Hugh Freeze returns to SEC knowing Auburn is playing catch up

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Hugh Freeze stepped to the podium Tuesday, his first SEC Media Days appearance as Auburn’s coach, and greeted reporters with a smile seemingly based in excitement and relief.

“It’s good to be back,” he said.

Freeze had a humiliating exit from the SEC last time around. He resigned from Ole Miss in 2017 after the school found what it called “a pattern of personal misconduct” that included phone calls to a female escort service.

It ended one of the Rebels’ greatest eras. They had won nine games in consecutive seasons for the first time in decades. Freeze assembled a long list of premier talent, from Laremy Tunsil to Evan Engram to Robert Nkemdiche to Laquon Treadwell. Ole Miss defeated Alabama in consecutive seasons for the first time, which included its second victory all-time in Tuscaloosa in 2015.

But following his scandal, Freeze dropped off the radar. He resurfaced in December 2018 as Liberty’s coach, going 34-15 with the Flames over four seasons. In November, Auburn – desperate for a winner again – brought Freeze back to the SEC hoping he can turn its program around as he did Ole Miss (and likewise sprinkle in some wins over Alabama along the way).

Auburn had just suffered through coach Bryan Harsin’s disastrous 21-game stint that set it only further behind its foes. The Tigers already had dealt with the Crimson Tide dominating college football since Nick Saban’s arrival in 2007. Now they’ve watched Kirby Smart build a comparable machine at their other rival, Georgia. The Tigers went 17-19 over the past three years, including consecutive losing campaigns.

Freeze said he wondered if he’d ever return to the SEC. This was the scenario for him to get another chance.

“When the ending at Ole Miss occurred, it was hard to truthfully process would you ever get that opportunity again, so I would have to say at that point, no (I didn’t think I’d be back),” Freeze said. “But as time passes and things tend to settle back in – I tell people all the time, I think that one of the greatest judges of people … are when you experience disappointment, failure, whether it was of your own doing or whether it was circumstances that come into your life.

“How a person responds to those (hardships) and reacts to those probably tells you more about them than the successes do. I would be less than truthful with you if after we started having success at Liberty … did the thought start creeping in your mind that certain opportunities might present themselves again? Yes, at that point. But not prior to that point did they enter my mind.”

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Freeze’s hire was controversial, given his past. His players, addressing his character, spoke how one might expect. They endorsed Freeze as a coach and person.

“Coach Freeze is a laid-back guy, he has a good sense of humor,” tight end Luke Deal said. “We enjoy some of the same things: golf, NASCAR. He’s an interesting dude. If you get to know him, sit down and talk to him, he’s a really good guy.”

Senior defensive lineman Elijah McAllister, who transferred from Vanderbilt: “Coach Freeze is an amazing man. What makes our relationship unique is that it’s faith based. You know his track record with winning. So I think a faith-based institution, a faith-based person leading a program that naturally gets a lot of talent in the state of Alabama in the Southeastern Conference, it’s a force to be reckoned with.

“I think coach Freeze is in a perfect position to be successful here.”

Auburn has a proud fan base that’s seen its school compete for two national championships since 2011. It’s a program steeped in tradition and history surrounded by a united community. Its downward spiral was considered unacceptable by the faithful, especially given what’s unfolded in Tuscaloosa and Athens. Auburn isn’t necessarily considered that tier of job, but it’s one of the better jobs in the premier conference.

The thought was if Freeze could win at Ole Miss, where it’s typically difficult to do so, he should get Auburn righted. If he could load up on NFL-caliber talent in Oxford, he could do it at Auburn.

“I see no reason why Auburn shouldn’t be one of the upper-half (SEC programs) and competing every year,” Freeze said. “If you’re in the upper half of this conference, you get a break here or there, you’re in the playoffs. Then you’ve got a real chance. That’s where I see Auburn.”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Freeze, though, also was honest about the current state of his team. He didn’t hesitate to state the obvious: This roster falls well short of top-tier SEC teams. It won’t be an overnight fix.

“Does our roster from top to bottom look like Alabama’s, Georgia’s, LSU’s, Florida, A&M, Ole Miss? I don’t know yet,” he said. “I know a couple they don’t because I’ve watched the tape. Do I think we’ve improved Auburn with the additions that we’ve had since I’ve been there? Yes. Does that mean we close the gap at all? I have no clue.

“I do know we improved Auburn, and I hope that means that we somehow close the gap enough to – if we have a good game plan, to be in some of those games in the fourth quarter and have maybe a shot to pull an upset.”

Auburn’s schedule will give Freeze plenty of chances for that upset. The Tigers host Georgia, Alabama and Ole Miss while playing LSU on the road. Expectations aren’t high in Freeze’s first season, but he needs to show fans reason for even mild optimism. It’d help him win over those who were unsure about his hiring, too.

“We’re much more assured now, knowing who we have here, knowing what he’s about,” Deal said. “He’s been in the SEC. He’s beaten teams we need to – he’s beaten Alabama. That’s a big deal. I’ve bought into what he’s saying. Our team has bought into what he’s saying.”

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