Coaching search updates: Kevin Steele the favorite at Auburn, Ken Niumatalolo the frontrunner at Arizona – CBS Sports

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Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele is the current favorite to become the Tigers’ next coach, sources have told CBS Sports. While that may be the case, there seems to be significant dissatisfaction from Auburn fans at that possibility judging from early social media reaction.

In one sense, the 62-year-old Steele was part of a staff that lost its head coach because someone, somewhere decided that Auburn underachieved. That doesn’t matter now that the Steele ascension has apparently been in the works for a while. So much so that the names of South Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and Alabama safeties coach Charles Kelly have already been mentioned as potential coordinators.

All that while a #StopTheSteele movement stirs on Twitter.

Things are never tidy, it seems, at Auburn. It may not matter for the preferred candidate. Steele was 9-36 as a head coach in four years at Baylor (1-31 Big 12). That’s not what his supporters on The Plains are seeing. He has spent the last 15 years building to this point.

Steele was Nick Saban’s first defensive coordinator at Alabama. After three seasons at Clemson, he was either fired or left on his own in 2012. (There are differing versions how his departure came about.) In 2015, Steele was Les Miles’ defensive coordinator for one season. That year, LSU dropped from first to fifth in SEC total defense (ninth to 25th nationally).

Since 2016, Auburn’s defenses have never finished above fifth in the SEC. Statistically, this season the unit was the worst under Steele, allowing 401 yards per game. However, he was part of two wins over Alabama in 2017 and 2019.

Still, Steele has a sterling reputation as a recruiter and is regarded as one of the best defensive minds in the game. But you don’t usually see a member of the staff elevated after a head coach has been fired.

All that has been considered by those in power at Auburn. There is certainly some support within the administration. Steele’s brother, Jeff, is an associate athletic director in charge of facilities and operations. This is his 15th year with the Tigers.

As for the other Auburn candidates, Oregon coach Mario Cristobal signed a new six-year, $27.3 million contract on Thursday. Cristobal, the former offensive line coach at Alabama, was 11th in the Pac-12 among head coaches’ salary.

Louisiana coach Billy Napier’s name continues to come up. Louisiana is playing Coastal Carolina for the Sun Belt title on Saturday. Napier has deep roots in the South having been Dabo Swinney’s first offensive coordinator at Clemson and a former wide receivers coach at Alabama.

Is Lane Kiffin trying to pull an unprecedented double in the SEC? That would be leaving two SEC programs after one season. The Ole Miss coach deflected when asked directly Wednesday whether he had interest in the Auburn job.

«I wanted to say what I learned from my mentor: That if you guys are going to keep asking this, I’m going to have to tell you, ‘I’m not going to be the head coach at Alabama,’ OK? So stop asking me.'» Kiffin told Paul Finebaum.

That mentor, of course, is Nick Saban. That statement was made by Saban when he was coaching the Miami Dolphins in 2006.

Signs are pointing to Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo being the frontrunner to replace Kevin Sumlin. Niumatalolo was reportedly offered the job after Rich Rodriguez was fired in 2018, but his candidacy was scuttled after a social media assault by former Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate, who famously tweeted, «I didn’t come to Arizona to run the tripple option.»

Excuse the spelling but not the intent. Tate later admitted he purposely tried to run out Niumatalolo. There is better footing this time. Sumlin failed in his three seasons, going 9-20. Niumatalolo may have reached a point at Navy where he has peaked. He certainly has the ability to pivot from the option in the more pass friendly Pac-12. Arizona couldn’t be blamed for picking from the late Dick Tomey coaching tree. Niumatalolo played quarterback for Tomey at Hawaii.

San Jose State coach Brent Brennan was a graduate assistant for Tomey who won 95 games at Arizona in 14 seasons. Oregon defensive line coach Joe Salave’a — a three-year starter for Tomey in the 1990s — is considered somewhat of a longshot.

Bret Bielema has reported interest in the Illini after Lovie Smith’s firing. He is the most high-profile coach in a crowded field that includes Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, Buffalo coach Lance Leipold, Army coach Jeff Monken and Miami (Ohio) coach Chuck Martin. Bielema has shown interest in several college jobs since being fired at Arkansas in 2017. He is currently working in his third season as an NFL assistant. 

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