Auburn Narrows Search

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Still without a head coach, rumors swirl

By Wil Crews
sportscrews@opelikaobserver.com

“Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.” Right now, these words from American playwright Arthur Miller are painstakingly relatable to anyone who has an inkling of passion for Auburn University and their football program.

It has been 10 days since Auburn fired their former head coach Gus Malzahn. Since then, the football program has been clouded by rumors of deceit, different agendas and an unsettling amount of directionless inactivity. The university appears to be closing in on the guy they want, but it appears that Auburn are on plan B, C or even D of the hiring process. And there is a disturbing reality that has come to light: no one really knows who’s pulling the strings (more on that later).

So, will Auburn have the right regrets when they look back on the Malzahn era? Will it be that he missed bringing Auburn their third national championship in program history by just 13 seconds? That could be reconciled. Or will it be that they had unrealistic expectations that led them to fire a coach who was a good recruiter, loved by his players and perfectly fit the mold of an ‘Auburn Man’? That would be a harder pill to swallow.

Nonetheless, the search for a new head coach is ongoing and there are still plenty of good options out there to lead the Tigers. But, the whole state of the program seems unfamiliarly fragile and, dare I say it, unappealing. The latest reports of candidates turning their back to Auburn back up that claim.

In fact, the first to deny was reportedly Auburn’s main target, Oregon head coach Mario Cristabol. However, apparently he really likes flashy uniforms and is reported to have agreed to an extension that will keep him in Eugene until 2025. Hugh Freeze was another hot name that was being thrown around a week ago. But the former Ole Miss head coach and current Liberty head man replied with “good” in a since-deleted a tweet that insinuated he was not wanted on the Plains. He comes with baggage and is honestly too similar to Malzahn, therefore it’s believable that there was never any real interest from either side.

Continuing along with the trend of denial, it was just reported Monday that Billy Napier, current Louisiana head coach and a former assistant under Nick Saban, is committed to the Rajun Cajuns and has no interest in taking the Auburn job. I was never a big proponent of firing Malzahn – especially this year – but once it was done, Napier was the guy highest on my shortlist. The 38-year-old has southern connections and has brought a small-scale Crimson Tide model of excellence to the Bayou State. Getting rejected by a mid-major coach who only makes $800,000 a year has to put a huge dent in the ego of whoever is running this coaching search for Auburn. He could have been the young, charismatic recruiter and program builder to take Auburn to the next level, but there are still other options.

Namely, both Clemson coordinators. The only thing is, programs have been trying to pry defensive coordinator Brett Venebles away from Clemson for years, yet he’s remained loyal to Head Coach Dabo Swinney. Offensive Coordinator Tony Elliot seems more likely, but he’s also more of an unknown and far from a splash hire.

Additionally, Lane Kiffin is an interesting candidate that has come up. However, the Ole Miss coach has a reputation synonymous with distraction and – in my opinion – his offhand mannerisms outweigh any offensive genius that he possesses. Another Saban assistant, current Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, made an incredible sales pitch for the Auburn job last weekend in the SEC championship game versus Florida. He makes sense for the Tigers. If anything, you’re taking one of the nation’s best assistants away from your arch rival. However, it was recently reported that he too is off the university’s shortlist. Regardless of if that’s true, approach with caution. Saban assistants have a less than stellar record (0-23) against the Alabama head coach.

Next there is UAB Head Coach Bill Clark, a relative newcomer to college football. He would probably be better suited to go to a smaller university – along the lines of South Carolina – where he could prove his metal in a power 5 program. But Clark managed to guide UAB through the shutdown of their football program in 2014 and has since led them to multiple conference titles, proving that he can build a program. That said, it would be an enormous risk for Auburn to go with him.

Finally, there are other names like Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, but mainly, there is Kevin Steele. Surprising to most, reports have said that Auburn’s current defensive coordinator has been in pole position for the job all along. Furthermore, he is at the center of the deceit and different agendas that I referenced earlier. Rumor has it that some big name boosters on the board of trustees are backing Steele. As to why? It can only be assumed that the boosters believe they have a yes man on their hands. There’s even rumors that Steele and other defensive assistants have been planning a coup for two-plus years to remove Malzahn – and they were almost successful in 2017. To be fair, I don’t really believe that and my position on that issue would only change if Malzahn himself came out and said he felt undermined by Steele.

However, it is believable that members of the board are undermining Auburn Athletic Director Allen Greene’s authority and autonomy to appoint a new head coach – with the goal of putting Steele in charge. The search committee is believed to be a farce and Steele would likely be the cheapest option out of these aforementioned names – and by far the easiest to control. If you want proof, a lack of control is reportedly exactly what turned Napier away from the job.

Look. I love what Steele has done for Auburn’s defense. But the 62-year-old one-time head coach (he finished with a 9-36 record at Baylor from 1999-2002) is not the leader to take Auburn to the next level. The Tigers already rank behind Alabama, Georgia and LSU in both recruiting and facilities. An inventive and charismatic new coach would be a quick way to cover up those areas in which Auburn is lacking. Who really believe Steele is the guy to out recruit Saban? Much less Kibry Smart at Georgia, Ed Orgeron at LSU, Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M or even Dan Mullen at Florida.

The ascension of the Auburn brand over the last three decades has been real and now it feels as if it’s teetering on collapse. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but if Steele gets the job, then it’s clear the decision to fire Malzahn was not about winning; it was about control. However, if Allen Greene brings in his guy from the outside, then there’s a believable chance that a tangible culture shift will be in the works.

Unfortunately for Auburn fans, at this point, there may not be clear upgrade to Malzahn. But the Auburn athletic department’s main priority has to be finding a head coach with the right mix of accountability and likeability. Maybe that’s impossible when you have an administration with seemingly unchecked accountability themselves. Maybe they already had that guy. But the clock is ticking. Patience is wearing thin. And Auburn’s rivals are only lengthening the gap between them. Ten days after firing their head coach of eight years, I wonder what Auburn regrets now.

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