Not since Greg McElroy did the pogo along the Florida sideline in the 2009 SEC Championship Game has anyone from Alabama done a balancing act as nimble as Nick Saban’s answer to questions about Hugh Freeze on Tuesday night.
Freeze was a frequently-mentioned and occasionally-seen candidate for a spot on Saban’s staff, or at least the extended staff of analysts and interns, for a month or so after the College Football Playoff championship. But Saban apparently never got clearance to bring Freeze aboard.
Earlier this week, a story from AL.com said Freeze was not hired at Alabama (or LSU or Missouri) due to the recommendation, if not an outright edict from, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey. The league has a rule that requires “consultation” before hiring a coach with current or pending NCAA issues. Theoretically, a school could ignore the opinion of the league office, but that is almost certainly a hill that few, if any, athletic administrators would choose to die on.
Ultimately, former Tennessee coach Butch Jones, who carries no NCAA baggage, was hired by Saban although there is no absolute reason to think Saban would not have hired both.
When asked about the matter, Saban gave no specifics. Instead, he did what he could to promote Freeze, who will eventually get back into coaching somewhere, presumably for the 2019 season. It is not entirely out of the question he could wind up in Tuscaloosa after all, just 12 months later than expected.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Hugh Freeze as a coach,” Saban said Tuesday night in Mobile. “I think he did a fabulous job when he was at Ole Miss. He has been a friend that I’ve shared ideas with and spent time with and know his family… so we have a tremendous amount of respect for him.”
Did that mean Saban was about to go on a tirade about not getting to hire Freeze? Not this time.
“We also have a lot of respect for the SEC and what they think is, in some cases, best for the league relative to circumstances that people created for themselves,” Saban said. “But I have a lot of respect for Hugh, and I think he’ll be back in our profession, and we wish him and his family the very best, and if we can do anything to help him, we’ll be happy to do that.”
That’s about the safest way to play it, and the shrewdest. Saban definitely said more about Freeze than he did about Sankey, but did so without a hint of insubordination.
In some ways, and there is simply no way to avoid this pun, Freeze probably needed a cooling-off period. The repercussions of his Ole Miss tenure haven’t ended, even if the NCAA has given its ruling.
Former Rebel quarterback Shea Patterson, currently attempting to transfer to Michigan with immediate eligibility, reportedly blasted Freeze as dishonest as part of his appeal to the NCAA eligibility committee. That’s more headline fodder, which the league office would like to avoid altogether but certainly doesn’t want connected with one of its schools.
What Freeze and those in his camp were looking for was a trip down Lane Kiffin Road. Former commissioner Mike Slive was no fan of Kiffin after his year at Tennessee, but couldn’t stop Alabama from hiring Kiffin (whose NCAA problems at UT were not on the same level as those Freeze incurred.)
Kiffin got the job, Alabama won championships, time passed and there was a head coaching job a few years down the line. Freeze could read that road map. He just has to wait a year or so before he can start the journey somewhere, either in the SEC or at another station that is convinced that he can help them win.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.