By hiring Hugh Freeze, Auburn is swinging for the fences in every way
If at first you don’t succeed, then dust yourself off and try again.
I imagine Auburn tried to embody Aaliyah’s words after its hire of Bryan Harsin didn’t work out. And when it didn’t work out to hire a current Ole Miss coach, well, Auburn just dusted itself off and tried again. Only this time, it was with a different former Ole Miss coach.
Lane Kiffin wasn’t the guy, so Hugh Freeze is. Finally.
Both moves would’ve been considered a swing for the fences. Will Freeze be a home run? Time will tell.
Freeze already showed that he could succeed in the SEC, and obviously, there’s no bigger feather in a potential Auburn coach’s cap than “I beat Nick Saban twice.” Feathers, experience, offensive prowess … Freeze isn’t lacking.
There’s the other side of this, too. It played out in real-time on Saturday with a viral #AntiFreeze hashtag from the Auburn faithful following reports that Freeze was the top candidate to succeed Harsin. In July, former Liberty student Chelsea Andrews shared that Freeze responded to her post about Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw and sent her an unsolicited direct message that read “You don’t even know Ian McCaw. He is the most Jesus-like leader I have.” Andrews was a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the university for its mishandling of sexual assault cases.
Why is the head football coach at Liberty University DMing me during and after my lawsuit with LU?
At almost midnight.
When I didn’t tag him.
& I haven’t responded to the other DMs he’s sent over the months
Publicly naming so he can see that I don’t want direct contact w/ him pic.twitter.com/K3icZAuops
— Chelsea Andrews (@chelsandrews) July 10, 2022
Freeze is also 5 years removed from the escort service scandal that ultimately sacked him at Ole Miss. Any Ole Miss players who dealt with bowl bans or sanctions as a result of Freeze’s 15 Level-I violations are long gone, which is probably why this hire didn’t have some sort of ban from SEC commissioner Greg Sankey.
Ultimately, though, a program with 1 top-25 scoring offense in the Playoff era decided that it needed someone who knows his way around a play sheet. A program with 1 all-conference quarterback in the post-Cam Newton era decided that it needed someone who knows how to develop a signal-caller.
Freeze checked those boxes.
Does that guarantee success? Of course not. You can crush the hire out of the park and whiff on the execution. Freeze’s time on The Plains will be determined by the staff he hires, the talent he brings through those new $92 million facility doors and obviously, the decisions he makes.
It should help that Auburn’s resources don’t appear to be lacking, despite the $36.5 million in head coaching buyouts it agreed to pay in the past 2 years. It should also help that historically speaking, Auburn really hasn’t been a revolving door of coaches like that number would suggest. Before Freeze was hired, the only SEC program with fewer head coaches in the 21st century than Auburn was Georgia.
It’s Georgia that Auburn is chasing. That’s right. It’s not Alabama. Georgia is the current gold standard in the sport. It’s also the team that humbled Auburn at least once every season since “The Prayer at Jordan-Hare.” The spending on recruiting, the discipline and the willingness to adapt turned Georgia from good to great. From the moment that Auburn decided to fork over $21.5 million to Gus Malzahn after a 67-35 mark with 3 victories against Saban, the decision was made. “Great” is the standard, not “good.” Harsin was neither.
Harsin couldn’t make it work with 3 different starting quarterbacks. Freeze, on the other hand, took Auburn’s former 3rd-string quarterback (Malik Willis) and turned him into one of the top NFL signal-caller prospects. And when Willis was gone, Freeze took his 3rd-string quarterback (Jonathan Bennett) and guided him to a victory at Arkansas.
That’s right. Freeze has a more recent SEC victory than Harsin. At Liberty. Let that sink in.
Freeze’s time at Auburn won’t merely be defined by whether he can be better than Harsin, and it’s safe to say he’s not guaranteed a 100% approval rating even if he pulls off the occasional upset like Malzahn.
That’s maybe the big difference between Freeze’s time at Ole Miss compared to what awaits at Auburn. This isn’t Ole Miss, which has yet to play in an SEC Championship. This is Auburn. As in, the program that had 3 pre-Harsin coaches compete for a national championship. This also isn’t Liberty, which bent over backward to keep him with unconditional support and a reported 8-year, fully guaranteed $40 million contract.
You cannot succeed at Auburn if you can’t handle the peaks and valleys. There could be some valleys based not only on the resistance from Auburn fans who are concerned about Freeze’s past, but also based the roster that he’ll likely inherit, especially with a recruiting class that just cracked the top 40 nationally.
Then again, a first-year coach at the Power 5 level now can expedite that process with the transfer portal. One would think that’ll be Freeze’s friend. Auburn needs help in the trenches and at receiver. Bringing in some SEC-ready players will be at the top of his to-do list.
It’s a different SEC world than the one that Freeze left in 2017. Only 3 SEC coaches are still in their current role, and one of them, Smart, was just trying to show that he could get through a regular season without losing at home to Vandy. NIL collectives weren’t a thing, and neither was the possibility that Oklahoma and Texas were joining the conference.
Consider that all the more reason Auburn swung for the fences. A 16-team super conference is coming. So is an expanded Playoff. The pay-for-play era might officially be coming, too. Now is the time to get your ducks in a row.
You could argue that this past February, those Auburn ducks were drowning somewhere in a sea of a failed coup and a 1-way street of departing players and assistants. Cadillac Williams righted the ship. He deserves immense credit for reminding the college football world what Auburn can be. It’s now up to Freeze to build on that.
I have to imagine that John Cohen has always had Freeze high on his list after watching what he built in Oxford, 2 hours from Starkville. Granted, he also watched it come crashing down in well-documented fashion, and he nearly saw that collapse before it could begin at Auburn. Freeze’s missteps will still be a popular topic of conversation now that he’s returning to the division that he once wreaked havoc in.
There’s no question that Auburn’s chances of staying afloat in the SEC super-conference got better by virtue of adding Freeze. Adding an offensive mind of that caliber to a division that already includes head coaches like Kiffin, Mike Leach and Brian Kelly made perfect sense. In that regard, Freeze will fit right in. As for the rest of the equation, well, we’ll see.
One thing that’s undeniable — Auburn took a big ole hack.