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Freeze hire provides UA no comfort

OPINION by Bob Wisener | December 1, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.
Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze, center, gets ready to take the field with his team to play Arkansas Nov. 5 in Fayetteville. - Photo by Michael Woods of The Associated Press

Bryan Harsin aside, most Auburn football coaches win even if eventually fired. So, the school hired a proven winner Monday when it brought Hugh Freeze back to the Southeastern Conference.

Freeze, remember, didn't lose his Ole Miss job for the same reason -- not winning enough -- that Houston Nutt and Ed Orgeron were let go. That said, Freeze brings considerable baggage to the Loveliest Village on the Plain and, in that respect, he was a risky hire.

An ESPN radio man stopped short of calling it a "unifying hire," although, he said, it could work out that way. He'll be judged ultimately on overall success, especially against Alabama. That he beat Nick Saban twice at Ole Miss checks a lot of boxes in Toomer's Square.

A 21-19 Liberty win over Arkansas didn't turn anyone off Freeze. That puzzling defeat -- Arkansas' first home game in a month and following back-to-back road victories -- launched a numbing November for Razorback coach Sam Pittman, who faces his biggest challenge.

The fallout from a 6-6 regular season is being felt. Arkansas' strength and conditioning coach was fired Saturday, although problems may run deeper and result in further staff changes. Malik Hornsby, whose own season, starting from his conversion to a wide receiver and then again to backup quarterback, entered the transfer portal; you could have gotten the same odds on the sun rising in the east.

Arkansas' hot start in basketball along with football's problems deflected some attention from Auburn hiring yet another coach (following Gus Malzahn and Harsin) with past ties to Arkansas State.

One is not sure if Auburn even knows what it wants in a coach. Tommy Tuberville couldn't win over the fans after beating Alabama six straight years, though the state elected the coach to the U.S. Senate as a Republican. The dream hire for Auburn, one thinks, is Bobby Petrino, whom the school courted while at Louisville and with Tuberville under contract. Petrino, as you know, like the "travelin' man" Rick Nelson sang of, makes a lot of stops.

As a fellow SEC coach said over the summer, the ruling that athletes can cash in on their name, image and likeness has basically "legalized cheating." Freeze brought in some difference-making players at Ole Miss that, in the eyes of many, looked out of place. With the NIL, even the old Southwest Conference might have lasted longer.

Freeze, whose problems at Ole Miss transcended recruiting, has made a good first step on the home front. Rewarding former Tiger Carnell "Cadillac" Williams for a mission of mercy after the midseason fire of Harsin, the school's interim coach was named to the new man's first staff. Williams, as shown down the stretch, supplies enthusiasm while Freeze brings experience.

Lane Kiffin's name came up in the Auburn mix, as it seems to with every important SEC opening. Another coach whose team went off course in November, 7-0 to 8-4, Kiffin re-upped for another three years in Oxford.

Lane may not be the smartest guy in the class -- he might argue -- but certainly isn't the densest. Himself the son of a coach (Monte, Lou Holtz' first defensive coordinator at Arkansas) and former Saban assistant, Kiffin might have considered his future. Would Alabama want him as a possible successor to 71-year-old Saban, after the latter's Victorian reign in Tuscaloosa, with past Auburn experience?

Alabama is a better job than Auburn, while Ole Miss pales in comparison to Auburn (see Tuberville hire in 1998). Pressing the same line of thought, acting on the advice of agent Jimmy Sexton, Ole Miss beckoned more to Kiffin -- Sexton having worked out a sweetheart deal in Oxford for Houston Nutt after the 2007 season -- than Arkansas in 2019.

Which in a way gets us back to Pittman's plight at Arkansas. No matter the admonitions of Frank Broyles, godfather of the athletic program, Arkansas is not the best job in college football. Fayetteville provided a temporary stopover for Holtz, Danny Ford and Petrino. Bret Bielema's Big Ten roots meant little at the school, and Chad Morris could have called himself Otis Douglas for the good it would have done him.

No one dares say it -- surely not the Arkansas press -- but a parade of 10-win seasons, which fans came to expect from Broyles, Holtz and Petrino (perhaps Nutt) is unlikely at the school any longer.

Arkansas fans delude themselves into believing the Razorbacks are one or two recruiting classes from reaching a par with Alabama, Georgia and the SEC elite. How is this possible at a school that long has looked out of state for talent save for the occasional Darren McFadden, Matt Jones, James Rouse or Dan Hampton from within its borders.

The Southeastern Conference has become Gucci Row of college football with Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M all breaking the bank for coaches and about to be joined by heavyweights Oklahoma and Texas. Now, add Freeze -- whose ability to beat Saban at Ole Miss made him attractive to Auburn -- and Brian Kelly, whose first LSU team beat Alabama, no matter its showing against Texas A&M -- and there is no relief for an SEC coach.

Pittman, with no previous head-coaching experience, took over a program that, after the Morris debacle, appeared on life support. He may have soured on some fans after three years of 18-17 but the people yapping at his heels are advised to name a suitable replacement.

Unless you can see Malzahn in that job, former Arkansas State head coaches need not apply. Besides, Auburn snaps up most of them, paying off some for not coaching.

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