Another major college football coaching vacancy has been filled recently; Auburn hired Hugh Freeze away from Liberty to take over the Auburn program. To say that Coach Freeze is a “controversial hiring decision” is an understatement. Make no mistake, he has been successful at multiple levels of college football starting with an NAIA school up through Ole Miss and then to Liberty before landing at Auburn this week.
Freeze left Ole Miss under duress in 2016; the NCAA notified the school of several Level 1 recruiting violations and that preliminary investigations showed the likelihood that the program and/or some of its boosters had provided “impermissible benefits” to team members. Freeze alleged that the violations had occurred during the days of his predecessor at Ole Miss, Houston Nutt; that story unraveled when Nutt sued Ole Miss for defamation and the school settled the matter and issued a public apology to Nutt.
In the SEC, that sort of behavior is not commonplace – – but it is not so outrageous as to get a successful coach fired. Then came a big surprise:
- Ole Miss officials became aware that Freeze had used the cell phone that the school provided to him to place a call to an “escort service”.
- Freeze said he must have misdialed the number.
- Problem was that he had “misdialed” that same number about a dozen times on the same phone over the course of his five years at Ole Miss.
Those circumstances – plus the NCAA investigations – must have been too much for the folks who ran Ole Miss and they threatened to fire Freeze for cause citing a clause in his contract allowing them to do so for reasons of moral turpitude. Freeze chose to resign in 2016 and was out of a head coaching job until he arrived at Liberty in 2019 where he has amassed a record of 34-15 and has taken Liberty to three consecutive bowl games – – and won them all. [Aside: Liberty is also bowl-eligible this season with their 8-4 record.] His contract at Auburn is reportedly for 6 years at $6.5M per year.
Next season, Auburn will play Ole Miss in Auburn; it will not be until 2024 that Freeze will return to Oxford, MS as the coach of the opposing football team. I cannot find the date for that game in 2024, but when I do, I will circle it on my calendar.
Speaking of recently hired college football coaches, Brad Dickson formerly with the Omaha World News had this to say about new Nebraska head coach, Matt Rhule:
“At his press conference Matt Rhule said he could’ve made good money sitting on his butt and doing absolutely nothing. In Omaha we call someone like that ‘mayor.’”
Switching gears … The NFLPA has filed a grievance against the NFL alleging collusion among the owners not to offer fully guaranteed contracts to “certain players” in light of the fully guaranteed contract given to Deshaun Watson by the Cleveland Browns. I suspect that this issue is going to generate more heat than light over the next several months as an arbitrator mulls the issue(s) and as contract negotiations with NFL free agents bubble up in the impending offseason. So, let me put my general comments out there before the fact – – which means that my views can change dramatically if new and corroborated information becomes available:
- The NFLPA filed this grievance. Therefore, it is incumbent on the NFLPA to prove that collusion occurred; it is not incumbent on the NFL to prove that collusion did not occur.
- The standard of proof in this matter is not as it is in a criminal trial – – “beyond a reasonable doubt”. The standard of proof here is more like “a preponderance of the evidence”.
- The fact that 31 of the 32 NFL owners have not offered any fully guaranteed contracts to QBs other than Deshaun Watson does not prove collusion. Some things happen by coincidence that result in a set of circumstances that appear as if there were collusion. As an admittedly simplistic example, it is not collusion that 31 of the 32 NFL owners do not have the surname “Haslam”. That is a fact, and that circumstance could have arisen from “collusion” among the other owners; it looks like “collusion; but it just isn’t.
I suspect that the legal folks at the NFLPA recognize that they are going to need some inside information to prevail here and probably hope that whatever is akin to a “discovery process” in this arbitration hearing will yield them something probative. As an example, somehow a portion of the email exchanges between Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen came out from the bowels of the NFL’s electronic records and there was juicy information there. So, I suspect the NFLPA folks are hoping to find something like that involving communications between/among owners and league officials on the subject of fully guaranteed contracts.
I think the NFLPA is a longshot to prevail here, and I think that the sentiment in the court of public opinion will depend on where the line is drawn regarding “collusion”.
- Imaginary Scenario #1: At an owners’ meeting subsequent to the Browns giving Watson his fully guaranteed contract, an owner stands up and says to Browns’ owner Jimmy Haslam, “You are a fool giving him that contract. My team would never do anything like that!” Several other owners applaud and say “Hear! Hear!”. Is that “collusion?”
- Imaginary Scenario #2: Several owners are talking and are overheard by multiple other people saying that the fully guaranteed contract the Browns gave Watson is a stupid business decision. One owner says, “It would serve Haslam right if Watson broke his leg in his first game and there is no injury provision in the deal.” The other owners agree and say they would always want “injury protection” in a big-money long-term deal. Is that “collusion?”
- Imaginary Scenario #3: An email exchange between an owner and an official in the NFL Front Office surfaces saying, “Not to worry, I am in full agreement. My team will never give a fully guaranteed long-term contract to anyone.” Is that “collusion?”
It is way too early in this story to take sides – – unless one is universally pro-union or pro-management in such confrontations. But I do believe this confrontation has the potential to be quite interesting.
Finally, let me close with this observation about the subject of collusion from actor Chris Pine:
“For me growing up, Christmas time was always the most fantastic, exciting time of the year, and you’d stay up until three in the morning. You’d hear the parents wrapping in the other room; but you knew that also, maybe, they were in collusion with Santa Claus.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………