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College Football

Hugh Freeze Never Really Left

10:58 AM EST on December 1, 2022

Hugh Freeze runs off the field, accompanied by Mississippi State Troopers, after a home win against Georgia Southern in 2016.
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

It is helpful, if not quite to the man's credit, that everything worth knowing about Hugh Freeze is obvious to even a casual observer. That Freeze has been a successful football coach is inarguable; his record at the college level over 12 seasons bears that out, and the list of players that he has developed into NFL draft picks speaks to it as well. That Freeze also is a pious, bullying phony, even relative to other big-time college football coaches, is just as demonstrably true. The second part only matters at all if the first premise becomes wobbly, and while Freeze's serial, shameless, full-spectrum scuzziness has sometimes made it more difficult for him to get jobs that he might otherwise have gotten on his merits as a coach, it was never really going to stand in the way. On Monday, Freeze agreed to be Auburn's next head coach.

In the familiar looping cycle of achievement, transgression, shame, and huffy anti-repentance that defines the careers of Freeze and the many coaches like him, the shame component of the process is by now almost entirely vestigial. This has worked to speed things up, and in Freeze's case his not-quite-exile was quickly incorporated into the story he prefers to tell, which is of a hero's journey in which the righteous leader at the center of it all is beset on all sides by enemies who insisted upon noticing and disliking the various odious things he kept on doing. The element of repentance implied in the transgression/shame part, for someone as ostentatiously saved as Freeze, is academic. As he understands it, the forgiveness for the transgressions he repeatedly commits is instantaneous and total, because what he repeatedly does is in his understanding somehow not reflective of who he actually is.

Freeze resigned at the University of Mississippi in 2017 amid a confluence of personal and professional scandals, the former involving the use of a school-issued phone to hire escorts and the latter involving the sort of prosaic/greasy recruiting fuckery that defined the NCAA's pre-NIL era. Given the way that college football works, and given that Freeze's pairing of preening evangelical piety and strategic mastery can almost always be understood in this context as a time-bomb ticking down toward some overdetermined public humiliation TBD, none of this was really all that surprising.

Neither, really, was Freeze's soft professional landing at Liberty University the very next season. Some of this is just because the sum of Liberty's earthly ambitions, self-presentation, and relentlessly unexamined institutional shortcomings would, if it assumed human form and put on a visor, look, talk, and act very much like Freeze. When Liberty hired him, Freeze was already understood as a commodity whose strengths—recruiting, to a lesser extent coaching, and projecting a specific style of "integrity" back at boosters—would be worth all the unpleasantness inherent in the man himself. Freeze has said that both Alabama and Auburn sought to bring him aboard in 2018. Sports Illustrated reported that the SEC, "which held concerns over Freeze returning to the league while the [Ole Miss] program he once coached suffered through NCAA probation," discouraged the move.

Still, he was always coming back. Freeze had beaten Nick Saban twice while at Ole Miss, and if only for that reason college football's ruling class of backslapping local gentry types would find a way to give him another shot. During his years at Liberty, Auburn bought out two coaches who fell out of favor with the boosters, then lucked into an interim coach whom players and fans both loved in former Tigers running back Cadillac Williams, and finally—after what new Auburn athletic director John Cohen described as a "thoughtful, thorough, and well-vetted search"—wound up doing what they or some similarly desperate program was going to do. "We ended where we started," Cohen said. "With Hugh Freeze."

(Freeze, amusingly, had signed an eight-year extension with Liberty one month before taking the Auburn job. "While the amount to buy Freeze out of his deal is large," The Athletic reported at the time, "it is likely not enough to dissuade an SEC school should it show interest in hiring Freeze." SI reported the figure was about $3 million. If you would like to briefly experience the sensation of being in an airplane that is abruptly losing altitude, add that figure to the $36.8 million in buyouts that Auburn still owes its last two coaches.)

If there is anything affirmative that could be said for Freeze, at this point, it is the way in which he functions as a truth serum. He is who he is and does what he does; the Hugh Freeze who forced a teenager to change out of her Grateful Dead shirt in front of him while coaching high school is the same Hugh Freeze who DMed a victim of sexual assault at Liberty to tell her that she was being very nasty and unfair to his "Jesus like" boss. Freeze barely has been able to muster anything like contrition for any of it; from the first, he has had a gift for somehow making himself the victim of every ugliness that he has perpetrated. "To my knowledge," he told SI in 2020, "I’ve tried, with anybody I could, I made sure they knew that if I hurt them I was sorry, but it’s time to move on."

When he said that, Freeze was enjoying great success at Liberty, and saying all the right things about being committed to the school. But, even then, his future was mostly a matter of waiting for that truth serum to take effect. "I think he’s on lists," an insider told SI's Ross Dellenger in that 2020 story, "but he’s in a category of 'Can I really do this?'" Freeze, who can only and will only be Hugh Freeze, just had to wait for some institution to reach the conclusion that it would be worth entrusting their program to someone so manifestly untrustworthy. But if you have to ask, the answer is already yes.

It's not that other coaches couldn't have offered what Freeze offers, either; the Auburn blogger Justin Ferguson pointed out that Freeze's Liberty program went in the tank this season as he began itching to move on, and all the other things that had been disqualifying in previous years remain eminently disqualifying. Auburn's boosters surely want the team to get better and, now that Freeze is free to compensate recruits under the NCAA's NIL rules instead of through the old gray market, he will probably deliver on that to some extent. Cadillac Williams managed to do more in four games with the roster built by deposed red ass Bryan Harsin than Harsin ever managed over 21 games, but Williams also wasn't who or what those boosters wanted. "Freeze’s personality is more suited for what Auburn craves," USA Today's Blake Toppmeyer wrote. "He’d do the glad-handing and politicking that Auburn likes, and he’d ingrain himself in AU’s culture in a way Harsin never could... Freeze’s Southern charm would be a hit on the Plains."

It is worth acknowledging what is only barely subtext there, which is that Williams is black and Freeze is white, and that Williams would have become the SEC's only black head coach. But for the people who ultimately make that decision—Cohen's actual bosses, the boosters and insiders who have traditionally shaped and paid for Auburn football, for better but often for worse—what Freeze does and how he does it is what the boosters actually want. The theatrical and value-neutral version of Integrity that Freeze represents is the most meaningful thing; not just a football program but a broader system is leveraged upon it. This makes it essential that someone like Freeze—pious if not quite righteous, a winner who is not especially concerned with what that winning costs, a bully and a whiner and a user for whom, as Jason Kirk put it, "attempting to silence critique by vaguely referencing religion is his entire personality"—sit atop it all.

This is the job, more than anything else. It is important for Freeze to be there, in all his false and bulletproof signifiers, and to remain there—to occupy the space at the center of everything in the way this type of man takes up that sort of space, for as long as it delights the very similar men whose dim and recursive pleasure matters most, because they themselves matter the most. What happens as a consequence of this—who gets hurt, who gets used, who actually has to account for it when the bill finally arrives—will always be someone else's problem. Until then, Freeze will do his utmost on the sidelines and probably put a decent team on the field, as he always has; the people that pay him will be happy with that, until they are not. But what got him this job is both deeper and more shallow than any of that. Whatever else he may be, Hugh Freeze is a mirror, and as long as the right people can see their own reflection when they look at him, he'll be doing his job. He is there to be there but also, and more importantly, to run off the field at game's end, flanked by state troopers, win or lose, always and inevitably in charge.

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