I didn’t think Auburn was going to hire Hugh Freeze. But it did.
While there seemed to be too many factors working against Freeze in this search, Auburn’s leaders have made their decision.
Let me admit this from the very beginning: I was wrong.
Multiple times. Publicly, privately. In newsletters, during radio hits, on podcasts — including one, hilariously, posted less than 24 hours ago.
I didn’t think that Auburn would hire Hugh Freeze to be its next head football coach.
This newsletter may come across as self-centered to some of you, and for that, I apologize. But I didn’t think it would be right to go from “Auburn won’t make this hire” straight to “Auburn made this hire” without addressing things head-on.
I thought the scandals that cost Freeze his job at Ole Miss — not the recruiting violations, but primarily the use of a university phone to call an escort service — would be too much for him to get another shot at an SEC program.
I thought the screenshots of Freeze direct messaging a sexual assault victim in defense of former Baylor and current Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw this past July would make it even tougher for him to get the second chance.
I also thought it would be too divisive of a hire among the fan base. After Auburn fans came together in a near-unanimous rejection of Bryan Harsin and an embrace of Cadillac Williams in November, I didn’t think Auburn would run the risk of making a hire that would immediately cause a mixture of anger and apathy among sizable portions of those same fans.
Like all of us, Freeze doesn’t have to be judged for his past indefinitely. But it still has consequences.
I didn’t think that new Auburn athletic director John Cohen, who was at Mississippi State during the end of Freeze’s tenure at Ole Miss and had made a pair of outside-the-box football hires with the Bulldogs, would make this move.
Freeze has had some success at FBS independent Liberty, but he didn’t feel like the big splash hire that, for example, LSU made last year ahead of the new TV contract money coming to the SEC. Freeze had a losing record in SEC play during his time at Ole Miss, and he went 5-7 during his last year there.
I thought Freeze signing a fully guaranteed contract extension with Liberty last month was a signal that Auburn wasn’t going to pursue him.
I didn’t think that the way Freeze’s Liberty team had played since beating Arkansas several weeks ago, when he made an on-the-record comment about the Auburn opening, would keep him in the running. Since that win in Fayetteville, the Flames lost to a UConn team in Year 1 under Jim Mora, lost to a Virginia Tech team in the midst of its worst season in the modern era and got blown out by a New Mexico State team with a losing record. The Flames were double-digit favorites in all three of those losses.
And, as a whole, Freeze’s offense at Liberty had taken a major step back in 2022 — not operating at the top-20 yards per play level it enjoyed over his first three seasons there, but instead sitting at No. 67 in FBS. That’s one spot behind Auburn, which played five ranked teams to Liberty’s zero this season.
I also thought it was telling that Freeze had only been connected to the Auburn job during this coaching carousel. Even after his 10-win season at Liberty in 2020, he didn’t get his second chance at a big job. (That included Auburn, which ultimately went with Harsin.)
Nevertheless, reports both locally and nationally by the well-sourced that linked Freeze with the job never went away. They were around from the beginning of the process, and they only increased after Auburn’s top target — Lane Kiffin — made an 11th-hour decision that he would stay at Ole Miss.
I didn’t think Auburn would hire Freeze after the first wave of fan backlash that ran from Saturday to Sunday. At that point, talks had reportedly cooled between the two sides, and it looked like Freeze was off the table. Then things cranked back up Sunday night, prompting another wave of backlash.
I thought there were just too many factors working against Freeze, so I was always unsure of his candidacy. I even wrote a snarky pair of mailbag answers about him a few weeks ago, which I definitely regret now.
I try to be upfront about not having a ton of inside sources or a track record for breaking news, so all of this shouldn’t be surprising.
But I still didn’t expect Freeze to be Auburn’s new head coach.
Auburn’s leadership had to know the risks that came with hiring Freeze. Some of Auburn’s own fans obviously won’t like it. Media members will judge Auburn for it in columns and tweets. Rivals will have ammunition for a while.
Auburn was already facing an uphill battle as a program after the debacle that was Bryan Harsin’s short tenure. Hiring Freeze doesn’t make that any easier in the short term.
From a purely football perspective, the thought process behind hiring Freeze is similar to the one behind trying to get Kiffin from Ole Miss. At a traditionally less-successful program in the SEC West, Freeze took Ole Miss to new heights. The Rebels played in New Year’s Six bowls in back-to-back seasons. They beat Nick Saban’s Alabama twice, although some will be quick to point out that Auburn parted ways two years ago with a coach who had done that more than anybody else.
More often than not, Freeze has had good-to-great offenses during his time as a college head coach. His best team at Ole Miss was No. 4 nationally in yards per play and No. 8 in points per game. With the exception of his first season in Oxford and this most recent one at Liberty, his offenses are routinely in the top 40 nationally in the major stat categories.
Then there’s the recruiting angle. At Ole Miss, he signed a top-five class, another top-10 class and two more top-20 classes, but they were at the heart of his NCAA troubles. Recruiting has changed drastically since the last time he was in the SEC, especially with the advent of NIL. A place like Auburn isn’t going to judge a coach harshly for running afoul of the NCAA — but, again, others’ criticism of Freeze isn’t limited to that.
Current recruits were in elementary school when Freeze was at his peak. Even with Auburn’s NIL war chest and brand-new football facility, it’s fair to ask if Freeze can be the one to help close the gap between the Tigers and their biggest rivals on the trail. And it’s also fair to expect that those rivals will negatively recruit against Freeze, given his past.
There’s no doubt that Freeze has wanted to be the head coach at Auburn. There’s also no doubt that people with money and influence at Auburn have long wanted to see Freeze in this role. He’s clearly more of a fit for the job than Harsin ever was.
Still, you can’t ignore that it all comes with real baggage and real fallout. It feels like it’s going to take a ton of work from everyone involved to make the hire seem worthwhile to the majority of Auburn’s fan base. And, for some fans, there might never be enough.
But Auburn knew that already.