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Hugh Freeze, Auburn could be Nick Saban’s ultimate nemesis

Scott Procter Scott Procter BVM Sports Senior Editor/Journalist

AUBURN, Ala. (BVM) – Hugh Freeze was hired to be the 31st head football coach at Auburn University on Nov. 29. Although the 53-year-old comes to Auburn with his fair share of previous scandals, there’s no doubt that Freeze brings a winning pedigree to a program that is in dire need of it.

The Tigers’ search for their next head coach began when the school fired Bryan Harsin in October after a home loss to Arkansas dropped Auburn to 3-5 on the season. During Harsin’s 21-game tenure with Auburn, he went just 9-12.

Auburn’s interest in Freeze reportedly intensified after Thanksgiving when Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin decided to stay with the Rebels. Speaking of Ole Miss, it’s partly Freeze’s previous success with the Rebels that helped him land in Auburn.

“For the last few years, at various points, different schools have been interested in hiring Hugh Freeze,” BVM Sports College Football Analyst Brad Edwards said. “He had success at Ole Miss and he’s had success at Liberty.”

Ole Miss hired Freeze as its head coach on Dec. 5, 2011 and in his first season in Oxford, led the Rebels to a 7-6 record, including a victory in the BBVA Compass Bowl. Freeze followed his inaugural season as the Rebels’ head coach by bringing in the fifth-ranked recruiting class in the country in 2013.

That haul led to a 7-0 start – the program’s best start since the Johnny Vaught era — during Freeze’s third season in Oxford which ended with a 9-3 record and an appearance in the 2014 Peach Bowl, the Rebels’ first major bowl appearance since the 1970 Sugar Bowl.

The next season, Freeze became just the third SEC head coach – along with Les Miles and Steve Spurrier – to defeat a Nick Saban-coached team in back-to-back years after a 43-37 win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The huge victory catapulted Ole Miss to No. 3 in the AP rankings as they went on to tally their second consecutive nine-win season which included an appearance in the 2016 Sugar Bowl (a 48-20 win over Oklahoma State).

However, the successful season would be Freeze’s last in Oxford.

In January 2016, the NCAA charged Ole Miss with numerous recruiting violations. To make matters worse, school officials discovered “a concerning pattern” of calls made to a female escort service, including at least a dozen over 33 months. On July 20, 2017, Freeze was given an ultimatum by Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork: resign or be fired for violating the morals clause of his contract.

Freeze resigned and in 2019, the NCAA punished Ole Miss for recruiting and academic violations committed under his watch. The punishments included a two-year postseason ban, three years of probation and a four-year ban on some scholarships. The NCAA also forced Ole Miss to vacate 33 wins from 2010-16 and as a result, 27 of Freeze’s wins were stripped from the books. Freeze’s record at Ole Miss is now officially 12-25 although it was 39-25 on the field.

After two years out of coaching, success — and more scandals – followed Freeze to his next stop: Liberty.

In his first season with the Flames in 2019, Liberty went 7-5 and qualified for bowl games for the first time in school history. An improved 10-1 record came for Freeze and the Flames in 2020 before an 8-4 campaign this season.

But in January and July 2022, Freeze sent multiple unsolicited direct messages on Twitter to Chelsea Andrews, a former Liberty student and sexual assault survivor. When she became publicly critical of Liberty’s decision to hire athletic director Ian McCaw – who had just resigned from his previous job at Baylor after failing to identify and respond to a pattern of sexual violence by student-athletes – Freeze, in messages to Andrews, defended McCaw to her. Freeze told ESPN five months later that he was sorry for sending the messages.

The scandals weren’t enough to keep Freeze off of Auburn’s radar, and in fact, his new six-year contract from the Tigers will pay him an average of $6.5 million per year.

“College sports have said loud and clear, especially college football, that it’s about winning; ultimately, that’s what it’s about,” Edwards said. “In the case of Auburn, it’s about being able to beat Alabama every now and then. Hugh Freeze did it twice when he was at Ole Miss and I think that’s the number one thing that makes him an attractive candidate to them.”

Auburn finished the 2022 season at 5-7 and is in dire need of a culture change to compete in the loaded SEC West.

Since winning the 2011 BCS Championship and returning to the title game just three seasons later, Auburn has posted just one 10-win season over the last nine years and won the SEC West twice. The hope at the very least is that Freeze can enjoy some of the same success Gus Malzahn – who was fired at the end of the 2020 season – had against Alabama as Auburn beat the Crimson Tide three times in eight seasons during his tenure.

With Freeze having already shown the ability to beat Saban and Alabama, the Tigers’ new head coach has the opportunity to return Auburn back to relevance, starting with the Iron Bowl. But, with as strong as the SEC West is, Alabama will be just one of many hurdles Freeze will have to clear beginning in 2023.

“The problem for Auburn, and this is a problem no matter who they hired as head coach, is that as of right now, until the conference expands … Auburn has to play not only Alabama but also Georgia every single year; that’s brutal,” Edwards said. “I don’t care who the coach is, you’re not likely to have a lot of success when those two are built into your schedule every single season.”