Hugh Freeze, the disgraced former Arkansas State and Ole Miss head football coach, is the most polarizing mainstream candidate on Auburn’s radar as the Tigers try to find a replacement for the recently fired Gus Malzahn.
But if Auburn decides to chunk caution into the wind and roll with a black sheep, they can do better than Freeze.
Try Art Briles instead.
That’s the idea tossed out recently by sports talking head Clay Travis, the provocateur extraordinaire who’s never seen a major college coaching searching he didn’t take glee in grenading with outlandish opinion.
On an interview with WJOX 94.5 in Alabama, Travis proposed Auburn should ax offensive coordinator Chad Morris, whose ineptitude sealed Malzahn’s fate on the Plains, but retain Kevin Steele as defensive coordinator.
Then, bring in Art Briles as the new head coach.
Briles, who transformed Baylor into a national power during his stint there in 2008-2015, is considered radioactive in many college athletic departments because of the massive sex scandal that rocked the Bears program under his watch and led to his 2016 firing.
Since then, he has been rejected for a Southern Miss offensive coordinator position and had an assistant job offer in the Canadian Football League rescinded after the team received immense backlash when word broke they offered it.
Still, it appears Briles may be slowly rehabbing his image. A Texas high school, Mount Vernon, hired him two years ago and he led them to a record of 20 wins, 6 losses and no scandals. On Monday, Briles resigned from the job, which simultaneously provided a potential landing spot for Chad Morris and could signal Briles is ready to return to the college ranks.
To complete the new Auburn staff, Travis suggested that Art Briles should replace Morris with his own son. Currently, Kendal Briles serves as the offensive coordinator at Arkansas, where he’s helped improve a unit that was among the nation’s worst the last two seasons:
Razorback Points Per Game
2019: 21.5 (National rank: 110)
2020: 25.7 (82)
Yards total offense per game
2019: 335.2 (109)
2020: 391.5 (66)
(Arkansas’ red zone offense also improved from No. 114 to No. 22, according to KATV’s Steve Sullivan)
Kendal Briles, who makes a million dollars a year with the Razorbacks, has said he’s happy in Arkansas and doesn’t want to move yet again after hopping from Houston to Florida Atlantic to Florida State in the years since he last worked with his father at Baylor.
Kendal Briles served as a Baylor assistant to his father during Art Briles’ entire head coaching stint there. A 2016 investigation into Baylor’s football program by a Philadelphia law firm found that the school repeatedly failed to properly respond to reports of sexual assault, but did not specifically name Kendal Briles.
Art Briles coming aboard at Auburn and then recruiting his son away from Arkansas would be a shocking move, to say the least. Even if Art Briles did manage to get this job (which he won’t), it would hurt Kendal Briles’ reputation and future head coaching prospects to leave his fourth program in a row after only a season.
Not that any of that matters to Travis.
An Art Briles-Kendal Briles-Kevin Steele staff “just makes Auburn the ultimate renegade program, which frankly, I think Auburn fans should lean into and say, ‘We don’t care what anybody outside of the Auburn family thinks about it. We’re just going to go balls to the wall and do whatever it takes to win.’”
Next Auburn Head Coach Candidates: A Hierarchy of Delusion
On a scale of totally delusional to utterly pedestrian, Auburn getting Kendal and Art Briles is among the most preposterous outcomes.
Also near the top is the idea Auburn would land the retired Urban Meyer or Bob Stoops. Don’t expect either of those legends to want to jump back into a pressure cooker of a job now that they are in their late 50s/early 60s. At this point, they don’t need the extra millions Auburn could throw at them for what would likely be a five-year run, max.
Below are three mainstream Auburn coaching candidates, ranked from least likely to most likely:
If all that mattered was getting a coach who could go toe to toe with Nick Saban and win his share of recruiting and on-field battles, Freeze would be an easy “yes.”
When coaching Ole Miss from 2012 to 2016, Freeze’s Rebels regularly beat Alabama and went 3-1 in bowl games before a July 2017 resignation amid the program’s NCAA investigation into impermissible benefits which included, among others, an alleged female escort service.
He also suffered from recruiting and academic violations committed during his time as well as that of his predecessor, Houston Nutt.
Sure, Freeze is worth a look since he’s already resurfaced at the lower rungs of college football coaching, but people close to the Auburn program don’t think he’s a legitimate candidate. Auburn-focused SEC analyst Jake Crain, for instance, points out that Auburn leaders don’t want the invasive yearly audit from the NCAA that hiring Freeze would prompt.
Then there’s Brandon Marcello, the Arkansas-based 247Sports analyst who spent seven years as a beat reporter in Auburn. “I don’t think Auburn is very interested in him at this moment,” Marcello told Crain. “I don’t think they want to go down that road. Certainly, Hugh Freeze is interested in it but…everything I’ve been hearing is that he’s just not a candidate at this point.”
There’s no doubt Freeze is interested, however.
When asked directly about that, he said: “It would take something really, really, really special for me to consider leaving here [Liberty]. I meant that and I mean it to this day and it’s going to take something that makes my heart flutter with great excitement.”
Cristobal checks off a lot of boxes.
For one, of course, he doesn’t have the stain of scandal accompanying him. As the Oregon head coach, he’s a proven winner at the Power 5 level who is also a dynamite recruiter of offensive and defensive lineman — which is requisite to succeed in the SEC.
Some of Auburn’s most influential power brokers, such as Raymond Harbert and Jimmy Rane, are fans of Cristobal and are pushing for him, Marcello told Paul Finebaum.
The Miami product is also intimate with the ins and outs of Auburn’s chief rival after spending a few years on Nick Saban’s staff.
That, however, is a big reason Cristobal won’t end up as the coach, Marcello adds.
“I had a conversation with someone who’s close with Mario Cristobal yesterday, and their feeling is that he will not take a job in the SEC West,” Marcello says. “He does not want to be in the SEC West when Nick Saban is still around. And the point someone made to me yesterday was, besides Lane Kiffin, who’s not really from the Nick Saban tree, name another Nick Saban disciple that has said, ‘Hey, I’m going to go ahead and coach in the SEC West.’ They usually go to the East, or obviously out of the conference.”
So Cristobal may make more sense three or four years from now, when Saban is closer to retirement, but for now the hire is less likely.
That’s not to say Cristobal won’t talk to Auburn and visa versa. His agent likely leveraged Auburn’s interest in him to a new six year, $27 million contract he signed with Oregon on Thursday, similar to the way Gus Malzahn and his agent Jimmy Sexton leveraged Arkansas’ interest in him a few years ago to milk Auburn’s boosters for the mind-boggling $21.7 million buyout he will soon start enjoying. Cristobal’s new contract comes with an $8 million buyout.
Cristobal has said he’s happy at Oregon and ready to keep building toward that program’s first national title, but if he leaves after only four years it will only be moderately surprising given how short the average stint of the modern college football head coach has become.
Sarkisian making the jump directly from Alabama’s offensive coordinator to the head coach of that program’s chief rival would take some guts.
However, he’s an attractive, relatively safe candidate as he’s already proven what he can do as a head coach for USC and Washington, where he took over a winless program and then went 34-27.
Currently, he helms an Alabama offense that is fire-breathing demigorgan. “The Crimson Tide have one of the most explosive offenses in the country, and the fact that the success continued from Tua Tagovailoa to Mac Jones is a testament to what Sark has done,” as The Athletic’s Chris Vannini wrote.
Steve Sarkisian will get his shot.
According to AL.com, he’s expected to interview for the Auburn job after the Alabama-Florida SEC championship game.
If Auburn simply promoted Steele, this would be great news for other SEC West programs like Arkansas. Steele’s a good defensive coordinator, but he already whiffed badly in his previous head coaching stint at Baylor. The chances of him surpassing the 8 to 9-win seasons Malzahn consistently produced and essentially pull another Ed Orgeron are slim.
Still, Auburn leaders in the past have shown they love candidates who have already worked in the system. In fact, the last time Auburn hired a head coach who didn’t have ties to the program was 1951 when they got Ralph Jordan. Malzahn, Gene Chizik, Tommy Tuberville, Terry Bowden and Pat Dye all had worked or played at Auburn before.
In the last three years, Steele has positioned himself well to take advantage of that by making friends and making allies in the Auburn power broker circuit, Marcello says.
Given that Auburn is now on tap for that Malzahn buyout in the middle of a cash-starved pandemic, it’s likely that its boosters, trustees and president Jay Gogue like the idea of someone who will save the school millions of dollars.
Steele would come relatively cheap by not commanding near the same $7 million a year that Malzahn was making or that hiring Cristobal would entail (think more around Sam Pittman’s $3 million a year).
Even more importantly, there would be no multi-million buyout to absorb by taking a coach away from another big program. Of course, then again, neither would that be the case with Hugh Freeze or Art Briles.
For Arkansas fans, Kevin Steele or Hugh Freeze would be the best options, assuming Freeze brings in audits that eventually uncover violations that handicap Auburn. Cristobal would not be good news, as his recruiting selling point would be very similar to Sam Pittman’s by focusing on building from the line of scrimmage out.
If Auburn brass lost their minds and did hire Art Briles, Kendal Briles would do well for his own career by staying in Arkansas for at least one more year. He should have a loaded, experienced unit coming back with the likes KJ Jefferson, Treyon Burks, Treyon Smith and could challenge a few of the offensive program records set under Bobby Petrino.
Steele is currently the frontrunner candidate, sources have told CBS Sports.
Watch Marcello’s full interview, which includes his reasoning on why Indiana’s Tom Allen would be a perfect fit, here:
Also, Clay Travis likes Art Briles more than most humans. Below, he talks with Briles about what it’s like to have “your name dragged through mud.”
Briles then talks about the possibility of coaching college ball again:
Kendal Briles on Arkansas’ early signees
On Wednesday, Arkansas signed a few likely impact players out of the class of 2021 and JUCO ranks. They include Cameron Ball (OT), KeTron Jackson (WR), Bryce Stephens (WR), Erin Outley (TE), AJ Green (RB) and all-around athlete Raheim Sanders.
Watch Briles break down the Hogs’ early signing class here:
Big guys for the OL ✅— Arkansas Razorback Football (@RazorbackFB) December 17, 2020
2 QBs ✅
Playmakers at WR & TE ✅
Fast guys with some ‘wiggle’ at RB ✅@kendalbriles and the offense checked off some needs for the Hogs yesterday. pic.twitter.com/chqtYXjpwA