Auburn officially hires Hugh Freeze as head coach

Hugh Freeze’s SEC return is here.

Auburn announced Monday that it has hired Freeze, the ex-Ole Miss coach who most recently served as the head coach at Liberty. Auburn has been looking for a coach since firing Bryan Harsin during the middle of the season.

Auburn’s interest in Freeze reportedly intensified after Thanksgiving when current Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin decided to stay with the Rebels. Freeze admitted after Liberty’s blowout loss to New Mexico State on Saturday that his players had found out about Auburn’s interest and that it played a role in the team’s performance. Liberty finished the regular season at 8-4.

"After a thoughtful, thorough, and well-vetted search, we ended where we started, with Hugh Freeze," Auburn athletic director John Cohen said. "Of all the candidates we considered, Hugh was the best fit. Fit has several meanings, but the most important factors were student-athlete development, football strategy, recruiting and SEC experience."

Freeze resigned from Ole Miss ahead of the 2017 season after it was revealed he made calls to escorts from his Ole Miss phone. That discovery came as part of a defamation suit by former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt against the school after he claimed Freeze was lying about Nutt’s role in NCAA violations.

Ole Miss received a two-year bowl ban in 2019 from the NCAA.

The Rebels were 5-7 in Freeze’s final season with the school. Ole Miss won seven games in his first season in 2012 and that win total increased by one each season through a 10-win campaign in 2015. Freeze ultimately compiled a 39-25 record over five seasons at Ole Miss and the team’s recruiting ticked up during his time with the team.

But that NCAA investigation soon followed. According to the investigation, Ole Miss employees and boosters had arranged and made impermissible benefits. Most famously, former Ole Miss offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil admitted that he had taken money from an assistant coach. Multiple players who transferred from Ole Miss after Freeze's resignation told the NCAA they should be allowed to be immediately eligible at their new schools because they were misled by Freeze.

After two years out of coaching, Freeze was hired to replace Turner Gill at Liberty and the Flames have won at least eight games in each of his four seasons with the school. Liberty’s best season came in 2020 when the school went 10-1 and won the Cure Bowl after beating two ACC schools and losing to another — NC State — by a point.

This year’s Liberty squad started the season 8-1 and lost by one to Wake Forest in Week 3. The eighth win of the season came in a 21-19 game at Arkansas, but the Flames ended up losing their last three games of the season to UConn, Virginia Tech and New Mexico State.

Freeze’s likely arrival at Auburn is the first major hire for new Auburn athletic director John Cohen. The former Mississippi State baseball coach and athletic director was hired at Auburn this fall. Just days after that, the school fired Harsin after Auburn dropped to 3-5.

The former Boise State coach went 9-12 in two seasons at Auburn and somewhat surprisingly returned for a second season after an offseason of speculation surrounding the culture of the Auburn football program and Harsin’s job status.

Auburn appointed former running back and assistant coach Cadillac Williams as the team’s interim coach and Auburn finished the season 2-2 over its final four games. At Auburn, Freeze will be tasked with making the Tigers perennial contenders in the SEC West — something that recent Auburn coaches have shown is easier said than done with Nick Saban at Alabama.

Since winning the 2011 BCS Championship and then going back to the BCS title game three seasons later, Auburn has won just 10 games once over the past nine seasons and won the SEC West twice. Gus Malzahn was fired at the end of the 2020 season after posting winning records in each of his eight seasons, though Auburn beat Alabama just three times in his tenure.

At Ole Miss, Freeze went 2-3 against Alabama.