The battle to decide who should choose the next Auburn head coach started before the school even fired Gus Malzahn.
An influential group of Auburn boosters pressed hard for the school to fire Malzahn after eight seasons despite a hefty $ 21.4 million buyout. They believed Auburn should never have given Malzahn a seven-year, $ 49 million contract in 2017 and were ready to see a new man lead the program. These powerful boosters quietly sought the support of Board of Trustees members and finally got the necessary numbers after Auburn lost to Texas A&M on December 5th. With Malzahn heading out, they quickly wanted to advance defense coordinator Kevin Steele to the permanent position.
In his fifth year as Auburn’s defensive coordinator, Steele had lifted support from these influential boosters over the years and boosted his stock in their eyes through his unit’s strong performance on the field. According to a source, he would “very much like the job” and would quickly accept an offer.
The plan was set: Fire Malzahn Sunday and announce Steele as the next head coach within 48 hours.
AL.com spoke with several sources familiar with the Auburn search process to detail the action behind the scenes that resulted in the school hiring Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin on Tuesday. They told a story about a strong group of boosters who were used to getting their way up against a new athletic instructor who was committed to doing things differently.
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Allen Greene, who was hired as Auburn’s AD in 2018, was not on board to immediately promote Steele. The former Notre Dame baseball player made it clear he wanted a national search that rated candidates in addition to those who only resided in Lee County. The Pro-Steele camp was unlucky, but thought they had more influence than Greene and would get the coach they wanted.
The Steele plan hit a chin when Auburn president Jay Gogue sided with Greene and set up a search committee to evaluate all viable candidates and not just Steele, who was named interim coach on Sunday. Greene chaired an eight-person search committee that included Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson, Auburn curator Quinten Riggins and NFL director Michelle McKenna, among others. Gogue put together a committee with a diverse group of independent thinkers who signaled to those involved that there would be a genuine search, and Steele’s chances of becoming head coach slipped away.
“Gogue really stepped up,” said a source familiar with the search. “He was in a place where he had to do something, but he did not give them everything they wanted. He gave them what they wanted (with Gus), but said that you will not be in the committee that chooses. ”
There were search committee members who were initially open to the idea that Steele should become head coach, according to sources, but that openness waned after serious public setbacks to the potential hiring. Fans launched a “Stop Steele” campaign and beat the Auburn administration and search committee members with emails, texts and tweets expressing their dissatisfaction that Steele got the job after reports that he was a serious candidate.
The campaign worked, making it quite clear to the key people, including those who thought a lot about Steele, that it was no longer profitable to hire him. That did not stop powerful Auburn boosters from trying to intimidate Greene and search committee members into hiring Steele, sources told AL.com. The boosters made it clear to Greene that if he went with their wishes and his hiring failed, they would make sure to drive him out of Auburn. But the intimidation plan returned as it made Gogue even more entrenched behind the need for a proper search.
“These people had no voice,” said a source. “They had nothing to say and it frustrated the hell out of them. They tried intimidation, they tried everything, and it just did not work. ”
Auburn hired Parker Executive Search to facilitate the search process. Greene and the search firm spoke to between 20 and 25 coaches and eventually narrowed the list and discussed specific candidates with the eight-person search committee. As the Auburn search team worked to develop the qualities they wanted and the coaches that fit them, rumors spread everywhere about possible candidates.
The most confusing rumor was UAB head coach Bill Clark rejecting a job offer. Auburn officials and Clark had contact over the job, but they never formally interviewed the UAB coach, let alone offered him the job. “To say that he withdrew or that he was offered the job is just blatantly false,” said a source. When asked about the Auburn situation on Wednesday, Clark told the WBRC he was only interested if he had “complete control over my staff and all the things that come with it, and I think maybe that was an obstacle for them.” Several sources pushed back violently on the insinuation any potential coach had to keep current Auburn assistants including Steele.
The Auburn search evaluated several options, including sitting head coach and hot assistants like Alabama’s Steve Sarkisian, before resetting a select group for interview. Auburn never seriously considered head coach Hugh Freeze despite reports linking him to the job. A subcommittee of Greene, Riggins, and Auburn Chief Operating Officer Lt. General Ron Burgess conducted the interviews conducted primarily over Zoom.
Louisiana coach Billy Napier was a serious opportunity for the job before he finally took his name out of consideration Monday. Whether he was offered the job or pulled out in advance depends on the source, but he was undoubtedly 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 State and Baylor.
Auburn spoke with Clemson defense coordinator Brent Venables, but the expectation was always that he would stay with Clemson. Despite being a hot name for many searches over the years, Venables is happy to be an assistant and earn $ 2.4 million as Dabo Swinney’s defensive coordinator. Nor is he eager to leave a situation where he is also training his two sons, Tyler and Jake.
Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin interviewed Monday and impressed those involved in the search. After years of watching quarterbacks struggle to develop when they arrived in Auburn, those involved in the search believe Harsin has the skills and track record to change that. He had a minimum of $ 250,000 buyout to leave Boise State, which made him much more financially tasty than coaches like Oregon’s Mario Cristobal, who comes with big buyouts on top of the $ 21.4 million Auburn has to pay Malzahn.
Harsin may not have been the name on top of Auburn’s original wish list, but those involved in the search insist he was always on the list of candidates. They liked what he did in Boise State – he had a 69-19 record with a Fiesta Bowl victory over seven seasons – and a source called him a “perfect fit for what Auburn likes to do, and they players they can recruit. ” His status as an outsider was a bonus for a school that has spent the past four decades hiring graduates affiliated with Auburn, the SEC or the state of Alabama.
The search was painted everywhere as chaotic, but if there was any chaos, it came from a set of influential boosters who insisted on getting their way, sources said. Several people told AL.com that Greene, who made his first major appointment, showed tremendous leadership over these boosters to hold on and hire a coach he wanted.
The hope for those involved is that this reddish-brown search represents a new age for a school that is notorious for an overly involved booster culture. For once, they said it was not just Auburn that was Auburn.
John Talty is the Sports Editor and SEC Insider for the Alabama Media Group. You can follow him on Twitter @JTalty.