No matter how the coaching search turns out, this has been a bad look for Auburn
I’m done advocating for anyone to get the Auburn job. Auburn is gonna do what Auburn is gonna do, and we’re all just going to be sitting here trying to figure it out.
That reality sunk in on Monday afternoon when reports surfaced that in addition to Billy Napier dropping out of the race, Steve Sarkisian and Kevin Steele are both reportedly no longer candidates. Mind you, these were after hearing that Hugh Freeze was no longer in play, either.
If you’re keeping track at home, well, stop. It’s not worth it. Auburn, AKA the program that paid a coach $21.5 million not to work, doesn’t appear to have a plan. It appears to have a mess. It’s hard to imagine any situation in which the Tigers end up looking smart at the end of this bizarre search.
That’s not my way of saying Auburn’s next hire is doomed to fail. Gene Chizik and Gus Malzahn were unpopular hires who both got the Tigers to a title game. It is, however, my way of saying that until the Tigers play football again, they’re going to take some PR punches on the chin.
How else can one interpret a Group of 5 coach saying “thanks, but no thanks” to Auburn? With all due respect to Louisiana, it’s a slap in the face to Auburn that Napier turned down the Tigers. Maybe Napier got the vibe that he wasn’t their first choice and that didn’t sit well. Perhaps he just got the feeling that there were too many cooks in the kitchen.
That’s at least how things have appeared since this search began.
Almost immediately after Malzahn was fired, it was reported that Steele had major support from Auburn to become the next head coach. On 1 hand, that didn’t make sense. Why pay a coach $21 million to go away so that you can promote his assistant? On the other hand, it made perfect sense. Why not convince the masses that Steele is staying during the Early Signing Period? Steele even held a post-signing day press conference and everything.
That sounds a whole lot better than “yeah, the staff is getting gutted but come to Auburn, 18-year old kid who has never lived away from home!”
Maybe there was serious momentum for Steele to get the job. Or maybe it was just Auburn’s unique way of trying to show stability amid some brutal coaching turnover timing.
“Stability” isn’t exactly something Auburn is oozing these days. Uncertainty? Confusion? Desperation? Sure.
Had Auburn hired Sarkisian, we would’ve eventually forgotten about this bizarre week on the Plains. Instead, an interview that was supposed to happen on Sunday after Sarkisian’s offense put up 52 points in the SEC Championship never happened. As we found out on Monday, the Alabama offensive coordinator is no longer considered a candidate.
Weird. This whole thing feels like the parents who ask their 4 kids what they want for dinner, only to get 4 different answers.
(I obviously thought about what each coaching candidate would’ve been; Freeze was pizza, Sarkisian was tacos, Napier was chicken fingers and Steele was leftovers.)
Variety is the spice of life … except when it comes to settling on paying millions of dollars to a Power 5 football coach. When this search is done, Auburn will try to convey the message that it was on the same page from the jump and that reports surfacing about other candidates were incorrect. Sure. Sell that message. What’s clear is that several people with some pull at Auburn wanted different messages out there.
Reporters like Bruce Feldman and Brandon Marcello don’t make this stuff up. I believe them when they come out with information like this:
Names to watch: Bill Clark, UAB; Brent Venables, Clemson; Kevin Steele, Auburn DC.
First contact, discussions with committee began Sunday. Formal interviews begin today.
— Brandon Marcello (@bmarcello) December 21, 2020
Stay tuned, though. That’ll probably change by the time you’ve finished reading this sentence.
In reality, it doesn’t always matter when a program whiffs on its top target. Tom Herman was Texas’ top target. How’s that working out? Dan Mullen reportedly was Florida’s No. 3 choice. How’s that working out? Jeremy Pruitt was like, the 7th different person who got offered the Tennessee job. How’s that … whoops. That’s not working out.
In a way, this search has shades of that Tennessee fiasco. Vol fans did everything they could to prevent Greg Schiano from becoming the head coach after he already accepted the job. That #SchiaNO hashtag was a no-brainer. When it looked like Auburn was set to hire Steele, we got the #StopSteele hashtag. That appears to have worked, too.
Well, that’s as of 2:15 p.m. ET on Monday. Talk to me again at the top of the hour to see if that still holds.
Why is it that Auburn still can’t figure out how to conduct a normal coaching search? I suppose this isn’t quite as embarrassing as “JetGate” when the Auburn president, athletic director and 2 trustees got caught flying to interview Bobby Petrino at Louisville the day before the 2003 Iron Bowl. That, of course, was with Tommy Tuberville still on as Auburn’s head coach. The move blew up in Auburn’s face publicly and it certainly made things awkward when Tuberville was retained, though it did ultimately yield that unbeaten 2004 season.
Consider that my way of saying that knowing Auburn, the next coach will somehow probably have the Tigers in the national title game within 2 years. We’ll all be left wondering how yet another strange coaching move yielded immediate success on the Plains.
But what will happen in this search? At this point, I couldn’t tell you. Figuring this thing out is like trying to nail jelly to a tree.
In the meantime, Auburn has a sticky mess to clean up.