Auburn hires Hugh Freeze as football coach, calls him 'the best fit'

AUBURN, Alabama — Auburn has hired Hugh Freeze to be its next football coach, the university announced Monday evening.

Ross Dellenger of Sports Illustrated, who initially reported the news, said Auburn will owe Liberty approximately $3 million in buyout money for hiring Freeze while he's still under contract with the Flames. ESPN's Pete Thamel later reported Freeze's deal on the Plains is for six years, with an approximate annual value of $6.5 million.

"Auburn is one of the preeminent programs in college football and I'm very appreciative of President (Chris) Roberts and (athletics director) John Cohen for the opportunity at Auburn," Freeze said in a statement. "I've been fortunate enough to witness first-hand how special Auburn is during my time in the SEC and while visiting my daughter Jordan who attended Auburn and currently lives in the community.

"I can't wait to work with our student-athletes and the Auburn family to bring championships back to the Plains."

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Freeze, who is leaving Liberty, led the Flames to a 34-15 record in four seasons with the program. He replaces Bryan Harsin, who was fired Oct. 31, after he compiled a 9-12 record through a little less than two seasons with the Tigers. Freeze is the first hire for athletic director John Cohen, who was officially announced as the new AD the same day Harsin was dismissed.

"After a thoughtful, thorough, and well-vetted search, we ended where we started, with Hugh Freeze," Cohen said in a statement. "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."

A Southern Miss graduate, Freeze got his start in the coaching world with Briarcrest Christian School, a high school in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was the team’s offensive coordinator and later the head coach.

Freeze’s stay in the high school ranks didn’t last long, however, as he went on to coach at Lambuth, an NAIA team, and Arkansas State a couple of years later.

He broke onto the national scene when he was hired by Ole Miss in 2012 to coach the the Rebels, replacing Houston Nutt, who was relieved of his duties after the 2011 season. Freeze went on to coach at Ole Miss for five seasons, leading the Rebels to a 39-25 record and a 10-3 mark in 2015, which included a Sugar Bowl victory over Oklahoma State.

Multiple wins were vacated, though, after Freeze was forced to resign in relation to a scandal involving recruiting violations and contacting numbers associated with escort services using a phone provided by the university.

After leaving Oxford, Freeze took a brief hiatus before joining Liberty in 2019. Freeze has taken the Flames to three straight bowl games and has won at least eight games in each of the four seasons he’s coached.

Arguably the biggest feather in his cap is the recruitment of former Auburn quarterback Malik Willis from the transfer portal. Willis transferred to Liberty in 2019 and helped the Flames go 17-6 in games he started. He threw for over 5,000 yards under the tutelage of Freeze and rushed for another 1,822 before getting drafted by the Tennessee Titans with the 86th-overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Cohen, who began Auburn's coaching search immediately upon taking the job, was AD at Mississippi State when Freeze’s scandal at Ole Miss broke.

Auburn announced a “change in football leadership” on Halloween and embarked on a national search to find its 27th coach in program history. Although Cohen was brought in almost simultaneously, it was President Christopher Roberts who was credited with making the decision to move on from Harsin.

Harsin’s time at Auburn was, at best, a disappointment, and at worst, a disaster. He came to the Plains after spending seven years at Boise State, leading the Broncos to a 69-19 overall record and a 3-2 mark in bowl games. Boise State also served as Harsin’s alma mater, as he played quarterback there from 1996-99, appearing in 23 games and completing 39 passes.

Liberty coach Hugh Freeze watches during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Miss., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. (Hannah Ruhoff/The Sun Herald via AP)
Liberty coach Hugh Freeze watches during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Miss., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. (Hannah Ruhoff/The Sun Herald via AP)

The 46-year-old Harsin began his tenure at Auburn with a 6-2 start, but quickly flamed out down the stretch of the 2021-22 season, losing five straight to end his first year at the helm. The offseason that followed only added to the drama.

Harsin was investigated by the university in February for his treatment of players and staff. Over a dozen players and five coaches left the program in the offseason, including defensive lineman Lee Hunter, who took to social media and said the reason he transferred to UCF was because the players “got treated like we wasn't good enough and like dogs.”

After the investigation concluded, Harsin kept his job, but shortly after losing a game to Arkansas on Oct. 29 to drop to 3-5, he was relieved of his duties.

A litany of other coaching staff moves were made, too, including the promotion of Carnell “Cadillac” Williams to interim head coach. Williams, who was the running backs coach under Harsin, instantly provided a spark for Auburn and garnered near-unanimous support from the fanbase.

Williams, an Auburn legend for what he did on the Plains as a player in the early 2000s, got his first win as coach against Texas A&M on Nov. 12, beating the Aggies in front of a sold-out crowd in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Along with Harsin, offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau, tight ends coach Brad Bedell, football chief of staff Brad Larrondo and director of recruiting Darren Uscher were all removed from their positions on the staff. Each of the four came to Auburn from Boise State, and defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding was the only assistant with ties to the Broncos to keep his job.

Cohen hired Freeze less than a month into his tenure at Auburn, as he left the AD position at Mississippi State for the same role on the Plains. A former baseball player with the Bulldogs from 1987-90, Cohen returned to his alma mater to coach the baseball team, a position he held from 2009-2016.

He was then elevated into an administrative role, serving as an associate AD at Mississippi State for less than a year before he was promoted to AD in November 2016.

Cohen’s biggest claim to fame in Starkville was the hiring of Chris Lemonis to lead the baseball team. Lemonis was selected by Cohen in 2019 and won the College World Series in 2021, becoming the first team sport at Mississippi State to ever capture a national title.

Two significant football hires were also made by Cohen at Mississippi State. He brought in Joe Moorehead in 2018 after Dan Mullen left for the Florida job, but Moorehead only lasted two seasons before he resigned amid an investigation revealing a tutor was completing classwork for players on the football team. Cohen hired Mike Leach to replace Moorehead, and the former Washington State coach has captained the Bulldogs to an 18-17 record since taking over.

Richard Silva can be reached via email at rsilva@gannet.com and on Twitter @rich_silva18.

This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Auburn hires Hugh Freeze to replace Bryan Harsin as football coach