Hugh Freeze didn’t so much return to college football’s biggest stage Monday as big-time college football came around to Hugh Freeze.
After five years away from the Power Five, the best to ever to coach a game in person from a hospital bed is back in the SEC at a familiar, highly resourced landing spot known for doing whatever it takes to win. This one just happens to be named Auburn.
It could have been any number of schools that brought Freeze back in this age of NIL rights and the transfer portal.
Most of what led to NCAA rules violations during Freeze’s time at Ole Miss are now easily worked around either through regulations the NCAA has implemented or practices it is unwilling to prosecute.
Freeze’s Ole Miss program wasin the process. At the time, the NCAA said Ole Miss “fostered an unconstrained culture of booster involvement.”
Well, that will win you a national championship these days.
While that’s not to diminish the fact that NCAA rules existed and Freeze blatantly broke them — creating a major scandal in the process — it does show how far college football has shifted in the time since he’s been away from the SEC.
In taking over Auburn, it starts with the Tigers’ NIL war chest. Auburn collective On to Victory has reportedly raised $13 million in first few months of operation to help compensate players. That makes it one of the strongest in the nation. It’s all legal until the NCAA or Congress says it is not.
Don’t hold your breath that either will hand down such a decision. The NCAA is deregulating and slinking into the background as an enforcer Congress has far bigger fish to fry.
As such, Freeze becomes an asset in talent acquisition. We know he can coach. Just watch him procure recruits and transfers with a cash howitzer. It’s one of the reasons Freeze makes perfect sense as the Tigers’ Plan B after Plan A (Lane Kiffin) didn’t work out.
With players this close to unionizing or engaging in collective bargaining, the first conference to break off a piece of its massive media rights revenues for the work force will own the recruiting landscape. Try to bet against the SEC being the first. Don’t be surprised if Freeze isn’t among the first to creatively weaponize player acquisition.
College football coaches everywhere are whining about how hard it is to do their jobs these days. Freeze was willing to crawl to Auburn over broken shards of glass. This was a comeback that might never have been if college athletics didn’t move right into Freeze’s wheelhouse.
In other words: Modern college football has been tailored to him.
About 3 ½ months before the NCAA hammer came down on the Ole Miss program for violations under Freeze’s watch, the coach resigned from his position after it was discovered he had madeon a school-issued mobile device to a phone number “associated with a female escort service.”
While that was “totally unrelated to the NCAA matter,” as an Ole Miss lawyer said at the time, it moved standing by Freeze from difficult to impossible when those missteps were combined with the skirting of NCAA rules.
More than five years later, it’s left up to the consumer to decide where to draw the line.
For a while, college administrators drew that line at Hugh Freeze. On Monday, Auburn erased it.
What’s changed is not Freeze as a coach. Not after serving some sort of de facto deportation at Liberty where he went a respectable 34-15 in four seasons and sent quarterback Malik Willis to the NFL. When the time was right, Freeze was always going to find another Power Five job.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has obviously cleared Freeze’s return to his conference. This after Sankey reportedly “encouraged” Alabama not to hire Freeze for a coordinator position a couple years ago.
Freeze previously said he had resolved his personal misdeeds. He still needs some coaching on his self-destructive habit of starting online spats over perceived slights — at least one of which has been made public — but that’s for Auburn’s HR department to handle.
Perhaps Freeze as Plan B isn’t as desirable as the clear Plan A, but Kiffin flatly turned down Auburn. It was time to move on, and there wasn’t an obvious Plan C. The last thing Auburn needed was more dysfunction that an elongated coaching search would have created.
The Tigers got a proven winner and recruiter. The only other active coach walking the planet to have beaten Nick Saban at least twice (Gus Malzahn) also did it at Auburn. Malzahn also returns to the Power Five next year with UCF in the Big 12.
Freeze now becomes part of a coaching armada seeking to take over post-Saban when the great Alabama coach eventually retires. Maybe they can outlast him, starting in the SEC West with Kiffin, Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and LSU’s Brian Kelly. At 53, Freeze becomes the second-youngest of those Saban challengers in the West behind Kiffin (47).
The rules are new and dripping with potential. Some schools have been forced to make a choice in the NIL era: put money into facilities or or players. Auburn has the resources to do both. It is painfully aware it remains the other program in the state scratching hard 24/7/365 against the behemoth in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
On Monday, for one day at least, Auburn and Freeze stole the headlines.
That’s a start.