The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hugh Freeze is the latest character in Auburn’s football soap opera

Auburn football coach Hugh Freeze, left, poses with Athletic Director John Cohen. (Todd Van Emst/AP)
13 min

The newest episode of a classic American soap opera dropped last week with a twist that was predictable as could be but stunning all the same. There was Hugh Freeze, familiar and convincing and slippery as ever, being introduced as Auburn’s new football coach.

“Man, what an honor,” Freeze said, wearing a burnt-orange necktie and pocket square. “War Eagle.”

For nearly an hour, he talked. About his Christian faith. His plans. His gratitude for Liberty University, where he spent the past four seasons, drawing attention both for guiding the Eagles into the top 25 and coaching a game from a hospital bed inside the press box. He beat back tears and took a veiled shot at Mississippi, from which Freeze resigned in 2017 after it was revealed he had used his university-issued phone to contact an escort service while on recruiting trips.

It was dramatic and emotional — quintessential Freeze. And classic SEC, with all of its cartoonish decadence. It was also Auburn acknowledging what really matters in major college football and maybe always has. Win or get lost. Recruit or die. Still, it was a little surprising it was the Tigers who resurrected Freeze’s career and made him the public face of the university’s athletic department, effectively a corporation that generated $123.5 million in revenue last year. But the moment demanded a splash.

Auburn, which won the 2010 national championship to cap a decade in which the Tigers dominated in-state rival Alabama, had just suffered its first back-to-back losing seasons since the 1990s. A civil war last winter pitted the university against its own football program and played a role in top-to-bottom personnel changes. After losing 11 of its past 15 games against Alabama and legendary coach Nick Saban, Auburn was desperate — so desperate that committing $6.5 million annually to Freeze, assuming the public-relations backlash and dividing Auburn’s mega-vocal, possibly delusional fan base seemed necessary to new athletic director John Cohen and university president Chris Roberts, both less than seven months into their jobs.

“Is this the first time an Auburn AD has been willing to do something that makes Auburn fans mad?” said one prominent football booster, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing retribution for airing the program’s dirty laundry. “Maybe, because if it had been any other AD, he would’ve passed on Hugh because he’s got to go see if we can get Billy Graham to coach this team. He’s actually made a decision right out of the gate that he knew he was going to take a ton of s--- for.”

An SEC football coach became a Trump-loving Senate hopeful. His players no longer recognize him.

Auburn is a particularly unusual place, in a particularly unusual conference of America’s strangest game. Fans celebrate wins by throwing rolls of toilet paper over ancient oak trees (which an Alabama fan poisoned in 2010) and greet each other with the school’s battle cry, “War Eagle,” even though its mascot is the Tigers. This little patch of eastern Alabama is referred to locally as “The Plains,” though it’s actually quite hilly.

College football is magical and absurd because of these micro-cultural eccentricities, and every school’s fans think their team — and only their team — is doing things the right way. The sport is one giant church of the devoted, with each pew observing its own doctrine while sneering at all the rest.

These past eight years, since Auburn’s most recent appearance in the national championship game, have been a period of increasing frustration. Alabama, the Tigers’ hated in-state rival, has won three national titles since and dominated the programs’ annual game, the Iron Bowl. Conference realignment and the transfer portal, skyrocketing coaching salaries and compensating players for their names, images and likenesses have dramatically changed the sport and made it all the more cutthroat, its boosters and decision-makers less patient, its fans that much weirder.

In other words, it has made Auburn somehow even more Auburn.

The past decade on the Plains has been filled with ongoing investigations of the athletic department and questions about who actually calls the shots. Even by the standards of the SEC, where boosters have a reputation for exerting their influence, there’s an unusual power vacuum in Auburn’s football program, which is supposedly led by a three-man cabal of ultrarich, short-fused donors and a wider community of impatient fans with an insatiable thirst for vengeance.

A few years ago, the Alabama Media Group ranked the most powerful sports figures in the state. Saban was first, of course, followed by SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey. The two top-ranked individuals associated with Auburn weren’t coaches or ADs or former stars such as Cam Newton, Bo Jackson or Charles Barkley. They were investment giant Raymond Harbert and lumber mogul Jimmy Rane. The former is the son of a construction billionaire who once borrowed $3 million from his inheritance to start his own wealth management firm. The latter is the richest person in Alabama, known for taking football coaches on fishing trips to remote Alaska and featuring them in Old West-themed YellaWood commercials that feature Rane in an all-yellow cowboy outfit, often on horseback, playing a country-fried hero called the “Yella Fella.”

Before Tommy Tuberville became Auburn’s coach in 1999, his most important question to those courting him was, “How many bosses I would have?” he told the Dallas Morning News then.

“I had heard all these horror stories,” Tuberville said then. “You can only answer to only so many people, and I had heard that certain people were very involved.”

Indeed, four years later, amid a disappointing 2003 season and Tuberville’s poor recruiting, another politically connected booster secretly flew to Louisville alongside Auburn’s president and AD in a failed attempt to replace Tuberville with his former offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino. The school’s leadership decided during the season to fire Tuberville, and though the Alabama game hadn’t yet been played, the president was in a hurry to lock down Petrino and start his extended Thanksgiving vacation to Texas. But fans learned of the plot, felt bad for Tuberville and pressured the school to retain him, which it did.

The president and AD would be forced out because of their handling of the episode, and two decades later, fans still refer to “JetGate” as an embarrassing chapter in a long-running saga. Tuberville is now a U.S. senator after he successfully recruited nearly 1.4 million votes in 2020. Tuberville didn’t respond to The Washington Post’s calls and text messages requesting an interview for this story.

Auburn declined requests to interview Harbert, Rane or another member of the school’s board of trustees, and none responded to texts and emails seeking comment. The school provided a statement from one trustee describing that a different trustee “advised” Cohen during the hiring process and the board later “supported and endorsed Freeze.” Rane and Harbert are members of Auburn’s 15-member board but were not named in the statement.

“There are so many kind, loving, wonderful people,” a former Auburn athletics administrator said on the condition of anonymity to avoid professional repercussions. “But, man, if that football team is not winning, it doesn’t matter if you’re a blood relative; they’re done with you. People that you think support you or are friends, it’s just all of a sudden, within a day or two, they’re not. They’re against you.”

All major programs have wealthy alumni who pay millions for access and influence. But most schools establish boundaries and create the impression that the AD actually hires and fires head coaches. Not so at Auburn, according to current and former employees and others close to the program.

The tenure of Gene Chizik comes to mind. Hired in 2008, he successfully recruited eventual Heisman Trophy winner Newton and, three years later, went undefeated and won the school’s first national championship in a half-century. He appeared to be building one of the SEC’s strongest programs, albeit one that reportedly changed players’ grades to keep them eligible and bribed would-be draft picks to stay in school. (The NCAA investigated but never issued sanctions.)

Two years after the championship, Auburn went 3-9, including a 49-0 beatdown from Alabama, and supporters decided Chizik was cooked. So the school fired him.

His replacement, Gus Malzahn, never had a losing season and came within 13 seconds and three points of another national title in 2013. But Malzahn couldn’t recruit or win like Saban, whose trophy-filled office is 150 miles from Auburn’s campus. Close enough to the Tigers’ anxiety-ridden decision-makers, the prominent donor says, that “it’s made them crazy.”

Fans declared Malzahn finished, too, and nobody in the athletic department publicly stood up for him. Perhaps that’s understandable, considering the FBI was investigating the men’s basketball program at the time and the softball coach resigned after a former player accused the coach of multiple instances of sexual harassment. Regardless, Auburn fired Malzahn with $21.5 million remaining on his fully guaranteed contract, an amount that led to a budget shortfall in 2021.

“Is there not somebody on the inside, somebody internally that just sits back and says, ‘Shh, be quiet; give this a chance’?” the former administrator said. “That’s just it: That doesn’t happen. It’s about that outside influence.”

With administrative salaries rising alongside increasing pressure, the former administrator said, Auburn officials have traditionally said nothing in an attempt to protect their own skin.

It’s almost kind of that mob mentality,” this individual said. “Once that mob is going, we’ve just got to cave in to what the mob is saying. You don’t want to get pitchforked yourself.”

With Malzahn chased off, Auburn pursued and was turned down by some of the sport’s rising talents, including Billy Napier (now at Florida) and Brent Venables (Oklahoma), who later said his decision had been based on doubts about the school’s power structure. Against the wishes of Auburn boosters, Tigers AD Allen Greene landed on Bryan Harsin, who went 6-7 in his first season and refused to disclose whether he had received a coronavirus vaccine, even though the university had mandated vaccination for all employees.

More than a dozen players entered the transfer portal, including one who posted on Instagram that Harsin treated players “like dogs.” Defensive coordinator Derek Mason, whose daughter is immunocompromised, took a $400,000 pay cut to leave Auburn for the same position at Oklahoma State, and three other assistants were fired or resigned. Austin Davis, hired to replace Mike Bobo as offensive coordinator, quit after 43 days. Of the 18 players Harsin signed in the Class of 2021, 10 have since entered the transfer portal.

Then, in February, came murmurs that Harsin mistreated players and rumors about his personal life. Auburn hired a law firm to pore over Harsin’s behavior. The coach spent part of a family vacation to Mexico defending himself, and by the time he returned, Auburn had adopted the “Employee Duty to Cooperate Policy.”

Later in February, Harsin, who didn’t respond to text messages or calls for this story, attended the SEC’s annual coaches meeting at the conference’s Birmingham office. Saban arrived in a Mercedes, and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher showed up in an Audi. Harsin was driven to the meeting by an Alabama state trooper.

The next day, Auburn President Jay Gogue issued a statement declaring the investigation over; Harsin was still the Tigers’ coach. Gogue added that Harsin had been “completely cooperative” and blamed social media for creating a scene. Harsin seemed to suspect Auburn boosters, some of whom wanted a different coach to replace Malzahn, were behind it.

“It was uncomfortable. It was unfounded, and it presented an opportunity for people to personally attack me, my family and also our program,” he told reporters at the SEC’s annual media gathering. “And it didn’t work.”

Gogue retired in July, and Greene resigned eight days before the Tigers’ football season opener and five months before his contract expired. Tennessee AD Danny White congratulated Greene on Twitter for “getting the heck out of a crazy situation.”

This season, Harsin was fired after a 3-5 start, ostensibly by interim AD Rich McGlynn, replaced on an interim basis by popular former Auburn running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams. With no one left to fire and another $15.3 million due to settle Harsin’s buyout and add to the athletic department’s strained ledger, the supposed mob had done its worst.

Last month, Auburn’s third president in five years introduced its third AD in four years. The university’s prevailing message behind the scenes has been that Cohen can neither be bought by donors nor swayed by fan outcry, and this has supporters feeling optimistic — for now.

Cohen, a former college baseball coach, is gruff and to-the-point. In a phone interview, he was asked directly whether any booster instructed him to hire Freeze.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “It was my decision, and I was hired at Auburn University with the understanding that these decisions were going to be mine. … I’ve had a number of donors, board members, boosters telling me to do the research and to make my own decision: ‘We trust you.’ And I did.”

Freeze praised Cohen’s “backbone” during his introductory news conference and claimed his late-night direct message on Twitter last summer to a former Liberty student who was among the plaintiffs in a 2021 lawsuit against the school for its alleged mishandling of sexual assault cases was “an inadvertent misstep with no ill intent.”

He also denied reports that his employment at Auburn was contingent on relinquishing control of his social media accounts. The rumor alone was enough to renew hope among some die-hard fans, even the ones who have watched this show for years, because they believe Freeze can be controlled. And that’s enough to make this episode feel different.

“I bet Hugh can stay on Twitter,” the booster said. “But I bet Cohen has told him, ‘I can take anything down if I don’t like it.’ Yes, he’s allowed to use it and, yes, he’s on a very short leash. There are adults in the room now.”