More than five years after leaving Ole Miss in disgrace, Hugh Freeze is back in the Southeastern Conference. He was named the new head coach at Auburn University earlier today.
Freeze was fired in July of 2017 when the Ole Miss football program was mired in an NCAA scandal that resulted in heavy sanctions, including a two-year bowl ban, that set the program back for several years. However, the school didn’t dismiss Freeze for recruiting violations.
Instead, the final straw came when a personal scandal came to light. You see, Freeze and former Ole Miss AD Ross Bjork floated a lie to a media member that many of the violations the NCAA was investigating came on Houston Nutt’s watch.
Why, you ask? Well, Freeze was trying to keep a recruiting class together that included five-star QB Shea Patterson.
Nutt, who at the time was still interested in getting back into coaching, couldn’t have his name smeared like that. All he asked for was a public apology, something that Freeze and Bjork refused to grant.
Therefore, Nutt filed a defamation lawsuit against the school. Nutt’s lawyer Thomas Mars used the Freedom of Information Act to request calls Freeze made in January of 2016. He was looking for calls made by Freeze to media members leaking false information about his client.
Mars discovered some interesting numbers in the phone records for Freeze’s school-issued phone during his investigation. Those digits were for escort services, and they dated back to shortly after his arrival in Oxford.
As it turned out, the super-duper religious Freeze had been cheating on his wife, and he had been doing so for years. He was busted in the most public way possible. It shamed his family, cost him his dream job and left him in a world of hurt both personally and professionally.
Nearly 17 months later, Freeze was hired to be the new head coach at Liberty University. He led the Flames to an 8-5 record in 2019. Then they went 10-1 in 2020, won the Cure Bowl for the second straight season and finished in the Top 20 nationally.
In 2021, Liberty posted an 8-5 record. Freeze led the Flames to an 8-1 start this year, smashing BYU 41-14 as home underdogs on Oct. 22. Then on Nov. 5, Liberty won 21-19 at Arkansas despite playing a third-string QB who had missed practice all week with the flu.
Liberty lost its next two games at UConn and vs. Va. Tech by four combined points, falling to 8-3. The Flames had lost at Wake Forest back in September by a 37-36 count. With Freeze’s name popping up in the Auburn search, they ended the regular season with a dud this past Saturday, getting blown out at home by New Mexico St., 49-14.
Despite the three-game losing streak to end his tenure, Liberty finished with a 34-15 record on Freeze’s watch. In the coming days, the Flames will get a bowl bid for the fourth consecutive season.
Freeze has paid his dues. He’s earned his way back to the nation’s premier conference.
By all indications, Freeze was Auburn’s second choice. The top target for new AD John Cohen was Ole Miss HC Lake Kiffin but according to multiple reports, there was some sort of breakdown in negotiations with Auburn and Kiffin, who is expected to sign a new deal this week that’ll pay him around $9 million per season.
The 53-year-old Freeze inherits an Auburn team that went 5-7 overall and 2-6 in SEC play. The Tigers finished sixth in the SEC West, but they showed a lot of life down the stretch under interim head coach Cadillac Williams, who will reportedly join Freeze’s staff at his alma mater.
Freeze has already proven he can win in the SEC. He took the Rebels to their first Sugar Bowl in a half century, finished in the Top 10 nationally and beat Nick Saban-led Alabama teams in Oxford and Tuscaloosa in back-to-back campaigns.
It’s easier to win at Auburn than Ole Miss. The recruiting grounds are fertile, the tradition is rich, the fanbase is rabid and the financial support rivals any school in the country.
But Freeze will be in the SEC West, which is debatably the toughest division in all of college football. He’ll also share the state of Alabama with Saban, who doesn’t appear as if he’s heading into retirement anytime soon.
In the past five years, there’s no doubt that Freeze spent many sleepless nights wondering if today would ever come. He’s back, though, back on college football’s grandest stage in the SEC.