The battle to decide who would get to choose the next Auburn head coach started 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 hefty $21.4 million buyout. They believed Auburn should never have given Malzahn a seven-year, $49 million contract in 2017 and were beyond ready to see a new man leading the program. These powerful boosters quietly solicited support from Board of Trustees members, finally getting the necessary numbers after Auburn lost to Texas A&M on Dec. 5. With Malzahn on the way out, they wanted to quickly promote defensive coordinator Kevin Steele to the permanent position.
In his fifth year as Auburn’s defensive coordinator, Steele had culled support from those influential boosters over the years and boosted his stock in their eyes through his unit’s strong performance on the field. He “badly wanted the job,” according to a source, and would quickly accept an offer.
The plan was set: Fire Malzahn on Sunday and announce Steele as the next head coach within 48 hours.
AL.com talked to numerous sources familiar with the Auburn search process to detail the behind-the-scenes action that resulted in the school hiring Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin on Tuesday. They told a story of a powerful group of boosters used to getting their way going up against a new athletic director committed to doing things differently.
Allen Greene, who was hired as Auburn’s AD in 2018, wasn’t on board with immediately promoting Steele. The former Notre Dame baseball player made clear he wanted a national search that evaluated candidates beyond those only residing in Lee County. The pro-Steele camp was undeterred, however, believing they carried more influence than Greene and would get the coach they wanted.
The Steele plan hit a snag when Auburn president Jay Gogue sided with Greene and created a search committee to evaluate all viable candidates and not only Steele, who was named the interim coach on Sunday. Greene chaired the eight-person search committee that included Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson, Auburn trustee Quinten Riggins and NFL executive Michelle McKenna, among others. Gogue putting together a committee with a diverse group of independent thinkers signaled to those involved there’d be a genuine search, and Steele’s chances to become the head coach were slipping away.
“Gogue really stepped up,” a source familiar with the search said. “He was in a spot where he had to do one thing, but he didn’t give them everything that they wanted. He gave them what they wanted (with Gus) but said you guys aren’t going to be on the committee that selects.”
There were search committee members initially open to the idea of Steele becoming the head coach, according to sources, but that openness waned after severe public backlash to the prospective hire. Fans launched a “Stop Steele” campaign and pummeled the Auburn administration and search committee members with emails, texts and tweets voicing their displeasure over Steele getting the job after reports he was a serious candidate.
The campaign worked, making it abundantly clear to the key people, including those that thought highly of Steele, that hiring him was no longer viable. That didn’t stop powerful Auburn boosters from trying to intimidate Greene and search committee members into hiring Steele, sources told AL.com. The boosters made clear to Greene that if he bucked their wishes and his hire wasn’t successful, they’d make sure to run him out of Auburn. The intimidation plan backfired, though, as it made Gogue even more entrenched behind the need for a proper search.
“Those people had no vote,” a source said. “They had no say and it frustrated the hell out of them. They tried intimidation, they tried everything, and it just didn’t work.”
Auburn hired Parker Executive Search to help facilitate the search process. Greene and the search firm talked to between 20 and 25 coaches, eventually narrowing down the list and discussing specific candidates with the eight-person search committee. As the Auburn search group worked to develop the characteristics they wanted and the coaches that fit that, rumors spread everywhere of possible candidates.
The most perplexing rumor was UAB head coach Bill Clark turning down 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 he pulled out or he was offered the job is just blatantly false,” said one source. When asked about the Auburn situation Wednesday, Clark told WBRC he only had interest if he had “complete control of my staff and all those things that go with it, and I think, maybe, that was a hindrance to them.” Multiple sources vehemently pushed back on the insinuation any prospective coach had to retain current Auburn assistants including Steele.
The Auburn search evaluated several options, including sitting head coaches and hot assistants like Alabama’s Steve Sarkisian, before zeroing in on a select group to interview. Auburn never seriously considered Liberty 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 which were primarily done over Zoom.
Louisiana coach Billy Napier was a serious option for the job before ultimately taking his name out of consideration on Monday. Whether he was offered the job or pulled out 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 at South Carolina, Mississippi State and Baylor.
Auburn talked to Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, but the expectation was always that he’d stay at Clemson. Despite being a hot name for many searches over the years, Venables is happy being an assistant and making $2.4 million as Dabo Swinney’s defensive coordinator. He’s not eager to leave a situation where he gets to coaches his two sons, Tyler and Jake, either.
Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin interviewed on Monday and impressed those involved in the search. After years of watching quarterbacks struggle to develop once they arrived at Auburn, those involved in the search believe Harsin has the skills and track record to change that. He had a minimal $250,000 buyout to leave Boise State, making him much more financially palatable than coaches like Oregon’s Mario Cristobal, who come with big buyouts on top of the $21.4 million Auburn must pay Malzahn.
Harsin might not have been the name atop Auburn’s initial wish list, but those involved in the search insist he was always on the list of candidates. They liked what he did at Boise State — he had a 69-19 record with a Fiesta Bowl win over seven seasons — and one source called him a “perfect fit 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 last four decades hiring candidates with ties to Auburn, the SEC or the state of Alabama.
The search was painted as chaotic throughout though if there was any chaos it came from a set of influential boosters insistent on getting their way, sources said. Multiple people told AL.com that Greene, making his first major hire, showed tremendous leadership in the face of those boosters to hold his ground and hire a coach he wanted. He was intent on a national search for the next Auburn head coach, and with the help of the search committee and search firm, was able to accomplish that.
The hope, for those involved, is this Auburn search represents a new age for a school infamous for a too involved booster culture. For once, they said, it wasn’t just Auburn being Auburn.
John Talty is the sports editor and SEC Insider for Alabama Media Group. You can follow him on Twitter @JTalty.