Hugh Freeze doesn’t look like a grandfather. But later this year, at 53 years of age, he will become Grandpa Hugh.
“That sounds weird,” he says from his new office, his feet propped on his desk as he reclines into his seat. “I don’t know that I’m ready for that.”
And yet, about four months into his return to the Southeastern Conference, grandfatherhood is certain to be the least of his challenges. But you wouldn’t know it from looking at him.
Speaking earlier this month within Auburn’s new $91 million football facility, Freeze is his bubbly self, a self-proclaimed Southern born-again Christian who describes his latest good fortune as God blessing him with a second chance. After seven years in purgatory—a stint stemming from his NCAA and extramarital scandals at Ole Miss—he was called up to the big leagues of college football.
What awaits him, though, is no blissful adventure.
“All you have to do is get on the road recruiting and you realize you’re right back in the heat,” Freeze says. “There is nobody bad at recruiting in this conference.”
It’s just a small taste of the challenges before him. Freeze is being paid $6.5 million a year to revive an Auburn program that has slipped into mediocrity while surrounded geographically by the sport’s current behemoths—Alabama to his north and two-time defending national champion Georgia to his east.
That said, he’s bullish. “I think we can win it all here,” Freeze says, but to reach that pinnacle, it means both changing as a man and a coach.
Freeze says he’s making those changes, from social media interaction to offensive game-planning.
An offensive guru who normally calls plays, he is delegating more of the responsibility to offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery, freeing up more time for Freeze to manage the roster. That means recruiting, building culture, addressing name, image and likeness (NIL), and establishing better booster relationships, he says. He may still hold a limited play-calling role, but he describes this retreat as a necessary step to manage the ever-growing issues of leading a Power 5 program.
There are more changes, as well. He has drastically limited his interaction with fans on social media after crossing a line last year, and has, for the most part, ceded control of his Twitter account to daughter Ragan, his executive assistant, and Kennedy Harvey, Auburn’s on-campus recruiting operations director.
He has “come to grips” with the fact that he cannot change people’s opinions of himself. He has resisted the temptation to publicly or privately reach out to fans criticizing him online. He’s learned to let go.
“I’ve come to peace with it. I can’t do that,” Freeze says. “I probably ought to keep my mouth shut.”
Since Freeze’s last stint in this league back in 2016 at Ole Miss, plenty has transpired to tilt the public’s perception of him. He took responsibility for scandals in Oxford, addressed them with his wife and three girls—the family is as close as ever, he says—and has rebuilt his coaching record with 34 victories in four seasons at Liberty.
Still, he remains one of the more divisive individuals in college football. Plenty within the sport believe he doesn’t belong back in the major ranks of the game, let alone back in the same conference in which he will compete against a program he left sanctioned, embarrassed and still angry years later.
However, those close to him disagree.
“He’s a friend, and we go way back,” says UCF coach Gus Malzahn, the former Auburn coach who was fired after the 2020 season. “Everyone has made mistakes. He’s been up front about it. I love his approach, and people should give themselves a chance to understand him.
“I think Auburn and Hugh is a really good match,” Malzahn adds. “Auburn is an unbelievable place. Hugh is really, really good. I’m excited for both parties. You can win the whole thing there. Unbelievable fan base and support. He’s coming at a great time with NIL and the new facility. Everything came together.”
Auburn has competed in the national championship game twice in the past 13 seasons, a run that only five other programs can at least match (Alabama, Clemson, LSU, Ohio State and Georgia). The problem: Three of the five are in the school’s own league, and a fourth is just 200 miles to the northeast.
Amid his first spring practice, Freeze is tampering expectations as he evaluates a roster clearly impacted by the lack of stability within the program. Auburn hasn’t signed a recruiting class inside the top 15 in three years.
“We have a ways to go to close the talent gap,” he says. “I know how that comes across and is probably hurtful for some to hear in the locker room, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about them. We’re going to coach the heck out of them. They are ours. The truth of it is, from just watching workouts, we don’t have the SEC-type depth right now that some of the others are playing with for whatever reason.”
Widely known as having some of the most involved boosters and board members in the country, Auburn’s outside and inside forces have a long history of torpedoing its own program. University leaders toyed with firing Malzahn in 2016 only to then give him a contract the next year with one of the largest buyouts in the nation. Three years later, the school did fire him and had to pay him $21 million.
The drama around Auburn’s last coach Bryan Harsin—a peculiar fit to begin with—ended in the school having a new president (Chris Roberts, hired in February 2022), new athletic director (John Cohen, hired in November) and football coach (Freeze). Over the summer, Auburn pushed out AD Allen Greene, hired in ’18, to pave the way for its latest coaching change. Twenty-one games into Harsin’s tenure, Auburn paid $15.5 million to oust him. The university has paid more than $45 million in buyout money over the past five years.
But despite its internal strife, Auburn proves every so often it can field a championship-worthy football team—a sign that the program, if rowing in the same direction, can achieve plenty. In the past 12 years, Auburn has won three SEC West titles, two SEC championships and played in those two title games, winning it in 2010.
However, the talent needs an overhaul.
“I have this idea of Auburn from the Cam Newton, Nick Marshall, Sammie Coates [days], all those great running backs,” says Freeze. “I don’t see that. I don’t see that right now.”
While he’s “excited” about the three quarterbacks competing for the starting spot—T.J. Finley, Robby Ashford and Holden Geriner—Freeze says Auburn sought a transfer quarterback this winter, even going “down the road” with two quarterbacks. Neither ended up on the Plains. “One we couldn’t get into school and the other went to another place,” Freeze says.
While Freeze declined to reveal names, Auburn’s interest in two quarterbacks this past December was well documented: former NC State passer Devin Leary, who ultimately signed with Kentucky, and Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall.
The changes on offense are a first for Freeze in years. He is overhauling his offense’s verbiage. As his former assistants have spread throughout college football, he thought it prudent to make the change. There’s another reason, too: Alabama coach Nick Saban might know too much. After Freeze’s split with Ole Miss, Saban courted him to join his Alabama staff.
“I interviewed with the guy up the road a couple times, and he took a lot of notes,” Freeze says with a chuckle.
Years later, the coach is adjusting his lingo to avoid making Saban’s job easier. Freeze is in a weird spot, he says. He considers Saban a friend and the two communicate, even recently discussing plans to golf together. Freeze remains just one of three active head coaches who has beaten Saban at least twice (his 2014 and ’15 Ole Miss teams toppled the Tide), along with Malzahn and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.
“Yeah, I want to beat the crap out of him during the Iron Bowl, but we are friends,” Freeze says.
In a question looming over the Plains, will Freeze challenge Saban?
“He will,” Malzahn says.
Freeze is just learning about what has incensed Saban for more than a year: NIL. Like many at the Group of 5 level, Liberty dabbled very little in the concept. Within days of his hire at Auburn, he was introduced to the significance of NIL within the league. School donors and booster-led collectives are using it as a guise to distribute salaries to players, oftentimes to sign them as recruits or retain them on the roster.
“I’m trying to figure it out. To be candid, I was very ill prepared,” Freeze says. “I had heard all of it, but I was ill prepared. I hadn’t had any of that or those discussions [at Liberty]. If they ever came up, I blew them off and said, ‘He’s going somewhere else. We’re not into that at the Group of 5!’
“For recruits and those close to the decision-making process, it hit me in the middle of the eyes: This is a focal point of their discussion. It was really uncomfortable,” he adds. “I didn’t deal with any of it in this signing class. Moving forward, I got an idea of what I want it to look like, but is it an idea based in reality to get the players Auburn needs to win? I think we’re all still trying to figure it out.”
Roster management is more important now than ever before. The one-time transfer exception coupled with NIL has transformed the concept into an unregulated free agency in which players are moving around many times for the biggest NIL contract.
“I think I’ve got to spend an enormous amount of time recruiting. I’m not Nick [Saban] or [Georgia coach] Kirby [Smart] right now. Not that they don’t work at it, but they’ve got it rolling. I’m going to have to be willing to do the extra to get us caught up some,” Freeze says.
“I haven’t been in the league, but the teams I used to see when we played Alabama … we’re so behind that. Now, are they [Alabama] the same as they were then? Watching tape, I don’t know if they’re as good up front as they were then. They’re still really, really good, but Georgia … we are considerably behind those two and LSU, too. We’ve got a ways to go.”
Freeze hopes to focus more on the recruiting aspect and cede some offensive game-planning—and maybe play-calling—to Montgomery, the former Tulsa coach and longtime Baylor offensive coordinator. He’s marrying Montgomery’s terminology and system with his own. Sure, Freeze is often in the offensive meeting room, but he’s allowing Montgomery and the staff to script practices and plays this spring.
As for fall play-calling, he’ll reassess the situation after spring practice.
“There’s no question that Philip will have some play-calling,” Freeze says. “Do I want to call the tempo version of our offense and let [him] handle everything else? I don’t know. I may give it all to him. It’s ridiculous for me to say I’m not going to step in and call some. I’ve never said I’m going to do that completely.”
And as for Twitter, he’s removed himself from much of the distractive social media platform. His social media engagement was thrust into the spotlight last year when he directly messaged a former Liberty student who was suing the school for its inaction regarding sexual assault allegations.
Freeze describes his previous interactions with fans, often direct-messaging them to defend himself, family or Liberty, misguided and sometimes naive.
“I can be oblivious to… and not really know when somebody is… Sometimes I think I’m being really nice, and it’s ‘Oh crap!’ Or you don’t know the full spectrum of what’s going on and if somebody is being negative and you’re still trying to be nice.
“I’ve basically learned don’t respond to things unless it’s clear you can respond to this. I’m not on it near as much, and it’s refreshing. It’s embarrassing to say that part of me was still immature in some areas. When I caused hurt or pain to those I love and those who have supported me with a poor choice of decisions, I still spent time … even though there was ownership in it and consequences, but you still want to spend time [arguing with people], ‘Wait a minute now! I know I caused it, but that ain’t accurate!’ All that did was make it worse.”
All of the Twitter, NIL and offensive play-calling aside, Freeze is gearing up to be a grandpa. Ragan is due in July. The entire Freeze family relocated to Auburn. Jordan, his middle daughter, was already here. She graduated from Auburn and settled down with her husband on the Plains. Younger daughter Madison, a sophomore in college, transferred from Liberty to Auburn, and Ragan is working for her father in the football facility.
In a short amount of time, there’s been a mountain of change for the Freeze family. And before them, a mountain of challenges awaits.
“Me and him have talked,” Malzahn says of Freeze. “We’ve talked since before he took the job. He’s going to be himself. He’s had success and he’s had success against Alabama. Not a lot of coaches have had success against Alabama. That’s what makes it a great match.”