Can the SEC stop Auburn football from hiring Hugh Freeze? Here's what league bylaws say

Tommy Deas
Nashville Tennessean

Auburn football is looking for a new coach in the wake of Bryan Harsin's firing Monday. A candidate whose name has come up in discussion, at least among fans, is that of former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze.

With a background that includes major NCAA sanctions under his watch at Ole Miss, would the SEC welcome him back? And if not, could the league do anything to stop it?

Freeze, now at Liberty, left Ole Miss under an NCAA investigation. Additionally, an internal school investigation uncovered a pattern of calls from his university phones to numbers found in ads for escort services.

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Ole Miss was accused of 15 Level I violations, and the NCAA infractions committee said the school lacked institutional control and fostered "an unconstrained culture of booster involvement in football recruiting." The NCAA penalties resulted in the school vacating 33 wins over six seasons.

Some of the infractions − which included alleged academic, booster and recruiting rules violations − dated to the tenure of previous coach Houston Nutt, but most occurred under Freeze. Ole Miss ended up with a two-year bowl ban as well as a three-year probation, scholarship reductions and recruiting restrictions. The NCAA issued a two-conference-game suspension of Freeze if he had been hired as a head coach for the following season.

Freeze spent five seasons at Ole Miss, going 39-25 during that time (before vacated wins) and reached a bowl game in each of his first four seasons. He also beat Alabama twice, raising his profile and that of the program.  He coached Ole Miss to nine-win regular seasons in back-to-back years for the first time since 1962 and took the Rebels to four consecutive bowl games for the first time since 1971.

He was hired at Liberty prior to the 2019 season and has gone 33-12, including a 10-win season in 2020 and a 7-1 record so far this season, landing the Flames at No. 23 in the latest USA TODAY Coaches Poll. He has won bowl games after each of his previous three seasons.

Given his background and unceremonious exit from Ole Miss, however, the SEC might have reservations about allowing him back into its coaching ranks. Alabama coach Nick Saban was reportedly interested in hiring Freeze on his staff in 2018, but indicated the league office convinced him to back off when asked about it.

Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze has some words over a call with an official during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. Mississippi won 27-14. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

So if Auburn decided to pursue Freeze, could the SEC do anything about it? The short answer is no, but there would be a discussion.

SEC bylaw requires member schools to "exercise best efforts to hire individuals committed to rules compliance." It does not, however, explicitly forbid league schools from hiring coaches with NCAA compliance baggage.

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"While each member institution makes its own hiring decisions," the bylaw states, "member institutions shall, at a minimum, request specific information from each candidate concerning his/her rules compliance record and communicate with NCAA enforcement and the Conference office regarding the same prior to offering employment to any candidate."

But there's more.

"In addition," the bylaw reads, "where a member institution considers hiring an individual who has engaged in unethical conduct as defined under NCAA Bylaws or who has participated in activity that resulted, or may result, in a Level I, Level II or major infraction, the President or Chancellor of that member institution is expected to consult directly with the Commissioner prior to offering employment to the individual."

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That means Auburn President Christopher B. Roberts would have to have a conversation with SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey before hiring Freeze.

Freeze, if he were hired, would not be the first coach Auburn has hired with previous NCAA compliance issues. Bruce Pearl ran afoul of NCAA rules at Tennessee and was fired after admitting that he lied to investigators. Pearl coached at Tennessee from 2005-11 and was hired by Auburn in 2014. Penalties from the Tennessee infractions case included a three-year show-cause order on Pearl.

Auburn hired Pearl in the final months of his show-cause order and he was not allowed to contact recruits until the order expired.