The battle to decide who would choose Auburn’s next head coach began before the school even fired Gus Malzahn.
An influential group of Auburn boosters pushed hard for the school to fire Malzahn after eight seasons, despite a $ 21.4 million acquisition. They believed that Auburn should never have given Malzahn a $ 49 million contract for seven years in 2017 and were ready to see a new man leading the program. These powerful drivers quietly solicited support from members of the Board of Trustees, finally getting the numbers they needed after Auburn lost to Texas A&M on December 5. With Malzahn leaving, they wanted to quickly promote defensive coordinator Kevin Steele to permanent position.
In his fifth year as Auburn’s defensive coordinator, Steele had won the support of those influential drivers over the years and boosted his inventory in their eyes through the strong performance of his unit in the field. He “really wanted the job,” according to a source, and would quickly accept an offer.
The plan was outlined: to fire Malzahn on Sunday and announce Steele as the next coach in 48 hours.
AL.com spoke with several sources familiar with the Auburn search process to detail the behind-the-scenes action that resulted in Boise State coach Bryan Harsin being hired on Tuesday. They told the story of a powerful group of defenders accustomed to making their way against a new athletic director committed to doing things differently.
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Allen Greene, who was hired as AD from Auburn in 2018, did not agree to promote Steele immediately. The former Notre Dame baseball player made it clear that he wanted a national search that would evaluate candidates beyond residents in Lee County alone. The pro-Steele camp was not deterred, however, believing that they had more influence than Greene and would get the coach they wanted.
Steele’s plan ran into an obstacle when Auburn President Jay Gogue supported Greene and created a search committee to evaluate all viable candidates and not just Steele, who was appointed acting coach on Sunday. Greene chaired the eight-person search committee that included Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson, Auburn curator Quinten Riggins and NFL executive Michelle McKenna, among others. Gogue gathering a committee with a diverse group of independent thinkers signaled to those involved that there would be a genuine pursuit, and Steele’s chances of becoming the head coach were running out.
“Gogue really stepped up,” said a source familiar with the research. “He was in a situation where he had to do one thing, but he didn’t give everything they wanted. He gave them what they wanted (with Gus), but said that you will not be on the committee he selects. “
There were members of the search committee initially open to the idea of Steele becoming the head coach, according to sources, but that openness declined after a severe public reaction to the potential hiring. Fans launched a “Stop Steele” campaign and punched Auburn’s administration and search committee members with emails, texts and tweets expressing their discontent with Steele getting the job after reports that he was a serious candidate.
The campaign worked, making it very clear to key people, including those who held Steele in high regard, that hiring him was no longer viable. That did not stop Auburn’s powerful movers from trying to intimidate Greene and members of the search committee to hire Steele, sources told AL.com. The defenders made it clear to Greene that if he resisted his wishes and his hiring was unsuccessful, they would make it a point to expel him from Auburn. The intimidation plan backfired as it left Gog even more entrenched behind the need for a proper search.
“These people had no vote,” said a source. “They had no voice and that made them very frustrated. They tried intimidation, tried everything and it just didn’t work. “
Auburn hired Parker Executive Search to help facilitate the search process. Greene and the recruiting firm talked to 20-25 coaches, eventually shortening the list and discussing specific candidates with the eight-person research committee. While the Auburn hunt group was working to develop the features it wanted and the coaches who fit in, rumors spread everywhere about potential candidates.
The most disconcerting rumor was UAB head coach Bill Clark, declining a job offer. Auburn and Clark officials had contact about the job, but never formally interviewed the UAB coach, let alone offered him the job. “To say that he quit or was offered a job is simply false,” said a source. When asked about Auburn’s situation on Wednesday, Clark told the WBRC he would only be interested if he had “total control of my team and all the things that go with it, and I think maybe that was an obstacle for them”. Multiple sources vehemently rejected the suggestion that any potential coach would have to retain Auburn’s current assistants, including Steele.
The Auburn research evaluated several options, including head coaches and hot assistants like Steve Sarkisian from Alabama, before focusing on a select group to interview. Auburn never seriously considered Liberty coach Hugh Freeze, despite reports linking him to the position. A subcommittee of Greene, Riggins and Auburn, chief of operations, Lt. Gen. Ron Burgess, conducted the interviews that were done mainly at Zoom.
Louisiana coach Billy Napier was a serious option for the job before taking his name off the table on Monday. Whether he was offered the job or withdrawn beforehand depends on the source, but he was undeniably one of Auburn’s top candidates. Napier has proven to be incredibly patient in recent years when evaluating jobs and has also turned down opportunities in South Carolina, Mississippi and Baylor.
Auburn talked to Clemson’s defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, but the expectation was always that he would stay at Clemson. Despite being a hot name for many researches over the years, Venables is happy to be an assistant and earn $ 2.4 million as a defensive coordinator for Dabo Swinney. He is also not eager to get out of a situation where he can train his two children, Tyler and Jake.
Boise State chief coach Bryan Harsin interviewed on Monday and impressed those involved in the search. After years of watching defenders struggle to develop when they reached Auburn, those involved in the search believe that Harsin has the skills and background to change that. He had a minimum buyout of $ 250,000 to leave Boise State, making him much more palatable financially than coaches like Mario Cristobal from Oregon, who come with big acquisitions in addition to the $ 21.4 million that Auburn must pay Malzahn.
Harsin may not have been the name on Auburn’s initial wish list, but those involved in the search insist he was always on the candidate list. They liked what he did in Boise State – he had a 69-19 record with a Fiesta Bowl win in seven seasons – and a source called him “perfect for what Auburn likes to do and the players they can recruit ”. His outsider status was a bonus for a school that has spent the past four decades hiring candidates with ties to Auburn, SEC or the state of Alabama.
The search was painted as chaotic, although if there was any chaos, it came from a set of influential prosecutors insisting on getting what they wanted, the sources said. Several people told AL.com that Greene, making his first major signing, showed tremendous leadership in the face of those drivers to stand firm and hire the coach he wanted. He intended a national search for Auburn’s next head coach and, with the help of the search committee and the search company, was able to do that.
The hope, for those involved, is that this quest in Auburn represents a new era for an infamous school for a very involved driving culture. For the first time, they said, it wasn’t just Auburn being Auburn.
John Talty is the sports editor and SEC Insider at Alabama Media Group. You can follow him on Twitter @JTalty.