Hugh Freeze didn’t return to college football’s biggest stage on Monday so much as college football in a big way came up to Hugh Freeze.
After five years out of the Power Five, the greatest coach of an in-person game from a hospital bed is back in the SEC in a family-friendly and well-resourced landing spot known for doing whatever it takes to win. This one is simply called 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 rule violations during Freeze’s time at Ole Miss is now easily fixed through regulations the NCAA has put in place or practices it’s unwilling to prosecute.
Freeze’s Ole Miss show was paroled in 2017 and received a two-year bowl ban in the process. At the time, the NCAA said that Ole Miss “fostered a culture of unrestricted booster participation.”
Well, that will get you a national championship these days.
While that’s not to diminish the fact that NCAA rules existed and Freeze shamelessly broke them, creating quite a scandal in the process, it does show how much college football has changed since being out of the SEC.
Taking over Auburn, he starts with the Tigers’ NIL war chest. The Auburn On to Victory collective reportedly raised $13 million in the first few months of operation to help compensate players. That makes him one of the strongest in the nation. Everything is legal until the NCAA or Congress say it isn’t.
Do not hold your breath that either of you will dictate such a decision. The NCAA is deregulating and taking a backseat as an enforcer. Congress has much bigger fish to fry.
As such, Freeze becomes an asset in talent acquisition. We know you can train. Just watch him get recruits and transfers with a shell of cash. It’s one of the reasons Freeze makes a lot of sense since the Tigers’ Plan B after Plan A (Lane Kiffin) didn’t work.
with players East close to unionizing or engaging in collective bargaining, the first conference to crack a chunk of its massive media rights revenue for the workforce will own the recruiting landscape. Try to bet against the SEC going first. Don’t be surprised if Freeze isn’t among the first to creatively put together player acquisition.
College football coaches all over the world complain about how hard it is to do their job these days. Freeze was willing to crawl all the way to Auburn on shards of broken glass. This was a return that might never have been if college athletics hadn’t moved right into Freeze’s helm.
In other words: modern college football has adapted to it.
Some three and a half months before the NCAA hammer fell on the Ole Miss program for violations under Freeze’s supervision, the coach resigned after it was discovered that he had committed inappropriate calls on a mobile device provided by the school to a phone number “associated with a female escort service.”
While that was “unrelated to the NCAA matter,” as an Ole Miss attorney put it at the time, it went from difficult to impossible for Freeze when those missteps were combined with a breach of NCAA rules. NCAA.
More than five years later, it is up to the consumer to decide where to draw the line.
For a time, university administrators drew that line at Hugh Freeze. On Monday, Auburn erased it.
What has changed is not Freeze as a trainer. Not after serving something of a de facto deportation at Liberty, where he went to a respectable 34-15 record in four seasons and shipped 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 obviously cleared Freeze’s return to his conference. This after Sankey reportedly “encouraged” Alabama not to hire Freeze for a coordinator position a couple of years ago.
Freeze previously said that he had resolved his personal misdeeds. He still needs some counseling on his self-destructive habit of starting disputes online over perceived slights. at least one of which has been made public — but that’s for Auburn’s human resources department to handle.
Maybe Freeze as Plan B isn’t as desirable as the plain Plan A, but Kiffin flatly rejected Auburn. It was time to move on, and there was no obvious Plan C. The last thing Auburn needed was more dysfunction that a protracted search for coaches would have created.
The Tigers got a proven winner and scout. The only other working coach on the planet to beat 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 an armada of coaches looking to take over after Saban when the great Alabama coach finally retires. Maybe they can survive it, 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 Saban’s challengers in the West behind Kiffin (47).
The rules are new and full of potential. Some schools have been forced to make a choice in the NIL era: put money into facilities or players. Auburn has the resources to do both. He is painfully aware that he is still the other program in the state scratching hard 24/7/365 against the giant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
On Monday, at least for one day, Auburn and Freeze grabbed the headlines.
That’s a start.