Liberty athletic officials began making plans for a football coaching search Saturday morning once it became apparent Hugh Freeze was Auburn’s top target to fill its coaching void.
Those plans were activated late Monday afternoon.
Freeze is leaving Liberty to return to the Southeastern Conference after accepting an offer to take over Auburn’s program, sources confirmed to The News & Advance. He previously coached at Mississippi from the 2012 through 2016 seasons.
Liberty will receive a reported $3 million buyout of the eight-year contract extension Freeze signed in late October. The latest contract extension was set to make Freeze the highest-paid coach in the Group of Five ranks beginning in 2023, and the pact guaranteed his staff and the resources needed to compete would be unmatched among the other G5 programs.
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Athletic director Ian McCaw and his staff intend on working quickly to fill the vacancy that will draw considerable interest. Liberty, which is joining Conference USA next season, has resources and facilities that will be unmatched among G5 programs, and the Flames are expected to be contenders to win immediately in the C-USA.
The importance of swiftly filling the vacancy comes with two dates looming in December.
The first transfer portal window opens Dec. 5 following the conclusion of the conference championship games. A new coach will need to be in place to ensure he can fill any open scholarship spots should players currently on the Liberty roster decide to enter the portal with the intent of transferring to another institution.
The transfer portal window will be open for 45 days until Jan. 18, 2023.
The early signing period is Dec. 21 through 23, which means recruits currently committed to a program can sign their National Letter of Intent during that three-day window. Fifteen high school seniors are verbally committed to Liberty.
The 53-year-old Freeze leaves following a successful four-year stint at Liberty. He racked up a 34-15 record with three bowl victories and the program’s first triumphs over teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference (Syracuse and Virginia Tech in 2020) and the SEC (Arkansas earlier this month).
His departure comes after the Flames’ lackluster 49-14 loss to New Mexico State this past weekend. Players found out via social media Freeze had been in communication with Auburn regarding the open position for weeks and his agent, Jimmy Sexton, was already negotiating contract details if Freeze were the one to be hired.
The timeframe of those negotiations began after Liberty’s 21-20 win over Arkansas on Nov. 5, and the Flames lost their next three games against UConn, Virginia Tech and NMSU.
Freeze admitted after the loss to the Aggies the players confronted him in the locker room about the report, which he could not refute because the Auburn job interested him and his family.
“I was asked directly by them, and so I did,” Freeze said after Saturday’s game. “I think it had something to do with our flatness, for sure. I’m not one to dodge people that I care for and love’s questions, and I’m not one to tell them something that’s not true. I tried to tell them the truth. It was just an odd, odd, odd feeling.”
The unceremonious departure sours what was a rapid rise for a program that was the newest in the Football Bowl Subdivision when Freeze took over the program Dec. 7, 2018.
Freeze and the Flames appeared in the Cure Bowl in 2019 and defeated Georgia Southern for the first bowl win in program history.
The 2020 season, altered by the coronavirus pandemic, saw the Flames reach the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in program history, and they capped the season with 10 wins and a triumph over then-No. 9 Coastal Carolina in the Cure Bowl.
Liberty ended that season ranked 17th in the final AP Top 25 poll.
The Flames won at least eight games in each of Freeze’s seasons at the helm, including eight wins and a triumph in the LendingTree Bowl last season.
Liberty opened this season with an 8-1 record and marquee wins over BYU and Arkansas to ascend to 19th in the AP Top 25 poll.