Hugh Freeze seeking top QB, tempers Auburn fans’ expectations

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AUBURN, Ala. — Hugh Freeze‘s to-do list includes choosing, or perhaps bringing in, a quarterback who can revive one of the nation’s worst passing offenses and closing the talent gap with Auburn’s rivals in the Southeastern Conference.

Tempering expectations for the near future is also on there somewhere.

Freeze is set to wrap up his first spring on the Plains with those endeavors very much in progress, and wants to emphasize to fans attending the A-Day scrimmage that “unrealistic expectations lead to frustration.”

Freeze, after all, took over a proud program that hasn’t won more than six games in any of the past three seasons and went 5-11 in SEC games during the past two – much of it comprising the 21-game tenure of Bryan Harsin. Auburn also continued to lag farther behind in recruiting to chief rivals Alabama and Georgia.

“Our fan base, I hope they heard me,” said Freeze, who received a six-year contract worth at least $6.5 million annually in November. “I want them to be excited. Man, I want to give them something to be (excited about): man, our kids are competing. They love to play the game, they’re doing it the right way. They’re playing with passion. And they’re in some games because of that.”

“But also be realistic of where we’ve been and where we want to go, and how fast can that happen? I don’t know. But everybody’s got to look at that with wide-open eyes and see that this is who we are currently.”

That starts at quarterback. Robby Ashford, T.J. Finley and redshirt freshman Holden Geriner are vying for the lead coming out of spring, though Freeze already indicated that the battle will carry into preseason camp.

He also figures to explore the transfer portal to potentially bolster the position, even if none of the three current contenders seek to move on. That’s seldom a sure thing these days.

Auburn pursued Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall, who stayed put, and North Carolina’s Devin Leary but Leary picked Kentucky.

Freeze said “many others” reached out to Auburn after his hiring, some seeking assurances of their spot atop the quarterback pecking order. He didn’t want to bypass competition with such a guarantee.

“We might could have had one or two in the last portal had I told them certain words they wanted to hear,” Freeze said. “Like they’re the guy and all that. But I’m just not made that way. “We absolutely are going to look at every scenario that becomes an option. We’ll go down and look at, is that best for this program. And that’s ultimately what we have to do, is what’s best for the program.”

The next window to add transfers opens from April 15-30.

Freeze has already added 12 players from other college programs, including several additions to an offensive line that needed immediate help. That group includes Gunner Britton (Western Kentucky), Avery Jones (East Carolina) and Dillon Wade (Tulsa)

Freeze is also trying to reverse a trend of quarterbacks only emerging as stars after leaving Auburn. That includes Malik Willis, who went on to play for him at Liberty, and Bo Nix, a three-year Auburn starter who had easily his best season in 2022 after heading to Oregon.

Tigers quarterbacks collectively tallied just nine passing touchdowns last season while ranking 119th in passing yards per game, averaging 173. Ashford, a second-year player who had transferred from Oregon, started much of last season and flashed running ability while completing just 49% of his passes.

Finley opened the season as starter after coming in from LSU, but threw just one touchdown pass against four interceptions. He only played in four games, partly because of a shoulder injury.

Geriner played briefly in only one game as a freshman. Freshman Hank Brown, who Freeze recruited at Liberty, is also set to join the mix.

“The interesting thing will be their response to the competition that has been created that will continue to go on,” Freeze said. “And being the quarterback to me at an SEC school, at a place like Auburn, carries a lot of weight to it. And that weight doesn’t end when spring practice 15 is over. How does that go through summer, what does that look like in the leadership of this team?

“That will all play into ultimately who gets that first nod. It will be interesting to see how all respond to that.”

Georgia extends contract for AD Josh Brooks, plans two new football practice fields

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ATHENS, Ga. – On the heels of a second straight national football championship, Georgia has rewarded athletic director Josh Brooks a contract extension that ties him to the Bulldogs through at least 2029.

The athletic association board, wrapping up its annual spring meeting Friday at a resort on Lake Oconee, also announced plans for a new track and field facility that will free up space for two more football practice fields.

Brooks’ new contract will increase his salary to $1.025 million a year, with annual raises of $100,000.

The 42-year-old Brooks, who took over the athletic department in 2021 after Greg McGarity retired, called the Georgia job “a dream for me” and said he hopes to spend the rest of his career in Athens.

“I am extremely grateful,” Brooks said. “I got into this business 20-plus years ago as a student equipment manager. My first job at Louisiana-Monroe was making $20,000 a year in football operations.”

The Georgia board approved a fiscal 2024 budget of $175.2 million, a nearly 8% increase from the most recent budget of $162.2 million and the sign of a prosperous program that is flush with money after its success on the gridiron.

The school received approval to move forward with its preliminary plans for a new track and field facility, which will be built across the street from the complex hosting the soccer and and softball teams.

The current track stadium is located adjacent to the Butts-Mehre athletic facility, which hosts the practice fields and training facilities for the football program.

Georgia lost a chunk of its outdoor fields when it built a new indoor practice facility. After the new track and field stadium is completed, the current space will be converted to two full-length, grass football practice fields at the request of coach Kirby Smart.

“He wants to find efficient ways to practice, and there is a lot of truth to the issues we’ve had with our current practice fields,” Brooks said. “There is a lot of strain on our turf facilities staff to keep that field in great shape when half the day it is getting shade, so that has been a challenge as well. For our football program, it is better to practice on grass fields than (artificial) turf, so to be able to have two side-by-side grass fields is huge. It makes for a much more efficient practice.”

The new track and field complex, which will continue to be named Spec Towns Track, will also include an indoor facility, the first of its kind in the state of Georgia.

Iowa AD Gary Barta announces retirement after 17 years at Big Ten school

Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa athletic director Gary Barta will retire on August 1 after 17 years at the university, the school announced Friday.

Barta, 59, is one of the longest-tenured athletic directors in a Power Five conference. He was hired by Iowa in 2006 after being the AD at Wyoming.

An interim director will be announced next week, Iowa said.

In September, Iowa hired former Ball State athletic director Beth Goetz to be deputy director of athletics and chief operating officer, putting her in position to possibly succeed Barta.

“It has been an absolute privilege and honor to serve in this role the past 17 years,” Barta said in a statement. “This decision didn’t come suddenly, nor did it come without significant thought, discussion, and prayer.”

“That said, I’m confident this is the right time for me and for my family.”

Iowa won four NCAA national team titles and 27 Big Ten team titles during Barta’s tenure. The women’s basketball team is coming off an appearance in the national championship game and the wrestling team is coming off a second-place finish at the NCAA championships.

Barta served as the chairman of the College Football Playoff committee in 2020 and 2021.

He faced heavy criticism over more than $11 million in settlements for lawsuits in recent years alleging racial and sexual discrimination within the athletic department.

Lawsuits filed by former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum and associate athletics director Jane Meyer led to a $6.5 million payout.

Iowa had to pay $400,000 as part of a Title IX lawsuit brought by athletes after it cut four sports in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the agreement, Iowa reinstated the women’s swimming and diving program and add another women’s sport.

Iowa added women’s wrestling, the first among Power Five schools to compete this year.

A lawsuit brought by former football players alleging racial discrimination within the program was settled for $4.2 million last March, which prompted state auditor Rob Sand to call for Barta’s ouster.

“Gary Barta’s departure is a long time coming given the four different lawsuits for discrimination that cost Iowa more than $11 million,” Sand posted on Twitter.

The university did not allow taxpayer money to be used for the settlement with the former players.

Barta led Iowa through $380 million of facility upgrades, including renovation of Kinnick Stadium, the construction of a new football facility, a basketball practice facility and a training center for the wrestling teams.

Under Barta, Iowa has had just one head football coach (Kirk Ferentz), women’s basketball coach (Lisa Bluder) and wrestling coach (Tom Brands). All were in place when he arrived.

Barta has also come under scrutiny for allowing Ferentz to employee his son, Brian Ferentz, as offensive coordinator. To comply with the university’s nepotism policy, Brian Ferentz reports to Barta.