Hugh Freeze able to succeed quickly at Auburn amid the modern college football landscape

Hugh Freeze didn’t so much return to college football’s biggest stage on Monday, but big college football came back to Hugh Freeze.

After five years away from the Power Five, the best to ever personally coach a game from a hospital bed is back in the SEC at a trusted, highly equipped landing spot known for everything it takes to win. This one happens to be called Auburn.

It could have been any number of schools that brought Freeze back into this era of NIL entitlements and the transfer portal.

Most of what led to NCAA rule violations during Freeze’s time at Ole Miss can now be easily circumvented through regulations the NCAA has implemented or practices it doesn’t want to prosecute.

Freeze’s Ole Miss program was was put on probation in 2017 and given a two-year restraining order in the process. At the time, the NCAA said that Ole Miss “fostered an unrestricted culture of booster engagement.”

Well, that’s how you win a national championship these days.

While that doesn’t negate the fact that NCAA rules existed and Freeze blatantly broke them – causing a major scandal in the process – it does show how far college football has shifted in time since being away from the SEC.

Taking over Auburn, it starts with the Tigers’ NIL war chest. Auburn collective On to Victory reportedly raised $13 million in the first few months of the operation to help compensate players. That makes it one of the strongest in the nation. It’s all legal until the NCAA or Congress says it isn’t.

Don’t hold your breath that either one will make such a decision. The NCAA is deregulating and creeping into the background as an enforcement congress that has much bigger fish to fry.

As such, Freeze becomes an asset in recruiting talent. We know he can coach. Watch him bring in recruits and transfers with a howitzer. It’s one of the reasons Freeze makes perfect sense since Plan B of the Tigers after Plan A (Lane Kiffin) didn’t work.

With players this one close to unionizing or entering into collective bargaining, the first conference to chip away at some of its massive media rights revenue for the workforce will dominate the recruiting landscape. Try to bet the SEC isn’t the first. Don’t be surprised if Freeze isn’t one of the first to creatively weaponize player acquisition.

College football coaches everywhere complain about how hard it is to do their jobs these days. Freeze was willing to crawl over broken glass to Auburn. This was a comeback that might never have happened if college athletics hadn’t gone straight into Freeze’s wheelhouse.

In other words, modern college football is made for him.

About 3 ½ months before the NCAA hammer fell on the Ole Miss program for violations overseen by Freeze, the coach resigned after it was discovered that he inappropriate calls on a school-issued mobile device to a phone number “associated with a female escort service.”

While that was “completely unrelated to the NCAA issue,” as an Ole Miss attorney said at the time, stand by Freeze turned from difficult to impossible when those missteps were combined with circumventing NCAA rules.

More than five years later, it is left to the consumer to decide where to draw the line.

For a time, university administrators drew that line at Hugh Freeze. On Monday, Auburn cleared it.

What has changed is not Freeze as a coach. Not after he was de facto deported to Liberty, where he went a respectable 34-15 in four seasons and sent quarterback Malik Willis to the NFL. When the time was right, Freeze would always look for another Power Five job.

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey has clearly cleared Freeze’s return to his conference. This after Sankey reportedly “encouraged” Alabama a few years ago not to hire Freeze for a coordinator position.

Freeze said earlier that he had resolved his personal wrongdoings. He still needs some coaching on his self-defeating habit of starting fights online over perceived contempt — at least one of which has been made public — but that’s up to Auburn’s HR department to handle.

Perhaps Freeze as Plan B isn’t as desirable as the plain Plan A, but Kiffin flatly rejected Auburn. It was time to move on and there was no clear Plan C. The last thing Auburn needed was more dysfunction than a lengthy search for coaching would have caused.

The Tigers have a proven winner and recruiter. The only other active coach on the planet to beat Nick Saban at least twice (Gus Malzahn) also did it at Auburn. Malzahn will also return to the Power Five next year with UCF in the Big 12.

Freeze now becomes part of a coaching armada looking to take over post-Saban when the great Alabama coach eventually retires. Maybe they can outlive him, starting in the SEC West with Kiffin, Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and LSU’s Brian Kelly. At 53, Freeze becomes the second youngest of those Saban challengers in the West behind Kiffin (47).

The rules are new and dripping with potential. Some schools had to make a choice in the NIL era: invest money in facilities or players. Auburn has the resources to do both. It is painfully aware that it remains other program in the state is scratching hard 24/7/365 against the behemoth in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

On Monday, Auburn and Freeze made headlines for at least one day.

That’s a start.

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