Best part of Auburn football hiring Hugh Freeze? He didn't drive a hard bargain | Opinion
Hugh Freeze took a moment Tuesday during his first public address as Auburn’s football coach to ponder what Nick Saban might think of this hire.
"I hope they’re a little nervous today," Freeze said with a smile.
Saban probably won't toss and turn over Auburn’s hire – he’s got more pressing issues, like figuring out Alabama’s next starting quarterback – but I don’t doubt Saban would prefer to see Bryan Harsin on Auburn’s sideline. Or Cadillac Williams. Or, heck, even Gus Malzahn.
Freeze beat Saban twice in five tries while Ole Miss' coach, and he’s now coaching a program with a historically higher ceiling than Ole Miss is accustomed to.
"I’ve leapfrogged where I was," Freeze said.
STAY UP-TO-DATE: Subscribe to our Sports newsletter now!
Freeze plans to stockpile transfers and fast-track a revival of a program that, under Harsin, suffered consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1998-99.
Auburn had never hired a coach as accomplished as Freeze.
Tommy Tuberville possessed SEC experience but not Freeze’s credentials. Ralph "Shug" Jordan and Pat Dye excelled at Auburn, but they didn’t arrive with a track record matching Freeze’s. He has nine winning seasons in 10 years as an FBS coach.
True, hiring someone with a winning pedigree does not guarantee future success: See Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher.
But, unlike Fisher, here’s the best part of Auburn’s hire: Freeze comes cheap – at least compared to the megadeals some Power Five schools have awarded to less-accomplished coaches.
Freeze received a six-year deal with an average annual salary of $6.5 million, the Montgomery Advertiser confirmed.
Comparatively, Eliah Drinkwitz is earning $6 million, and Drinkwitz has not posted a winning season in three years coaching Missouri.
TOPPMEYER: By hiring Hugh Freeze, Auburn football embraces a new creed: Just win, baby
FIRST WORDS:'These people are special': Hugh Freeze introduced as Auburn football's next coach
COACH MEETS QUARTERBACK:What Auburn football's Robby Ashford, Hugh Freeze said about each other
I expect Freeze to perform well at Auburn, but if this goes awry, this contract would allow AU to flush Freeze after two or three years and try again. Auburn, if it fired Freeze, would owe him 75% of his remaining contracted salary.
Meanwhile, Texas A&M is anchored to Jimbo Fisher and his $86.7 million buyout.
No one questions Freeze’s coaching acumen. His Ole Miss staff’s misconduct in recruiting and booster shenanigans during Freeze’s tenure shows he should be plenty comfortable operating within the wheeling-and-dealing NIL frontier.
He made no bones about that.
"I think we can turn (this program around) fairly fast with the new world we’re in," Freeze said, "because I believe with the commitment that’s been shown by our fans, boosters and administration to invest in things like this that matter in recruiting and they matter in the NIL On To Victory fund. All of that matters today.
“It’s much easier to add to your roster now than it was when I took over at Ole Miss and they (had won one SEC) game in two years, and obviously we were going to some New Year’s Six (bowls) in Year 3 and 4
"So, I see no reason why, with the current structure, we can’t do this fairly fast.”
Freeze didn't ask for a grace period. That's good, because he won’t find patience on the Plains.
Auburn fired Harsin after 1½ miserable seasons and owed a buyout of more than $15 million. It recklessly fired Malzahn after eight consecutive winning seasons and paid him a $21.5 million buyout.
Within two years, Freeze’s buyout should look like peanuts compared to other exorbitant coaching contracts in an athletics industry that spends money like a drunk in a casino.
Freeze won’t shirk from Auburn’s high bar, but if he fails to meet AU’s demanding standard, it can cut Freeze a Malzahn-esque buyout in a couple of years and move on.
At six years for $39 million, Auburn hired a proven winner at a bargain price.
Last year, Oklahoma awarded a six-year, $43 million deal to Brent Venables, who had no head coaching experience. Florida shelled out a seven-year, $51.8 million deal for Billy Napier, who had never coached in the Power Five.
Ole Miss reportedly will pay Lane Kiffin an average salary of $9 million on his new deal after it successfully kept Auburn from plundering its coach.
Retaining Kiffin is a feather in the Rebels’ cap, but Auburn hired a more accomplished coach at about 72% of Kiffin’s pricetag.
Freeze comes at cut rate for a reason, lugging well-documented baggage. He resigned from Ole Miss in 2017 amid professional and personal scandals. Freeze spent two seasons out of coaching before coaching Liberty the past four seasons. He craved another chance in the SEC. Money isn’t driving his move to the Plains.
Auburn went to the used car lot and got a good deal on a ride with a damaged exterior but an engine under the hood that's plenty good.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Hugh Freeze didn't drive hard bargain to sign as Auburn football coach