Auburn hires Hugh Freeze as coach: Former Liberty boss, Ole Miss gets second chance in SEC trade

Auburn has hired Hugh Freeze to become the Tigers’ next head football coach, sources close to the process told CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd. Freeze, 53, most recently coached the Liberty, leading the Flames to a 34-15 record since 2019.

Talks between the sides began weeks ago and continued into the weekend following Auburn’s 49-27 loss to No. 7 Alabama in the Iron Bowl on Saturday. Freese signed a memorandum of understanding with Auburn on Monday, according to the Associated Press.

The former Ole Miss coach, who led the Rebels to a 10-3 season and second-place finish in the SEC West in 2015, addressed rumors of him becoming the favorite to replace Brian Harsin on the Plains after Liberty’s 49 loss -14 by New Mexico State Saturday. He was surprisingly candid in his answer.

“I’m not one to tell them [the players] something that’s not true,” Freese said. “Is the job that everyone’s talking about one that I’d be interested in talking to? Sure. It doesn’t mean I’ve been offered a job.”

The attraction to Freeze stems from his success at Ole Miss from 2012-16. He was 39-25 (including shutouts) during his tenure and beat both Alabama and Nick Saban in back-to-back seasons (2014-15). Freese led the Rebels to a 10-win season, a berth in the Sugar Bowl and a No. 9 final ranking in 2015, a campaign that featured none of those 27 shutout victories.

Freese came under fire against Ole Miss prior to the 2017 season after it was discovered that he did inappropriate calls from his school-issued cell phone, which is linked to an escort service phone number. Ole Miss accepted Freeze’s resignation on July 20, 2017, for what it called “a pattern of personal misconduct.”

In addition, Ann NCAA investigation exposed the lack of institutional control and fostered a culture of unfettered involvement by boosters in football recruiting. This investigation uncovered 15 Level I violations that included unauthorized cash payments, use of automobiles, unauthorized lodging, and unauthorized meals totaling approximately $37,000.

His success with the rebels was tarnished by the two separate scandals. Ole Miss was hit with a two-year bowl ban and a two-game suspension from conference if he was hired by an SEC school before November 30, 2018. Freeze was out of coaching for two years as a result of NCAA and personal matters.

With the window for that suspension closing and numerous changes coming to the college football landscape that will likely benefit Freeze in recruiting at the Power Five level (NIL rights, transfer portal), it was only a matter of time before he returned to a major program.

Freeze hired by Liberty in 2019 after his two-year layoff. He never finished with fewer than eight wins while leading the Flames, who made the jump from an FCS to an FBS independent school prior to the 2018 season. He led the Liberty to three straight bowl games, including a 10-1 record and the No. 17 overall pick in 2020. Freese also drafted quarterback Malik Wills, who happened to transfer from Auburn, in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft.

Proven developer of QB talent

Auburn was unable to help Bo Nix reach his full potential, and now he has become a Heisman Trophy contender for Oregon after transferring to the Ducks for his senior season. Auburn’s quarterback situation in 2022 is a mess with TJ Finley and Robbie Ashford starting games without being much of a threat in a passing offense downfield. Freeze can fix that.

Chad Kelly threw for 4,042 yards and 31 touchdowns in 2015, and Beau Wallace topped the 3,000-yard mark in 2013 and 2014. Have these former Ole Miss stars become breakout sensations at the NFL level? No, but that’s not the point. They were extremely successful in college, and that’s what matters most as new athletic director John Cohen tries to turn this program around.

Watch out, Nick Saban

Former Auburn coach Gus Malzahn was fired after the 2020 season due to his inability to sustain success on the Plains. However, he went 3-5 against archrival Alabama, the most wins over the Tide among active coaches.

Freeze solved that conundrum in back-to-back seasons, including in 2015 when the Crimson Tide won the College Football Playoff. That’s a big plus for an Auburn program that craves success nationally, regardless of what’s going on in Tuscaloosa.

Saban, 71, is likely nearing the end of his career as the Tide’s head coach, though his contract is locked in through the 2030 season. However, Saban will be 79 when that contract expires. He has the same energy and acumen he had 20 years ago, but will get up there in age if he continues to train throughout the deal.

Freese understands Auburn politics

Auburn is widely known for having too many chefs in the kitchen. Whether it’s boosters, alumni, ex-players, or administrators, the sphere of influence is quite large, and something Cohen needs to either master or at least organize behind Freeze. They should let him run the program as he sees fit.

That might seem like a pipe dream based on how Auburn typically operates; Remember that they attempted a coup to oust Harsin in February and tried to hire Bobby Petrino from Louisville in 2003 while Tommy Tuberville was still the Tigers’ coach. The thing about Auburn is that while his methods seem dysfunctional on the surface, they actually work. The Tigers went undefeated in 2004, won a national title in 2010, came within 13 seconds of repeating the feat in 2013 and won the SEC West in 2017, even though Alabama won the national title that season. The method proved successful, although in reality it happened in spite of these efforts, not because of them.

Would this work nowadays? Probably not. There are too many moving parts that are beyond anything boosters have faced in the past. When Saban got the Alabama job in 2007, he took control of every aspect of the program. Freeze should have the autonomy to do the same. He’s done it before in what was a pretty significant pressure cooker at Ole Miss in its bitter rivalry with Mississippi State, led by Dan Mullen at the time. Whether he can do it again remains to be seen.

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