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Nerd’s Take: Examining The Coaching Board

Some thoughts on a number of possible candidates

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Oregon vs Wisconsin Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We are still in the Early Signing Period so there’s a chance Auburn adds more signees this week but the odds are low. It was a disappointing day but not a surprising one yesterday. Turns out it’s hard to sign top prospects when they don’t know who their head coach might be. Who’da thunk?

But one mediocre recruiting class can be suffered if it’s done to get the right man for the job and take Auburn to the coveted promise land. The Tigers are in the midst of the search to find that man so I thought I’d take a pass at some of the names being mentioned as possible candidates.

Before we dive in though I want to note that I will not be discussing Hugh Freeze. Despite national media members such as Pat Forde, Pete Thamel and Brett McMurphy lusting after this hire, it’s not going to happen. So we will focus instead on some legitimate candidates.

Kevin Steele (Auburn Defensive Coordinator)

Oregon v Auburn Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Alright let’s just dive in why don’t we?

There is a legitimate timeline where paying Gus Malzahn $21 million to not coach and promoting Kevin Steele makes some kind of sense. Before you yell at me, let me explain.

Let’s say following Auburn’s terrible loss to South Carolina, Auburn’s brilliant braintrust decided that Malzahn isn’t the man for the job and made a decisive move to fire him and promote Kevin Steele. Then, Auburn goes on to convincingly beat Ole Miss, Tennessee, Mississippi State and upsets one of Alabama/Texas A&M while locking down some big time recruits like Jeremiah Williams, Armoni Goodwin and others. Well then, Auburn fans might have been much more open to the idea of Steele taking control of the program on a permanent basis.

We are not living in that timeline.

Instead, Auburn allowed Gus Malzahn to finish out the 2020 season and then fired him the following Sunday. Steele was promoted as interim and asked to lock down as much of that recruiting class as he could while Auburn launched a full blown search.

At this point, there is no way you can sell this hire to the fanbase. It’s gotten so bad that the hashtag #StopSteele went viral in the US on Twitter yesterday. There’s a not so small segment of the fanbase who understandably believe that Kevin Steele has lead a coup to overthrow Gus Malzahn and take power.

By promoting Steele at this point, you aren’t breathing new life into the program. Instead, you are further dividing an already fractured fanbase. With Malzahn there was at least a solid amount of people still in his corner. Steele won’t even have that when he starts.

I know the focus of this has been on why NOT to hire Steele so I will offer a few reasons why it could work out. Steele is a meticulous person. It’s been consistently reported that he’s one of the most organized coaches on the planet and I believe he would have a better handle of how to run the whole program than Malzahn. He would also give more freedom to his assistant coaches, allowing them more input into who should be offered and who to signed. He’d also have the support of the current players and will have about as “easy” a schedule as you can expect as head coach of Auburn so maybe he could win 10 games next fall to build support.

But the fanbase would be expecting perfection because the minute Steele lost a game or missed on a big recruit or made even the smallest of blunders there would be fury. That’s not the attitude or vibe you want out in the world on social media when recruiting against the Alabamas, Georgias & LSUs of the world.

Kevin Steele is a good man and a good defensive coordinator. I have serious doubts he’s a championship winning head coach.

Mario Cristobal (Oregon Head Coach)

Stanford v Oregon Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

The most popular pick by the Auburn fanbase by far is Mario Cristobal. Why? Because this man can recruit.

Alabama is currently #1 in 247 Team Composite Rankings. Georgia is #3. LSU, despite being an absolute mess both on and off the field right now, is #4. Why? Because Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and Ed Orgeron are absolutely relentless recruiters. It’s an obsession for them and they lead the way for their programs. That’s what Nick Saban revolutionized the most upon returning to the SEC, that the head coach be so personally involved in recruiting. Ed O and Kirby are the same. No matter the results on the field, these dudes can convince the best players in the nation they need to come play for them.

Mario Cristobal is the same type of coach.

Since taking over as Oregon’s head man, the Ducks have finished with the #1 class in the PAC-12 every year. Cristobal is a recruiting maniac and his arrival would give Auburn a coach that can match those three in terms of energy and focus.

So what’s the down side? Well I am not sure if Cristobal excels at getting the most out of that talent. His game day coaching acumen leaves a lot to be desired. I get that this season has been weird, especially so in the PAC-12, but there’s no excuse for his losses to Oregon State and Cal this year. He faces 1 maybe 2 teams with equal or more talent than his on a weekly basis. How will he handle facing 3-5 teams that meet that criteria on a yearly basis?

Today is a big day in the chase for Cristobal. Oregon is prepared to finalize a new deal for their head coach. Does he immediately sign and stay home in Eugene? Or does he wait for Auburn to officially offer as well?

The PAC-12 Championship Game is played Friday. If he hasn’t signed that extension by kickoff, things could get VERY interesting Saturday.

Steve Sarkisian (Alabama Offensive Coordinator)

LSU v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The name that seems to come up the 3rd most on Auburn message boards and hot boards this week has been Steve Sarkisian. Sark has been running the Alabama offense for the past 2 seasons which has been absolutely shredding its opponents. He also has head coach experience having lead both the Washington and USC programs. He also had a quick stint in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons.


Gotta be honest with ya’ll, I only like him slightly more than Kevin Steele. The difference being he will bring a modern offense to the Plains and MIGHT be able to get the most out of Bo Nix in 2021.

However, there’s a lot that concerns me. First off, Sarkisian isn’t a highly regarded recruiter. He doesn’t have the same obsessive tendencies that Cristobal has when it comes to chasing after the best players in the nation. He’s also had the benefit of having the the best athletes on the field most every Saturday. All your ideas tend to look great when your guys are bigger, faster and stronger than the other guys.

It’s also worth noting that he’s struggled with alcoholism in the past. While it appears he’s sober and doing much better you have to be a bit concerned given the pressure cooker he’d be in as Auburn’s head football coach. I know coaching for Saban ain’t easy but it’s REALLY not easy trying to recruit and beat him.

Maybe he’s learned the way to build a dominant program under Nick Saban. Maybe after his rough stint at USC, he better understands how to lead a football team. Maybe his recruiting strategy would work at Auburn and elevate the Tigers status.

But I am skeptical. We’ll see if it gets this far. If Auburn misses on Cristobal and decides to not promote Steele then Sark may very well emerge as the top candidate.

Lane Kiffin (Ole Miss Head Coach)

Mississippi v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Both AuburnUndercover and AuburnSports have confirmed that Lane “Joey Freshwater” Kiffin is VERY interested in the Auburn job. Is this a ploy by Jimmy Sexton to make Ole Miss pony up? Who knows but it seems the smoke is legit that Kiffin would be willing to bolt Oxford for the Plains if given the opportunity.

And c’mon... There’s a part of you deep, down inside that would love it. I mean being a fan of Auburn means being a fan of chaos and there is no greater bringer of chaos than Lane Kiffin.

Kiffin’s stint at USC was a failure but Nick Saban’s Coaching Rehabilitation Clinic appears to have worked. Kiffin won two Conference USA titles at Florida Atlantic and went .500 this year at Ole Miss. He’s a relentless recruiter with one of the sharpest offensive minds in football. There’s also no one in the country right now who wants to beat Nick Saban more than the Lane Train.

But... There are drawbacks.

Skepticism remains about Kiffin’s ability to manage a program long term. His antics are funny at FAU and Ole Miss but will they be so entertaining to Auburn fans coming off losses to UGA or LSU? Some of his hires at Ole Miss raised eyebrows such as D.J. Durkin who had a football player die on his watch while head coach at Maryland.

I’d take Kiffin over Steele and Sark because I think he’d win immediately. Also because this is supposed to be fun and he sure has hell would make Auburn fun to watch. Might he burn everything to the ground in the process? Possibly...

Billy Napier (Louisiana Head Coach)

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 19 Louisiana at Georgia State Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Napier’s name comes up in every head coaching search these days. It’s only a matter of time before he lands a Power-5 gig. Will that gig be Auburn? I am skeptical. Not because I don’t think Napier is a good candidate, he absolutely is, but there seems to be very little chatter about Auburn being interested.

Why should they be interested? Well, Napier is an offensive minded coach whose worked under Dabo Swinney, Nick Saban and Todd Graham. He’s a well regarded recruiter who helped orchestrate that insane Bama class of Jerry Jeudy, Devonta Smith and Henry Ruggs. He’s had tremendous success at Louisiana winning the Sun Belt West division 3 straight years.

Why should they not be interested? He’s light on head coaching experience and it will be a massive jump from the Sun Belt to the SEC West. His offensive numbers dipped this year and while he’s a good recruiter, everyone is a good recruiter for Saban. Can he go toe to toe with Saban, Smart and Orgeron for the top talent in the southeast despite his inexperience?

While there are others I like better than Napier, I would be excited if he were the hire. He’d bring some youthful energy to the program and I do believe he’d put a good offense on the field this fall.

Tony Elliott (Clemson Head Coach)

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 05 CFP National Championship - Clemson Media Day Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Personally, I would prefer Auburn stay away from the Nick Saban tree. I just don’t see the Tigers every out “Process”ing Saban. Instead, there’s a model to the east that would make a lot of sense on the Plains.

Dabo Swinney’s Tigers have morphed into a college football powerhouse. They dominate the ACC but have also flexed their muscles in non conference play. On the recruiting trail, they are now a consistent top 5 team. They also tend to do things a bit differently.

Like Auburn, Clemson’s mantra is very family oriented. The Tigers are very selective with their offers, making prospects feel extra special when they land one. Their recruiting focus is built on building extremely personal relationships with recruits and their families. They preach stability and have a proven track record of developing kids for the next level.

For a long time, Clemson has mimicked Auburn. Now it’s time for Auburn to repay the favor.

My ideal candidate would be Brent Venables but I think that’s unlikely. Instead, long time offensive coordinator Tony Elliott makes a lot of sense. He’s also been mentioned as someone that could land an interview with Auburn.

Elliott has an incredible story. One that would resonate with the Auburn fanbase.

He’s also a young offensive minded coach with a strong track record on the recruiting trail. He’s coached under Dabo Swinney for ten years now. If there is anyone that can come replicate the Clemson model on the Plains it’s Elliott.

It’d be a risky move too. Elliott has no head coaching experience and most of his coaching career has been at his alma mater Clemson under Swinney. Meaning his coaching circle isn’t very big. He also runs an offense that is similar in style to Malzahn’s which is good from a consistency stand point but some of those same weaknesses we’ve been frustrated about would exist as well.

But in my opinion, if you are going to make a bold move like firing Gus Malzahn for $21 million and wrecking your recruiting class, you are doing so because you are ready to make a radical change. Hiring someone like Mario Cristobal or Tony Elliott is that type of bold move. It’s a move saying we want someone from outside the family to come in and inject new life into this program.

If Auburn can’t woo Cristobal from Eugune then I hope they give Elliott a legitimate chance to earn the job.

War Eagle!