- College football reporter
- Joined ESPN.com in 2007
- Graduate of the University of Tennessee
AUBURN, Ala. — Hugh Freeze has officially returned to the SEC as Auburn’s head football coach.
He’s getting another chance he wasn’t sure would ever come after his self-inflicted downfall at Ole Miss and some of the questions that have followed his successful yet turbulent career.
Freeze, 53, said he’s looking forward to re-writing his career at Auburn after taking Liberty to unprecedented heights the last four seasons, and prior to that, leading Ole Miss to back-to-back wins over Nick Saban and Alabama in 2014 and 2015 and winning the Rebels’ first Sugar Bowl since 1970.
“It’s humbling. I don’t believe in deserving something. I believe in earning something, and I do believe we fought to earn this,” Freeze said. “It’s been rocky at times. You can become overcome with emotion because truthfully I feel like — and this is no offense to another school or anything — but I feel like I’ve leapfrogged where I was at that time by being in this family and this culture here.
“And I loved my time there (Ole Miss), but I see this as one of the top 10 football programs in the nation.”
Freeze, who’s only had one losing season in 12 years as a head coach, resigned at Ole Miss in 2017 in the weeks leading up to preseason practice after university officials discovered he had made a series of calls to multiple numbers associated with an escort service. Ole Miss was placed on NCAA probation in 2017 for violations that occurred in part under Freeze, and the sanctions included a two-year bowl ban.
Freeze, while cited by the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions for failure to monitor his assistant coaches and the school’s boosters, did not receive a show-cause penalty and “promoted an atmosphere of compliance,” according to the NCAA report.
Freeze said Monday he understands his past will follow him, but it’s the future — Auburn’s future — that has him excited. As for any backlash among fans, Freeze had one request.
“Give me a chance to earn your trust,” Freeze said. “Give me some time. Get to know us. Get to know our family,” he said. “Get to know the truth of our story, and I think the ones who have done that have said, ‘Man, you know what? I kind of like this guy and this family.’ But that’s all you can ask. Give us a chance to earn your trust, and I think you’ll like the end result.”
The news of Freeze’s hiring angered some fans, who flooded the president’s office with emails. There was also a backlash dating back to this past summer when Freeze was criticized for direct messaging a former Liberty student and defending Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw. The student, Chelsea Andrews, was one of several students to sue Liberty in 2021 for allegedly mishandling sexual assault cases and Title IX matters. Freeze was not employed at Liberty at the time Andrews was assaulted.
Freeze was not asked about his direct messages to Andrews during the press conference. But in a one-on-one interview with ESPN following the press conference, Freeze said, “I learned from this situation that I should totally understand other people’s circumstances first before communicating or commenting on someone’s situation. It was an inadvertent misstep with no ill intent, and I am sorry.”
There was a report Monday that Freeze would have to relinquish his social media accounts in taking the Auburn job, but he denied that.
“That’s not accurate. How could you in this day and age?” Freeze said. “There may be wisdom in that, though.”
Auburn athletic director John Cohen did not take questions during the press conference but said Freeze was completely transparent about his past transgressions.
“He showed remorse, and he’s had an accountability plan that he’s used for the last five-plus years,” he said. “Everything he disclosed to us turned out to be accurate after speaking with credible industry sources.”
Cohen also said during the press conference that Freeze was at the top of Auburn’s list from the beginning.
“And we never wavered from that,” Cohen said.
Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin was also at the forefront of Auburn’s search and somebody Auburn officials talked to. But Kiffin said last week he was staying at Ole Miss and has since signed a new deal that will pay him $9 million annually. Sources told ESPN Auburn talked to more than 15 coaches about the job.
Freeze’s deal at Auburn is for six years and will pay him $6.5 million per year.
One of the first things Freeze did upon arriving on campus Sunday night was meet with Cadillac Williams, the Tigers’ former star running back and interim coach for the final month of the season. Williams will stay on as Auburn’s associate head coach and running backs coach.
Williams said he was interviewed for the head job about a week ago but said he’s “sold” about the future at Auburn under Freeze.
“Sure, I was a little disappointed at first about not getting to sit in this seat as head coach, but it’s God’s timing,” Williams said. “I get to learn more and continue to develop under Coach Freeze. I love his vision.”
Williams heard and saw some of the pushback to Freeze’s hiring but said it won’t impact his new boss’ ability to do the job.
“We all need grace. We all need forgiveness. We all need second chances,” Williams said. “Nobody’s perfect. Lord knows I’ve made mistakes at times, so I don’t think his past will hinder him. He’s owned up to his mistakes, and I’m all for him. We want the same thing, to take Auburn back to the top of college football.”
Freeze said he’s received countless texts from “big-time coaches” wanting to come to Auburn.
“What will be the deciding factor is putting a staff together that complements each other and drives the culture consistently,” said Freeze, who added that he might even consider giving up play-calling duties on offense and bring in a coordinator.
Freeze told ESPN his journey has been “humbling” and that he will forever be grateful to Liberty for giving him a second chance after not coaching at all in the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
There were some rumblings that SEC commissioner Greg Sankey blocked Freeze from returning to the SEC after he was pushed out at Ole Miss. Freeze said he’s not sure that was accurate and that Sankey had always been honest with him and told him what he thought was best “not only for the conference, but for me.”
Sources told ESPN that Sankey told Freeze it was his strong preference that Freeze go outside the conference to coach while Ole Miss was still on probation and then come back to the SEC if there were opportunities. Both Auburn and Alabama were interested in Freeze for coordinator roles before he went to Liberty.
Freeze fought back tears when he thanked his wife Jill and the rest of his family. He also thanked his agent Jimmy Sexton, who now represents 11 of the 14 head coaches in the SEC.
“My story is well-documented. I let a lot of people down, and I’m very sorry for that,” Freeze said. “But I’ve spent the last six years trying to earn the respect and earn the trust of my family, teams, administrations, everyone that was around me. That’s the lesson I probably learned, is just keeping working to earn people’s trust.”
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