Hugh Freeze to Auburn: Why it happened and what comes next

Auburn athletic director John Cohen will sign the contract for new football coach Hugh Freeze with both eyes open.

If anyone knows the upside and the risk involved in hiring the former Ole Miss coach, it's the former Mississippi State athletic director. They didn't just share a state for five years, they shared a conference. Cohen would have attended AD-level meetings and heard all about why Freeze left Oxford under a dark cloud in the summer of 2017. (At Tuesday's introductory press conference, Cohen expressed confidence in both Freeze and the thoroughness of Auburn's vetting procedures but declined to take any questions that would have shed more light on that process.)

Freeze was once the toast of Ole Miss. He tore it up on the recruiting trail and had a high-flying offense that pushed the tempo and took shots downfield. He brought the Rebels to their first Sugar Bowl in 45 years. He beat Alabama and Nick Saban twice.

But the fall from grace was swift and scandalous. There were NCAA recruiting violations, which led to a bowl ban and scholarship reductions, and there were phone calls to an escort service, which ultimately led to Freeze resigning. Had he not resigned, his former athletic director said, he would have fired him. (After Freeze left Ole Miss, USA Today published a story in which three women, who were students at Briarcrest Christian when Freeze was a high school football coach in the late 1990s and early 2000s, said Freeze made them uncomfortable with inappropriate behavior.)

Freeze didn't coach in 2017 or 2018. And because of the scandals, when he did return, it was at Liberty.

In Lynchburg, Virginia, he started over. And with every win and bowl appearance, it felt like he was inching closer to a return to big-time college football.

In four seasons at Liberty, Freeze went 34-15. But this past summer, a former Liberty student who sued the university for allegedly mishandling sexual assault cases accused Freeze of sending her direct messages on Twitter in reaction to her comments. In one message, Freeze allegedly said Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw -- who resigned as Baylor AD in the wake of a campus-wide sexual assault investigation -- was a "Jesus-like leader."

Meanwhile, Auburn was floundering. It had gone outside the box by hiring former Boise State coach Bryan Harsin in Dec. 2020 but a 6-7 first season ended with an internal investigation into Harsin's handling of the program. Then, after going 3-5 to start this season, Harsin was fired.

Desperate for a proven winner in the SEC -- and someone who might be able to beat archrival Alabama -- Cohen eventually zeroed in on Freeze.

Why did Auburn hire Freeze?

Andrea Adelson: Because it could not get Lane Kiffin? This sure does feel like a reach. Freeze's past, quite frankly, should be disqualifying from him ever landing another Power 5 job. Especially when Auburn had a highly qualified candidate standing on its sideline -- beloved alum Cadillac Williams, who did an incredible job as interim coach after Harsin was fired. He drew widespread praise for not only the way he handled the situation but for the passion with which his team played. There are qualified Black head coaches across the country who get passed over every single year for coaches like Freeze. This hire is a particular slap in the face to one of Auburn's own, who has given everything for this program.

But Freeze is a big name with an SEC past who beat Nick Saban twice when he was Ole Miss' coach, and took the Rebels to two New Year's Six games. And he can develop quarterbacks. But it's fair to question whether that should have been enough for him to get the job.

Alex Scarborough: The last few months, starting with hiring athletic director John Cohen from Mississippi State, have felt like a giant course correction for Auburn. Bringing in the former Ole Miss coach -- after trying to hire the current Ole Miss coach -- is really on the nose. And it's predictable. Which is not to say it's the wrong move. If Freeze could contend in the SEC and go 2-3 against Saban and Alabama at Ole Miss, what's to say he can't repeat that success at Auburn? It's a better recruiting territory given the access to Georgia and Florida, and there are unlimited resources -- just look at how much money they're willing to burn on buyouts. (In the past two years, the Tigers have paid more than $37 million to fired coaches Harsin and Gus Malzahn.) The school recently built a new football facility, and it is not afraid to fund NIL ventures.

What should be Auburn's biggest concerns moving forward?

Adelson: Here's the thing: A quick Google search clearly shows why this hire comes with huge risks. As outlined above, Freeze has already gotten one SEC school into major NCAA trouble, leading to postseason bans and vacated wins. He was ousted at Ole Miss in part for using burner phones to call escorts, and while at Liberty is alleged to have been direct messaging a woman suing the school over sexual assault claims. But this hire is a win-at-all-costs, go-for-broke situation, and Auburn will deal with the consequences later.

Scarborough: Ask his former athletic director and president at Ole Miss. They stood up and defended Freeze on multiple occasions only to end up embarrassed. Cohen will have to explain why he felt comfortable that Freeze has learned his lessons and is trustworthy. And even then, only time will tell. But as far as the product on the field, let's not forget that Freeze hasn't coached in the SEC in six years. That's an eternity. The last three SEC games Freeze coached were against Kevin Sumlin, Derek Mason and Dan Mullen. So, yeah, a lot has changed. Freeze has to show his offense has evolved and that he can navigate the complexities of roster management in the era of NIL. Doing it at Liberty is great, but it's not nearly the same as Auburn.

How does Freeze get Auburn back in SEC contention?

Adam Rittenberg: He accomplished the first step by keeping Cadillac Williams on staff. He also needs other assistants who know the SEC recruiting landscape and can attract transfers. Auburn ultimately must become a quarterback destination under Freeze. Since 2018, Alabama leads the nation in total QBR, while Georgia is No. 4. Auburn ranks 55th. Freeze has to improve that position through recruiting and the portal.

Chris Low: Right at the top is finding, signing and developing a quarterback. Freeze has won with different styles of quarterbacks, which should make playing in his system attractive for a lot of quarterbacks out there. In the end, offensive systems don't win games (or championships) in the SEC. Players do. And make no mistake: Freeze's mission at Auburn is to win titles. The Tigers are one of six schools nationally over the last 12 years to have won a national title and played in another national title game during that span. The way you do that is by signing and developing great players, especially from the state of Georgia. When Auburn has been really good, the Tigers have always had great players from Georgia. And that's harder than ever now with Kirby Smart in Athens.

Mark Schlabach: I think the Auburn roster needs a complete overhaul. Harsin's recruiting abilities weren't up to SEC standards, and the Tigers lost too many players to the transfer portal. And then Freeze will need to win over the Auburn power brokers, just like basketball coach Bruce Pearl was able to do. Freeze has to unite Auburn fans and boosters and get everyone on the same page. For too long, Auburn's biggest opponent has been itself because of so much dysfunction behind closed doors.

What does this mean for the Alabama-Auburn rivalry?

Rittenberg: Freeze knows the blueprint for beating Bama, and it's all about recruiting and NIL, two areas where Auburn should thrive under his leadership. Auburn needs schematic and talent upgrades on offense to beat an Alabama team that has pivoted more toward quarterback and wide receiver play. Freeze has a strong track record on offense, especially at wide receiver, but his ability to attract and develop elite SEC quarterbacks to match Alabama's will be worth watching.

Low: The Iron Bowl is always going to be one of the best rivalries in college football, but a new face is only going to spice it up. There was also a time that Saban and Freeze nearly ended up together. After Freeze resigned at Ole Miss, Saban was interested in bringing Freeze on as an analyst or even an offensive coordinator, but sources say SEC commissioner Greg Sankey was against the idea of Freeze being back in the league while Ole Miss was still on probation.

Schlabach: The Tide might be as vulnerable as they've ever been under Saban. Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young is leaving for the NFL, along with linebacker Will Anderson Jr., the best player on defense. The Tide don't seem to have a bruising running back like they've had in the past, and their young receivers haven't panned out. Alabama has been undisciplined and plagued by turnovers and penalties. If Freeze and his staff can recruit well and pluck a few difference makers out of the transfer portal, they might be competitive with Alabama sooner than people believed.