Why Hugh Freeze to South Carolina almost makes too much sense
Two days before Liberty played in arguably the most monumental game in program history against Virginia Tech, I was on Hugh Freeze’s media teleconference.
Freeze spoke eloquently about a variety of subjects. He talked about how he listens to Eric Church and Jason Aldean on the bus ride as part of his pregame routine. Freeze discussed his sarcastic nature in practice and how sometimes he needs to remind Auburn transfer quarterback Malik Willis that he believes in him. Freeze even shared how he wasn’t a fan of the hostility in the Egg Bowl, which he experienced 5 times as Ole Miss’ head coach.
By the end of the call, it was easy to deduce something about Freeze.
Oh, that’s right. He’s clearly been at a high-profile job before and it’s only a matter of time before he’s there again.
Keep in mind that was before his Liberty squad, which had previously earned its first ever Associated Press Top 25 ranking, stunned Virginia Tech in Blacksburg to remain undefeated. It wasn’t until that game and another South Carolina blowout loss that the “Freeze to Columbia” buzz really took off.
Will Muschamp’s firing on Sunday made something that once sounded like a message board fantasy at least 1 step closer to reality. SDS’ Matt Hayes reported Sunday night that Freeze is South Carolina’s top choice.
Now, Freeze to South Carolina almost seems too fitting for both parties.
Let’s address the elephant in the room first. What about Freeze’s unofficial ban from the SEC after his recruiting violations put Ole Miss in hot water with the NCAA? Didn’t Greg Sankey deny multiple SEC schools, including Alabama, that wanted to hire Freeze in 2018? Yes. But Freeze is nearing the end of Year 4 away from the conference. More important, the optics aren’t what they were in 2018. Freeze wouldn’t be on the sidelines for an SEC team potentially facing an Ole Miss squad still facing a bowl ban.
According to John Talty of AL.com, multiple sources confirmed that there is no longer a block on Freeze’s SEC return. Call it “time served” if you will.
What about Freeze’s escort services calls, AKA his “concerning pattern” of calls, that prompted his sudden fallout at Ole Miss? Why would South Carolina be willing to take on a coach with perceived baggage, you ask?
At the root of this is South Carolina’s desire to get back to national relevancy. Call it urgency, call it desperation. You don’t pay a coach $13.2 million to walk for performance-based reasons unless you have some major plans to, you know, improve performance. Rooted in that could be the $50 million football operations center that the university opened in February 2019. South Carolina is already heavily invested, which would suggest the search won’t be limited to the cheaper candidates.
Tanner asked if former Ole Miss HC Hugh Freeze is a candidate.
“I’m not going to speak to any potential candidates. Nobody is ruled out.”
— The Spurs Up Show (@TheSpursUpShow) November 16, 2020
Desperate programs don’t rule out coaches in the beginning of a search. That’s what South Carolina is.
Coming off its best 4-year stretch in program history from 2010-13 with Steve Spurrier, South Carolina is going to miss a Top-25 finish for the 7th consecutive season. During that stretch from 2014-present (the Playoff era), the Gamecocks watched these rivals/nearby programs do the following things:
- Clemson reach 4 national title games and win 2
- Georgia win 3 SEC East titles, 1 SEC title and play for a national title
- Florida win 2 SEC East titles (and it’s in shape to win a 3rd in 2020)
- Kentucky win 5 in a row vs. South Carolina
That doesn’t include losing 2 in a row to Tennessee in 2019 and 2020, nor does it include watching Mack Brown beat the Gamecocks in his UNC debut or losing to Appalachian State with a first-year head coach.
During that 7-year stretch, South Carolina had 1 top-50 offense nationally. Four of the last 6 offenses didn’t even crack the top 90 in FBS. They never had a quarterback even sniff the All-SEC team at season’s end during that stretch, either. From 2015-19, South Carolina had 1 passing offense finish in the top half of FBS teams. It was in 2018, when the Gamecocks finished a Muschamp-era best No. 57 in scoring.
In this era of high-flying offenses, if you can’t score, you don’t have a chance. That’s why the shift to an offensive-minded coach like Freeze, who has produced high-powered offenses everywhere he’s been, is a no-brainer. Liberty finished in the top 1/3 in FBS in passing and scoring in Year 1 of the Freeze era. That was in the program’s second year in FBS, by the way. This year, Freeze is leading the nation’s No. 16 scoring offense, and while his passing numbers are down by his standards (236 passing yards per game), Willis leads all FBS quarterbacks in rushing by 106 yards.
Spend just a quarter watching Liberty and it’s easy to deduce something else about Freeze.
Oh, this guy can still scheme like crazy.
If South Carolina is going to get back to national relevance, going with the coach who schemed his way to 2 victories against Nick Saban as the head coach at Ole Miss seems like an obvious place to start in 2020. If the biggest holdup with Freeze’s legitimacy as a candidate is what happened with the aforementioned “concerning pattern” of phone calls, something tells me his track record as an elite offensive mind will win out.
What about the potential holdup being that contract extension he just signed at Liberty? Didn’t the Flames just agree to pay him a deal that’ll earn him a reported $3 million annually through 2026? Yes and yes. With Liberty being a private university, it’s unknown what a school would have to pay the school in order to poach Freeze. One would assume that cost went up with Freeze’s post-Virginia Tech win extension. But that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for an SEC program.
From Freeze’s standpoint, the move would make sense on a variety of levels. South Carolina has the aforementioned facilities upgrade, it plays in the historically weaker SEC division and Freeze would have a relatively low bar to exceed. It isn’t replacing a legend like Spurrier. Beat Clemson once and suddenly, you have the unquestioned support of a desperate fan base.
Would Freeze hold out for an even bigger SEC job at a place like Auburn or Tennessee? Sure, it’s possible. But these things come down to timing.
Gus Malzahn has a buyout just north of $21 million. He’s also 4-2, and it’s in the middle of a pandemic in which universities like Auburn are missing out on tens of millions of dollars in ticket revenue. That doesn’t suggest the odds of him getting fired are as great as some on The Plains probably hope, and that’s without factoring in Freeze’s close relationship to Malzahn. For all we know, he might not want to take his buddy’s job.
As for Tennessee, Pruitt has a very Muschamp-like buyout in the neighborhood of $13 million. Pruitt just got an extension in September right before the season started, which suggests athletic director Phillip Fulmer isn’t likely to bail in 2020. Like Auburn, there’s no guarantee that job opens up this year or next year.
With Liberty now in the national spotlight, Freeze’s window to get that next job is now. That’s why he went to a program just making the jump into FBS. It’s shades of Lane Kiffin at FAU. But unlike Kiffin, who had a lackluster Year 2 in Boca Raton, Freeze’s stock is soaring in Year 2 for the No. 21 team in America, which already has 2 wins against Power 5 programs this season and is in search of another one Saturday against NC State.
And in the SEC, where winning is everything, Freeze’s market might not extend outside of the region. It also doesn’t hurt that Freeze grew up in Mississippi, went to Southern Miss and then spent 24 of his 26 years in the coaching profession in the SEC’s geographical footprint.
Who knows what kind of opportunities will come Freeze’s way this December. Nobody would be surprised with a quiet coaching carousel in terms of FBS openings. Why? Again, Power 5 schools are losing tens of millions of dollars in ticket revenue with reduced capacity seating and limited home games. On top of that, 33 FBS coaches have 8-figure buyouts (via USA Today). One of those was Muschamp.
It made sense that South Carolina fired Muschamp coming off 3 consecutive double-digit losses in the midst of his 3rd consecutive disappointing season. Perhaps it’ll make sense for his successor to be someone who isn’t Freeze. LSU savior Joe Brady would move the needle, and someone like Billy Napier at Louisiana (also quietly in the Top 25) is going to be one of the top Group of 5 candidates.
But when you think about all the factors at play, it’s easy to deduce something about Freeze taking the South Carolina job.
Oh, this makes a whole lot of sense.