Hugh Freeze is back in the SEC.
Auburn’s winding search for a head football coach ended with the hiring on Monday of Freeze, the Liberty coach who while holding an impressive on-field record was fired in 2017 at Ole Miss amid NCAA and personal scandal, a source told Sports Illustrated.
The 53-year-old Freeze, who has just one losing season in 12 years as a college coach, makes a long-awaited return to arguably the country’s most powerful league, completing Auburn’s overhaul of its football program with a splashy hire of a sometimes-polarizing figure and offensive whiz.
On the Plains, Freeze joins new Auburn athletic director John Cohen, hired away from Mississippi State earlier this fall. In an unusual circumstance, Cohen, a former Mississippi State baseball player and coach, plucked away the former coach at his alma mater’s primary rival, a long-rumored marriage that fills the country’s most lucrative opening of the 2022 cycle.
Auburn’s courtship of Freeze, while weeks old, narrowed over the past few days. The program targeted Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin before shifting to Freeze on Friday. Cohen interviewed several candidates and vetted more than 20 before whittling the list to a pair of coaches long thought to be Auburn’s top choices.
Freeze’s contract details are unclear. Auburn is expected to owe Liberty about $3 million in buyout money for hiring the coach, a source confirmed to SI.
Freeze, a Mississippi native with stops at NAIA Lambuth, Arkansas State, Ole Miss and Liberty, holds a career record of 103–47, a 68.3% winning mark. He’s excelled in reviving programs quickly, leading one-year turnarounds at Lambuth (3-8 to 8-4), Arkansas State (from 4–8 to 10–2) and Ole Miss (from 2–10 to 7–6).
He took over a Liberty program that moved up to FBS the year before he arrived in 2018 and led the Flames to four consecutive winning seasons and a 10–1, top-20 finish in ’20. During his four seasons in Lynchburg, Va., his teams beat BYU, Arkansas, Syracuse and Virginia Tech.
Although he’s been courted for bigger jobs in the recent past—even at Auburn in 2020—Freeze’s off-the-field issues at Ole Miss kept many programs from hiring him. While in Oxford, Miss., Freeze presided over a program sanctioned for NCAA rule-breaking and embarrassed over an extramarital scandal that emerged in the summer of ’17.
In fact, the issues delayed his hiring at Auburn, multiple sources told SI. Though he emerged as the Tigers’ primary target Friday after weeks of negotiations with the school, Auburn did not officially hire him until Monday, as the university conducted a deep background check.
Despite some pushback against the hire, Cohen is bringing aboard a proven winner on the field and someone familiar with the SEC footprint. The athletic director saw it firsthand. He was Mississippi State’s baseball coach at the same time as Freeze led the Ole Miss football program. He took the Rebels to their first Sugar Bowl berth in a half century in 2015, a run that finished with a top-10 ranking. And he twice beat Alabama in what many believe was the impetus behind Nick Saban’s rethinking his own offensive philosophy.
The marriage with Auburn makes plenty of sense. One of Freeze’s daughters, Jordan, attended Auburn and still lives there. Freeze and his wife, Jill, have long discussed eventually building a retirement home on a lake near Auburn.
In the monthlong search, Kiffin and Freeze emerged as Auburn’s top two candidates last week. The university zeroed in on Kiffin before a breakdown in negotiations resulted in the two sides moving on. Kiffin is expected to sign a new long-term deal with Ole Miss that averages $9 million a year, and Auburn shifted to Freeze, who has not hid from his transgressions.
In an interview with SI in 2020, the coach detailed the issues, acknowledging that he cheated on his wife and that the two mended their relationship in the spring of ’17. Months later, in July ’17, Freeze’s personal issues became public when a defamation lawsuit brought by former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt resulted in the school learning about what then Rebels AD Ross Bjork called a “troubling pattern” of behavior. Records of Freeze’s school-owned cellphone turned up multiple calls made to escort services.
Faced with the prospect of being fired, Freeze resigned.
All of this came as the school was embroiled in one of the most serious NCAA investigations in recent college football history. The NCAA eventually slapped Ole Miss with a two-year bowl ban for 21 violations committed by a dozen boosters and six former staff members for arranging impermissible benefits, including cash payments, free car rides, free hotel rooms and food. Freeze himself got a two-game suspension. (It was never applied because he was not a head coach in 2018.)
It was a double whammy of news, both professionally and personally, scarring what was to that point an impeccable coaching career and tainting Freeze’s long-standing, outwardly evangelical portrayal.
Freeze says he’s made “peace with the past” and is frustrated that others have not.
“I’d love for you to tell me when people will get over it,” he said in 2020. “I think 80% of them are realistic and say, ‘Dude, he’s made a mistake and paid a price. Good Lord … let him be.’ There’s another 20% that never will be over it.
“To my knowledge, I’ve tried, with anybody I could, I made sure they knew that if I hurt them I was sorry, but it’s time to move on,” he said. “How many times can we write about it? How many times can we talk about it? I said I was wrong. I’ve paid a price. My family paid a heck of a price. When can we move on?”
While many expected Freeze to one day return to the SEC, it hasn’t come without obstacles.
In the winter of 2018, Freeze said that both Gus Malzahn at Auburn and Saban at Alabama approached him about joining their staffs. However, his candidacy at both schools fizzled over feedback from the SEC office, which held concerns over Freeze returning to the league while the program he once coached suffered through NCAA probation.
One former SEC administrator in 2020 described the situation as a “sensitive issue” with the conference office and commissioner Greg Sankey.
Two years later, Freeze and Cohen, once fierce rivals in the Magnolia State, are now locked together in an effort to restore Auburn to national prominence. While the path is tough—Auburn is in arguably the country’s toughest division and in a state with the sport’s most prolific coach, Saban—the school has proved it can succeed at the highest levels. In the past 30 years, the Tigers have gone undefeated, competed for a national championship or won a national championship with four different coaches: Terry Bowden (1993), Tommy Tuberville (2004), Gene Chizik (’10) and Malzahn (’13).
Nestled in a fertile recruiting footprint with a deep football history and abundant resources, Auburn has for years been the victim of its own internal dysfunction. Cohen and Freeze arrive at a place that is one of the more fractured in the country, often hindered by heavily involved boosters and board members. For years, the authority at Auburn has come from those outside of the athletic department, using their power and authority to insert themselves into decisions and sway movement.
In a way, the latest moves stem from more meddling. Auburn pushed out athletic director Allen Greene, hired in 2018, to pave the way for its latest coaching change. New president Chris Roberts, hired in February, fired coach Bryan Harsin on Oct. 30, just 21 games into his tenure. On the same day, the school announced Cohen as its new AD in a coordinated firing-and-hiring plan.
The recent football coaching firings have been costly. In 2020, the school paid Malzahn $21 million in one of the largest buyout sums in college football history, and it still owes Harsin $15.5 million in buyout money. The school paid millions more to fire their staffs.
Resources aren’t a problem on the Plains, one of the primary reasons that Cohen bolted from Mississippi for lower Alabama. Perhaps more than anything, the issue centers on funds for name, image and likeness (NIL), as detailed in this Oct. 31 story from SI that projected Cohen’s original pursuit of Kiffin and then Freeze.
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