Brothers from Different Mothers – Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn


(Be sure and help us decide which SEC football coach does the best job on Twitter by voting for your top three choices here.)


Let it be clear that A-State Fan Rules is not a fan of former Red Wolves head coach Hugh Freeze. In fact, you may recall that Mr. Freeze inspired one of the immortal 28 A-State Fan Rules.

A-State Fan Rule No. 20: Hugh Freeze didn’t give us 10 wins. We gave HIM 10 wins so he can leave after one year to coach Ole Miss.

These are the facts: two season ago, upon an unprecedented 10-2 season and an invite to the GoDaddy Bowl, Hugh Freeze took his football, his inspirational quotes, Bo Wallace, and his staff to Ole Miss, leaving the Red Wolves with an overmatched skeleton staff to get murdered by Northern Illinois.

But there are, of course, more facts.

For example, there is the USA Today article that exposed Hugh Freeze as the lowest paid head coach in the FBS – a fact that was unflattering for both Freeze and A-State.

There is also conjecture. It is rumored that A-State rallied to match any competing salary offered by another school. The contrary is also rumored. Regardless, in a profession for which “it’s not about the money” is often declared, money was a factor to Freeze’s defection.

But here’s another fact: when Hugh Freeze arrived to Ole Miss, he spoke warmly of A-State to a delegation of Rebel fans that had arrived to welcome him. Freeze made it clear that without his opportunity at A-State, his appointment to Ole Miss could not have been possible.

“I owe a lot to Arkansas State and the kids and the family and friends there. They are wonderful, wonderful people and they gave me the opportunity to do something that had never been done there before…it was one of the greatest rides of my life.” – Hugh Freeze, first press conference at Ole Miss.

Though Hugh Freeze may have destroyed A-State’s chances for winning the 2012 GoDaddy Bowl, and jeopardized the program’s future with a one-and-done season, he was at least grateful to the university. The man who would replace Freeze and repeat his treachery was given every opportunity to behave in the same gregarious fashion.

He elected otherwise.

Gus Malzahn not only arrived to A-State as a perceived upgrade to Hugh Freeze, he was also regarded as a kind of football messiah. He wore his religious faith and his love for the game on the same sleeve.

“I totally believe that God has blessed me with the unique ability to know offense, to call offense.” – Gus Malzahn

While Freeze had entered the program a minor celebrity, Gus Malzahn was a rock star, credited with pioneering the Wildcat Formation and launching the heralded careers of both Darren McFadden and Cam Newton. A giddiness enveloped the A-State faithful, and it was fueled by Gus Malzahn himself who pledged to take the program “to the next level.”

Immediately, Red Wolves fans saw Malzahn on ESPN and other national outlets. He commandeered local press by recruiting Auburn outcast Michael Dyer and orchestrating stunts like A-State Ambush. He even openly challenged Arkansas to a game. Suddenly, the fans of a program accustomed to second tier status began to walk with a swagger.

But what fans didn’t realize was that Gus Malzahn wasn’t interested in taking the Red Wolves to the next level. He was interested in taking Gus Malzahn to the next level, and he was willing to do anything to make it happen.

This was evident in the season’s final game with Middle Tennessee, the Sun Belt championship game. During a blow-out victory, Malzahn continued to run a visibly limping Ryan Aplin into the Blue Raider’s frustrated defense.

Three days after a gritty Aplin won the program’s second consecutive conference title and a repeat invite to the GoDaddy Bowl, Gus Malzahn announced his intent to leave for the SEC – on the exact anniversary of Hugh Freeze’s betrayal.


Gus Malzahn was hired by A-State at a school record $800,000 per year, plus a number of cozy benefits befitting a man of his stature. Much was made of the pay upgrade he would receive at Auburn, something north of $2M per year.

But in the days prior to his leaving, Gus Malzahn made it a point to remind Red Wolves faithful how happy he was in Jonesboro, and how he was too much a man of character to be swayed by SEC bucks.

“If you think I’m one and done you don’t know me very well.” – Gus Malzahn

He spoke with such conviction, many of us were inclined to believe Malzahn. After all, weknew Gus! In Gus we trust! We stood by him during the embarrassment at Eugene and the dismantling at Lincoln. We were patient after an opening conference loss to Western Kentucky. The school gladly devoted itself to collecting the $23M Gus demanded for his indoor facility. A few more championship seasons, and we’d probably name it after Gus.

Even as Auburn fired its head coach and tossed Malzahn’s name into the hat, many of us clung to Malzahn’s promise of a Next Level. Our last head coach, Hugh Freeze, had never made promises. Never issued proclamations. Never made demands. Malzahn was vested in Jonesboro. He looked us in the eye and said he was staying. Case closed.

And then he was gone. Poof. Off to Auburn without even an adios.

The differences between Hugh Freeze’s Ole Miss press conference and Gus Malzahn’s press conference are telling.

Hugh Freeze orated his press conference from an auditorium stage, where he stood alone like a Southern Baptist preacher, pumping up the fan base with his encyclopedic knowledge of inspirational hokum. When he spoke of A-State, it was unprompted and from the heart.

At Auburn, Gus Malzahn stood with the Auburn search committee, revealing that he had met with his new players and demanded that they be “men of character,” an amusing example of “do what I say, not as I do.”

The conference was almost immediately opened to questions, and somebody asked Malzahn if he had learned anything from A-State.

“Of course, I was a head coach at high school for 15 years, so as far as on the field stuff it’s the same but for college football it’s off the field experience you got to get used to. It was a great learning experience for me, I learned a lot and I feel very prepared coming in here.” – Gus Malzahn, first Auburn press conference

Naturally, coaching high school is practically the same as coaching at A-State, so why bother crediting the university that gave you a shot at head coaching at all? But at least we prepared you for the off-the-field shenanigans associated with the job, like lying when you’re asked if you’re leaving. No big.

It didn’t get any chummier. When asked if he would be coaching A-State at the GoDaddy Bowl, Malzahn coolly said he’d have to “talk to their administration” but that he was “100% committed to Auburn.” That wasn’t enough for the Auburn press, who were fishing for regret. When asked if it was tough to leave A-State, Malzahn dug deep into whatever emotion passes for his sincerity and said:

“Well, I get extremely close to my players and anytime that you do that it’s tough to leave. Arkansas State was…uh…very good to me and my family, the players were…um…unbelievable and it was tough to say bye. But at the same time I’m so excited to be here.” – Gus Malzahn, first Auburn press conference.

It’s interesting to note here that after Freeze left, many of his players expressed chagrin and dismay. Some A-State players still refer to Freeze as “coach” and exchange messages with him on Twitter. A-State Fan Rules cannot recall one player (aside form those whom he had just recruited), who lamented his leaving. In fact, more players seemed perturbed by the loss of OC Rhett Lashlee, who ended up on the sideline with interim coach John Thompson during the GoDaddy Bowl.

Malzahn fielded one last A-State question that day. A reporter noted that the Red Wolves were second on the schedule in 2013. “Yeaaah, that’s pretty ironic how that works.” smirked Malzahn. “They’re gonna be a very good team.”

Hey, thanks for that.

And that was it. A-State was forgotten; a dot in the rear view. However, Gus Malzahn did take the time to coin a semi-new phrase for Auburn: “Championship Level.”


In the end, Malzahn didn’t take us to the next level. We won the same championship, earned the same Bowl bid, and managed one less victory under his leadership. Like Freeze, he left for an SEC school before the season was even over.

Yet, Hugh Freeze is given a pass by A-State fans that Malzahn isn’t afforded. When the Red Wolves earned their second consecutive GoDaddy invitation, many clamored to invite Freeze as a guest of honor. (A-State Fan Rules was among the few who mocked this idea. What was he going to do? Entertain us with stories of Ole Miss?)

There is a feeling among many that Freeze was treated shabbily by A-State. That the administration short-changed him on his salary and that we didn’t make a hearty enough effort to keep him. The truth of that is endlessly debatable.

But Gus Malzahn was given all the school had. It increased the HC position salary by 700% (inviting patronizing skepticism from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in return). It fired the AD and hired another one that better matched Malzahn’s vision for the future. It put him on billboards and made him the face of the program. Fans came in record numbers just to see what Malzahn would do next.

And it wasn’t enough.


Some parting thoughts:

A-State Fan Rules doesn’t begrudge a man seeking a better lot in life. We also understand that coaching is a business, and that to become attached to a head coach invites folly and heartache.

And yet, for A-State to be victim to consecutive one-and-done coaches is almost too cruel for a fan base to bear. But we’ve maintained our momentum to reaching “the next level” all the same.

Already, skeptics are wondering if our latest head coach, Bryan Harsin, is next for the SEC. As a fan, we can only enjoy the next season and hope Coach Harsin sticks around.

The Rant does not necessarily reflect the official view of Sporting Life Arkansas, its owners, its contributors or authors, its sponsors or advertisers, or decent people in general. The Rant is not affiliated in any way with Sporting Life Arkansas except as a place to live on the innerwebs. The Rant aims to become a weekly feature of Sporting Life Arkansas. If you have a rant to contribute to The Rant and wish to be considered for inclusion on this website, send your submission to this email address. If your rant is chosen for The Rant, Sporting Life Arkansas and its editors reserve the right to (expletive delete) or #@$%&*@$# your dirty words. Please try and write complete sentences, although The Rant acknowledges that a good rant sometimes needs to speak ‘in the vernacular’ so to speak. Having said all that, I’ll hang up and listen.

Questions For The Mailbag


Are You A Human Being?

Tags: , , , ,