA Today ran a story in which three women who were students at Briarcrest Christian when Freeze was the high school football coach in the late 1990s and early 2000s said Freeze made them uncomfortable with inappropriate behavior prepared.)
Freeze didn’t train in 2017 or 2018. And because of the scandals, he returned to Conference USA to Liberty.
He started over in Lynchburg, Virginia. And with every win and bowl appearance, it felt like he was getting closer to a return to big college football.
In four seasons at Liberty, Freeze went 34-15. But last summer, a former Liberty student suing the university for alleged mishandling of sexual assault cases accused Freeze of sending her direct messages on Twitter in response to her comments. In a message, Freeze allegedly said Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw, who resigned as Baylor AD following a campus-wide investigation into sexual assault allegations, was a “Jesus-like leader.”
Meanwhile, Auburn struggled. Things had gone outside the box with the hiring of former Boise State coach Bryan Harsin in December 2020, but a 6-7 first season ended with an internal investigation into Harsin’s handling of the program. Then, after a 3-5 win earlier this season, Harsin was fired.
Desperate for a proven winner in the SEC — and someone who might be able to beat arch-rival Alabama — Cohen finally focused on Freeze.
Why Did Auburn Discontinue Freeze?
Andrea Adelson: Because Lane Kiffin couldn’t get it? That sure feels like a reach. Honestly, Freeze’s past should keep him from ever getting a Power 5 job again. Especially when Auburn had a highly qualified candidate on the sidelines — beloved alum Cadillac Williams, who did an incredible job as interim coach after Harsin was fired. He not only earned praise for the way he handled the situation, but also for the passion his team played with. There are qualified black head coaches across the country who are passed over for coaches like Freeze every year. This attitude is a particular slap in the face for one of Auburn’s own who gave his all for this program.
But Freeze is a big name with an SEC past, beating Nick Saban twice while he was Ole Miss’ coach and leading the Rebels to two New Year’s Six games. And he can develop quarterbacks. But it’s fair to ask if that should have been enough for him to get the job.
Alex Scarborough: The past few months, beginning with the hiring of Mississippi athletic director John Cohen, have felt like a huge course correction for Auburn. Bringing in the former Ole Miss trainer – after trying to hire the current Ole Miss trainer – is really on the nose. And it’s predictable. That doesn’t mean it’s the wrong move. If Freeze could compete in the SEC and win 2-3 at Ole Miss against Saban and Alabama, what can he say he can’t repeat that success in Auburn? It’s a better recruiting ground given the access to Georgia and Florida, and there are unlimited resources – just look at how much cash they’re willing to burn on acquisitions. (In the past two years, the Tigers have paid more than $37 million to sacked coaches Harsin and Gus Malzahn.) The school recently built a new football facility and is not shy about funding NIL ventures.
What should be Auburn’s biggest concerns going forward?
Adelson: Here’s the thing: A quick Google search clearly shows why this hiring comes with major risks. As detailed above, Freeze has already landed one SEC school in major trouble with the NCAA, resulting in post-season suspensions and vacated victories. He was ousted from Ole Miss in part for using burner phones to call escorts, and while he was at Liberty he reportedly messaged a woman directly who was suing the school for sexual assault. But that attitude is a win-at-all-costs situation, and Auburn will deal with the consequences later.
Scarborough: Ask his former athletic director and president at Ole Miss. They stood up and defended Freeze on several occasions only to end up embarrassed. Cohen has to explain why he felt comfortable that Freeze learned his lessons and can be trusted. And even then, only time will tell. But as for the product on the field, let’s not forget that Freeze hasn’t trained in the SEC for six years. That’s an eternity. The last three SEC games Freeze coached were against Kevin Sumlin, Derek Mason and Dan Mullen. So yes, a lot has changed. Freeze needs to show his offense has evolved and that he can handle the complexities of roster management in NIL’s era. It’s great to do at Liberty, but it’s nowhere near the same as at Auburn.
How does Freeze bring Auburn back into SEC competition?
Adam Rittenberg: He has taken the first step Keep Cadillac Williams on staff. He also needs other assistants who know the SEC recruiting landscape and can win transfers. Auburn must eventually become a quarterback target under Freeze. As of 2018, Alabama leads the nation in overall QBR while Georgia is No. 4. Auburn is ranked 55th. Freeze needs to improve that position through recruitment and the portal.
Chris Low: At the top is finding, signing and developing a quarterback. Freeze has won with different types of quarterbacks, which should make playing in his system appealing to many quarterbacks out there. Ultimately, offensive systems don’t win games (or championships) in the SEC. players do. And make no mistake: Freeze’s mission in Auburn is to win titles. The Tigers are one of six national-level schools to have won a national title in the past 12 years and have played in another national title game during that span. You do that by signing and developing great players, especially from the state of Georgia. When Auburn was really good, the Tigers always had great Georgia players. And that’s harder than ever now with Kirby Smart in Athens.
Markus Schlabach: I think the Auburn roster needs a complete overhaul. Harsin’s recruiting skills weren’t up to SEC standards, and the Tigers lost too many players to the transfer portal. And then Freeze needs to win over the Auburn Power Brokers, just like basketball coach Bruce Pearl did. Freeze needs to unite Auburn fans and boosters and get everyone on the same page. For too long, Auburn’s biggest adversary has been herself because of so many dysfunctions behind closed doors.
What does this mean for the Alabama-Auburn rivalry?
Rittenberg: Freeze knows the blueprint to beat Bama and it’s all about recruitment and NIL, two areas where Auburn should thrive under his leadership. Auburn needs offensive scheme and talent upgrades to beat an Alabama team that has been more focused on quarterback and wide receiver play. Freeze has a strong track record on offense, particularly at wide receivers, but his ability to attract and develop elite SEC quarterbacks who can match Alabama’s will be worth watching.
Low: The Iron Bowl will always be one of college football’s greatest rivalries, but a new face will only spice it up. There was also a time when Saban and Freeze almost ended up together. After Freeze resigned at Ole Miss, Saban was interested in hiring Freeze as an analyst or even as an offensive coordinator, but sources say SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey was opposed to the idea of Freeze being back in the league while Ole Miss was still on probation.
Schlabach: The Tide could be as vulnerable as it has ever been under Saban. Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young is moving to the NFL along with linebacker Will Anderson Jr., the top defensive lineman. The Tide doesn’t appear to be bruising like it has in the past, and her young recipients haven’t proven themselves. Alabama was undisciplined and plagued with turnovers and penalties. If Freeze and his staff can recruit well and pull a few differentiators out of the transfer portal, they could be competitive with Alabama sooner than thought.
https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/35135757/hugh-freeze-auburn-why-happened-comes-next Hugh Freeze to Auburn — Why it happened and what comes next