HOUSTON — LSU has lost another defensive coordinator to an SEC West rival.
Kevin Steele left the Tigers for the same position at Auburn, AU coach Gus Malzahn announced at a news conference following his team’s win in the Birmingham Bowl on Wednesday afternoon. —
Malzahn’s announcement came as LSU’s team plane — with Steele on board — landed in Baton Rouge, just hours after the Tigers polished off a 56-27 win over Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl on Tuesday night.
It was a stunning move. Steele spent less than a full year at LSU and his $1 million salary was more than all but eight other college football assistant coaches, according to USA Today.
News of Steele’s inner-division leap emerged Wednesday morning, first from ESPN.com. Steele will owe LSU a buyout of about $500,000 for leaving halfway through his two-year deal, according to a copy of the coach’s contract.
Auburn and Steele were working on a way to split the cost of the buyout, according to one source.
The negotiations between Auburn and Steele — days old — went beyond money, multiple sources confirmed, and LSU declined to get into a “bidding war” with Auburn for Steele. Alabama’s state retirement played a role in the deal with the 57-year old.
A high-placed source at LSU said the Tigers wanted to keep Steele and were attempting to work out a deal to retain the first-year coordinator as late as noon Wednesday.
It all took place at LSU’s team hotel in downtown Houston — a surreal scene capping the end of a wacky year.
Steele was one of the first people to board the team buses at about 9:55 a.m. Wednesday, walking through the Hyatt Regency lobby and then grabbing a front-row seat on one of the four buses.
For the next hour, a stream of players and coaches loaded onto the team buses — many of them saying they were unaware of the situation regarding Steele.
“He’s told us nothing,” one LSU assistant coach said.
Miles was seen on the phone hanging over a balcony overlooking the lobby of the Hyatt Regency at about 11 a.m. — well after LSU’s team buses had left their curbside location for the airport.
Just before 10 a.m., AL.com reported that Steele was in a meeting with LSU officials. Miles left the hotel at about 11:15 a.m., declining comment on the situation.
“You know I’m not going to comment,” Miles said before loading into a black SUV bound for the airport.
For the second time in as many seasons, Miles was fighting to keep his defensive coordinator from the overtures of an SEC West rival. John Chavis left LSU for Texas A&M after last season — departing for College Station, Texas, two days after the Tigers’ Music City Bowl loss to Notre Dame. Steele and Chavis are close friends, and Chavis recommended that Steele take the LSU job.
Miles and LSU were in nearly exactly this spot a year ago.
The coach won’t need to look too far for a replacement.
Thanks to LSU’s ongoing lawsuit with Chavis, court documents obtained by The Advocate revealed whom Miles targeted in last year’s search. The list could shine some light on this year’s search.
The documents show Miles met with six candidates: Steele, Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, Penn State’s Bob Shoop, Oklahoma’s Mike Stoops and Georgia Tech’s Ted Roof.
In all, he considered 21 more candidates for the position that he eventually gave to Steele. Miles even considered North Carolina defensive coordinator, former Auburn coach Gene Chizik and current LSU D-line coach Ed Orgeron, who has never been a defensive coordinator in his lengthy coaching career.
Orgeron’s name might vault to the top of the list. He just completed his first season as an LSU assistant. Miles never spoke with Orgeron about the coordinator job last season, court records say, but he was on a list of candidates created in late December and early January by Miles and director of football operations Dean Dingman.
Miles praised Orgeron and then Steele during a postgame news conference Tuesday.
“Our defensive front got better really start to finish during the season. I think Ed Orgeron made a tremendous difference there,” he said. “I think Kevin Steele put them in the right spots and understood how to attack certain things. If we got the sacks that we were capable of getting today, it statistically could have been way different. But again, I think Kevin Steele also had a very significant impact on the structure of this defense.”
LSU hired Orgeron and Steele on the same day in January — seen by many as a boon for the staff with the addition of a pair of known aggressive recruiters.
They didn’t disappoint. According to 247Sports, Orgeron is listed as a primary or secondary recruiter on six of LSU’s 17 commitments in its 2016 recruiting class. Steele is listed as the secondary recruiter on three of those 17 commitments: Three-star offensive tackle Jakori Savage and weakside defensive ends/outside linebackers Rahssan Thornton and Erick Fowler, both four-star prospects from Texas.
The class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country with National Signing Day less than six weeks away.
Steele will be in Auburn for that signing day. An Auburn plane landed in Baton Rouge at about 1 p.m. Wednesday to pick up Steele. It landed in Auburn at about 5:15 p.m.
Steele replaces Will Muschamp, who left AU for the head job at South Carolina nearly a month ago. Steele’s brother, Jeff, is an associate athletic director at Auburn, and Steele spent two, two-year stints coaching under Nick Saban at Alabama.
Muschamp had a three-year deal with Auburn worth more than $1.6 million a year. Steele and Orgeron — LSU’s most recent staff hires — were both given two-year contracts.
LSU assistants have, in the past, been given three-year deals. For example, Cam Cameron is on the last year of his three-year contract, and Chavis had a three-year deal as well.
All of the assistants’ contracts, including that of Steele, include a clause tying their deals to Miles’ tenure at the school. Their contracts would end six months after Miles’ tenure with the team ends.
It prevents any guaranteed deals for assistant coaches. Chavis left for a guaranteed three-year contract with A&M last season.
Steele’s contract details with Auburn were not released.
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @RossDellenger.