Auburn has hired Hugh Freeze to become the Tigers' next head football coach, the university announced Monday following the end of its 2022 season. Freeze, 53, last coached at Liberty having led the Flames to a 34-15 record since 2019.
Conversations between the parties began weeks ago and continued through the weekend after Auburn's 49-27 loss to No. 7 Alabama in the Iron Bowl on Saturday, sources told CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd. Freeze signed a memorandum of understanding with Auburn on Monday, per the Associated Press. His contract will pay him $39 million over six years, an average of $6.5 million per season, according to ESPN.
"First, I want to acknowledge Cadillac Williams for the incredible job he did as interim head coach. The impact he made is immeasurable and cannot be overstated," said Freeze in a statement. "Secondly, Auburn is one of the preeminent programs in college football and I'm very appreciative of President Roberts and John Cohen for this opportunity at Auburn. I've been fortunate to witness first-hand how special Auburn is during my time as a head coach in the SEC and while visiting my daughter Jordan who attended Auburn and currently lives in the community. I can't wait to work with our student-athletes and the Auburn family to bring championships back to the Plains."
The former Ole Miss coach, who led the Rebels to a 10-3 season and second-place SEC West finish in 2015, addressed the rumors about becoming the frontrunner to replace Bryan Harsin on the Plains following Liberty's 49-14 upset loss to New Mexico State on Saturday. He was surprisingly upfront in his response.
"I'm not one to tell them [the players] something that's not true," Freeze said. "Is the job everyone is talking about one that I would have an interest in talking with? Sure. That doesn't mean they have offered me a job."
The attraction to Freeze stems from his success at Ole Miss from 2012-16. He was 39-25 (including vacated wins) during his tenure and beat both Alabama and Nick Saban in back-to-back seasons (2014-15). Freeze led the Rebels to a 10-win season, a berth in the Sugar Bowl and a No. 9 final ranking in 2015, a campaign that did not include any of those 27 vacated wins.
Freeze came under fire at Ole Miss prior to the 2017 season after it was discovered that he madefrom his school-issued mobile phone that were connected to a phone number for an escort service. Ole Miss accepted Freeze's resignation on July 20, 2017, for what it called a "pattern of personal misconduct."
Additionally, anuncovered a lack of institutional control and fostered an unconstrained culture of booster involvement in football recruiting. That investigation uncovered 15 Level I violations that included unauthorized cash payments, use of automobiles, unauthorized lodging and unapproved meals that valued approximately $37,000.
His success with the Rebels became stained as a result of the two separate scandals. Ole Miss was penalized with a two-year bowl ban and a two-game conference suspension if he was hired by an SEC school prior to Nov. 30, 2018. Freeze was out of coaching for two years as a result of the NCAA and personal issues.
Saban attempted to hire Freeze as a co-offensive coordinator in 2018, months after he was released from Ole Miss, per AL.com. However, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey ultimately pressured Alabama not to hire Freeze as the Rebels faced NCAA penalties for violations committed under Freeze's watch. Saban later hired Josh Gattis for the role. LSU and Missouri also looked into Freeze as an offensive coordinator candidate, but the pushback from the SEC convinced them not to explore it further.
SEC bylaws require schools to consult with the SEC commissioner before hiring a coach "who has engaged in unethical conduct as defined under NCAA Bylaws or who has participated in activity that resulted, or may result, in a Level I, Level II or major infraction."
With the window for that suspension closed and numerous changes coming to the college football landscape that will likely benefit Freeze in recruiting at the Power Five level (NIL rights, transfer portal), his return to a major program became only matter of time.
Freeze hired by Liberty in 2019 after his two-year hiatus. He has never finished with fewer than eight wins while leading the Flames, who made the jump from FCS to an independent school in the FBS prior to the 2018 season. He has led Liberty to three straight bowl games, including a 10-1 record and a No. 17 overall ranking in 2020. Freeze also developed quarterback Malik Willis, who coincidentally transferred from Auburn, into a third-round draft pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Proven developer of QB talent
Auburn failed to help Bo Nix reach his full potential, and now he has blossomed into a Heisman Trophy contender for Oregon after transferring to the Ducks for his senior season. The Auburn quarterback situation in 2022 is a mess with TJ Finley and Robby Ashford both starting games without providing much of a threat in downfield passing attack. Freeze can fix that.
Chad Kelly threw for 4,042 yards and 31 touchdowns in 2015 and Bo Wallace topped the 3,000-yard mark in 2013 and 2014. Did those former Ole Miss stars turn into breakout sensations at the NFL level? No, but that's not the point. They were ultra-successful in college, and that's what matters most as new athletic director John Cohen efforts to turn around this program.
Watch out, Nick Saban
Former Auburn coach Gus Malzahn was fired after the 2020 season for his inability to sustain success on the Plains. However, he went 3-5 against arch-rival Alabama, which is the most wins over the Tide among active coaches.
Freeze solved that riddle in back-to-back seasons, including in 2015 when the Crimson Tide went on to win the College Football Playoff. That is a big plus for an Auburn program that craves success on a national scale regardless of what's going on in Tuscaloosa.
Saban, 71, is presumably nearing the end of his run as head coach of the Tide, though he is locked in his contract through the 2030 season. Saban will be 79 years old when that contract comes to an end, however. He has the same energy and acumen that he had 20 years ago, but he will be getting up there in age if he does coach through the entire deal.
Freeze understands Auburn's politics
Auburn is widely known to have too many chefs in the kitchen. Whether it's boosters, alumni, former players or administrators, the sphere of influence is quite large and something that Cohen has to either rein in, or at least, organize behind Freeze. They have to let him run the program in the way that he sees fit.
That might seem like a pipe dream based on how Auburn has typically operated; remember they tried to form a coup to overthrow Harsin in February and tried to hire Bobby Petrino from Louisville in 2003 while Tommy Tuberville was still Tigers coach. The thing with Auburn is that while its methods seem dysfunctional on the surface, it has actually worked. The Tigers went undefeated in 2004, won a national title in 2010, came within 13 seconds of repeating the feat in 2013 and won the SEC West in 2017 despite Alabama going on to win the national title that season. The method has proven successful, even if, in reality, it has been in spite of those efforts rather than because of them.
Will that work in this day and age? Probably not. There are too many moving parts that are above and beyond anything that boosters have had to deal with in the past. When Saban got the job at Alabama in 2007, he took control of every aspect of the program. Freeze has to have the autonomy to do the same. He has done it before in what was a fairly significant pressure-cooker at Ole Miss in its fierce rivalry with Mississippi State, which was led by Dan Mullen at the time. It remains to be seen if he can do it again.