Hugh Freeze has agreed to a deal to become Auburn‘s next head football coach, the school announced Monday.
Auburn administrators, including athletic director John Cohen, met with football staff members earlier in the day to tell them about Freeze’s hiring. They were planning to meet with the players at 6 p.m. ET, and Freeze was scheduled to arrive on campus later Monday evening, sources told ESPN.
“After a thoughtful, thorough, and well-vetted search, we ended where we started, with Hugh Freeze,” Cohen said in a news release. “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’s contract with Auburn is six years at an average of $6.5 million annually, sources told ESPN’s Pete Thamel.
Freeze has spent the past four seasons at Liberty, where he took the Flames to unprecedented heights. He is widely regarded as one of the top offensive minds in the game. This will be Freeze’s second head-coaching stint in the SEC, as he led Ole Miss‘ program from 2012 to 2016. He beat Alabama and Nick Saban in back-to-back seasons in 2014 and 2015 and capped the 2015 season with the Rebels’ first Sugar Bowl victory since 1970.
“First, I want to acknowledge Cadillac Williams for the incredible job he did as interim head coach,” Freeze said in the release. “The impact he made is immeasurable and cannot be overstated. Secondly, Auburn is one of the preeminent programs in college football and I’m very appreciative of President [Chris] Roberts and John Cohen for this opportunity at Auburn.
“I’ve been fortunate to witness first-hand how special Auburn is during my time as a head coach 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.”
In the weeks leading up to the start of Ole Miss’ preseason practice in 2017, Freeze resigned 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.
Cohen, who was hired Oct. 31, had narrowed his search to Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin and Freeze. Kiffin said Saturday he was staying at Ole Miss and signing a new deal worth $9 million per year.
Freeze, 53, replaces Bryan Harsin, who was fired Oct. 31, two days after Auburn’s 41-27 home loss to Arkansas. Harsin was 9-12 overall in less than two seasons at Auburn, which experienced repeated struggles on offense under him and had difficulty sustaining success on the recruiting trail.
Former Auburn athletic director Allen Greene, who hired Harsin, negotiated a settlement with the university to leave in August. Greene was entering the final five months of his contract, and sources told ESPN his deal was not going to be renewed after the season.
Harsin looked as if he might be out after Year 1 and survived a university-directed investigation in January after a mass exodus of players and assistant coaches. He was retained after then-school president Jay Gogue said the process “did not yield information that should change the status of our coaching staff or football program.” Harsin came to Auburn from Boise State and had never previously coached in the SEC. He finished 4-11 against Power 5 opponents at Auburn.
Auburn owes Harsin a $15.5 million buyout, and 50% of that is due within 30 days of his termination.
Freeze agreed to a new eight-year deal at Liberty in October with an average salary of just under $5 million annually, making him one of the highest-paid Group of 5 coaches in the country. Liberty football accomplished several firsts on Freeze’s watch, including its first AP national ranking and the program’s first wins over an ACC and an SEC school.
Freeze becomes Auburn’s third head coach in the past four years. Gus Malzahn, currently at UCF, was fired at the end of the 2020 season. Harsin lasted parts of two seasons before being fired. The Tigers last won an SEC championship in 2013, Malzahn’s first season as head coach; they also played in the BCS title game that season, losing to Florida State.
In the past 12 seasons, Auburn has won a national championship (2010) and played for one (2013). Only five other schools in college football can make that claim during that span — Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, LSU and Ohio State.