It’s not every day that a college football scandal includes a Baptist thread, but such is indeed the case with Auburn University’s controversial hiring of Hugh Freeze as head football coach.
Freeze has coached the last four seasons at Liberty University, the largest Baptist-affiliated university in the nation. He came there after being fired as head coach at Ole Miss, which is not a Baptist school but is located deep in the heart of Baptist territory. While there, Freeze and his wife were members of a Southern Baptist church.
Freeze’s new job at Auburn is controversial because of allegations that he has demonstrated poor judgment, at best, in interactions with female students and because he left Ole Miss under the cloud of accusations that he exhibited a “pattern of personal misconduct” and hired an escort service for his players.
At the same time, the NCAA found 21 violations of academic, booster and recruiting violations at Ole Miss under Freeze’s tenure, which put Ole Miss on probation, including a two-year postseason ban and recruiting restrictions.
What might otherwise have been a career-ending dismissal turned out to be a brief blip for Freeze, who was hired at Liberty, where the athletic director is Ian McCaw — a name well-known to Baptists in Texas because of his previous stint as athletic director at Baylor University, the nation’s second-largest Baptist-affiliated university.
McCaw resigned from Baylor in 2016 as head football coach Art Briles was on the brink of being sacked for his role in one of the worst sexual abuse scandals in college football history. That scandal also led to the resignation of Baylor President Ken Starr.
Hiring an acclaimed football coach like Freeze — despite the dirty laundry that came with him — helped boost the Baptist school into a higher orbit.
McCaw escaped the punishment that befell his Baylor colleagues, rescued by another, more conservative Baptist university that wanted to ramp up its athletic record. Hiring an acclaimed football coach like Freeze — despite the dirty laundry that came with him — helped boost the Baptist school into a higher orbit.
That partnership was so liked by Liberty administrators that in October, less than two months ago, Freeze agreed to an eight-year contract extension at Liberty that averaged about $5 million per year.
Now that’s all behind him, as he heads to Auburn — although not without controversy again.
Writing for OutKick, Grayson Weir explains: “Liberty University is currently under federal investigation by the Department of Education for sexual assault coverups. It stems from a significant lawsuit against the school that accused officials of mishandling allegations of sexual assault and claimed that the religious university’s strict policies made sexual assault and rape more likely.”
Further, Liberty alumna Chelsea Andrews warned Auburn administrators about her personal experience with Freeze.
“As a victimized alumna, who has been messaged by Hugh Freeze, I am concerned for the alumni community at Auburn, the current students who will engage with the football program, and the ethos of Auburn if this consideration is true,” wrote Chelsea Andrews, who claims she received multiple direct messages from Freeze about her criticism of McCaw and Liberty University related to sexual assault cases.
Auburn officials said they looked into Andrews’ allegations against Freeze and cleared him for hiring.
“After a thoughtful, thorough and well-vetted search, we ended where we started, with Hugh Freeze,” Auburn Athletic Director John Cohen said. “Of all the candidates we considered, Hugh was the best fit. Fit has several meanings, but the most important factors were student-athlete development, football strategy, recruiting and SEC experience.”
The Auburn-Liberty story quickly took another turn of interest to Baptist observers, with widespread speculation that disgraced Baylor head coach Art Briles would be hired by McCaw to lead the Liberty program.
However, other commentators quickly squashed that idea, suggesting Briles never will coach college football again.