After eight seasons as head coach of the Auburn Tigers, Gus Malzahn was relieved of his duties on Sunday.
While Kevin Steele serves as interim head coach, Auburn will be hard at work finding a new head coach. Here are the candidates I believe are the best options for Auburn to consider:
Billy Napier – Head Coach – University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Look at where the Ragin’ Cajuns are right now. In fact, look at where they have been every year under Billy Napier.
With three consecutive Sun Belt West Division titles, two consecutive conference championship appearances and a chance at their first conference title since 2013 on Saturday, Napier has had Louisiana performing well from the start.
After going 7-7 in his first season, Louisiana went 11-3 the following season, the program’s first double-digit win season.
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His coaching pedigree is of note. He served under Clemson's Dabo Swinney as a quarterback’s coach in 2008 before being promoted to offensive coordinator in 2009 when Swinney received the full-time head coaching position.
Napier went to work under Nick Saban at Alabama as an offensive analyst in 2011 and as wide receiver’s coach from 2013-16.
He has also shown exceptional judgment in recruiting. He helped recruit Tajh Boyd to Clemson and worked alongside Mario Cristobal to recruit both Jerry Jeudy and Calvin Ridley for Alabama.
Jamey Chadwell – Head Coach – Coastal Carolina University
The Chanticleers’ best hire in their football program’s seventeen years of existence is arguably head coach Jamey Chadwell, who served as interim head coach in 2017 before being named the full-time head coach ahead of the 2019 season.
After his first season with CCU saw the team finish 5th in the conference with a 5-7 record, Chadwell has coached a team this year that became the first-ever undefeated Sun Belt team, going 10-0 in the regular season after a win against BYU in what many are calling the game of the year.
Chadwell has also proven his aggression on the recruiting trail. In their first year in the Sun Belt conference, CCU’s 2017 recruiting class was 10th in the conference.
Two years into his head coaching job, the 2020 recruiting class was 5th in the Sun Belt. Though he lacks the Power Five coaching pedigree that other candidates have, I feel that his record on and off the field speaks for itself.
To find success like his at any school takes good recruiting, good coaching and an “all in” mentality, all of which are things Chadwell has proven he brings to the table.
Mario Cristobal – Head Coach – University of Oregon
Oregon’s head coach had a rocky start to his head coaching career. His overall record at FIU was 27-47. Still, it is worth noting that Cristobal was the second head coach in FIU’s history, and he inherited a program that went winless the year before his arrival.
Cristobal’s resume after being relieved of his duties at FIU is certainly worth consideration. After FIU, Cristobal found himself at Miami for six weeks before Nick Saban hired him to become Alabama's assistant head coach, offensive line coach, and recruiting coordinator from 2013 to 2016.
As a recruiter Cristobal was one of the nation’s best, bringing in the No. 1 recruiting class in each of his four seasons with the Crimson Tide according to 247Sports’ national composite rankings.
His offensive line in 2015 was awarded the inaugural Joe Moore Award, being recognized as the best offensive line in the country that year. Among Cristobal’s recruits at Alabama were All-American OT Cam Robinson and WRs Calvin Ridley and Jerry Jeudy.
After leaving Alabama in 2017 to join Willie Taggart at Oregon, he was named interim head coach upon Taggart’s departure and promoted to permanent head coach three days later.
He accrued a 21-6 record from 2018-19, with his 12-2 Oregon Ducks winning the Rose Bowl in 2019 to finish the season ranked No. 5 in the AP Top 25 Poll.
Matt Campbell – Head Coach – Iowa State University
Should Auburn choose to navigate the Iowa State pipeline once more, Matt Campbell is doing great things for the Cyclones. Gene Chizik came to Auburn from Iowa State and won a National Championship in 2010 before being relieved of his coaching duties after his 2012 Tigers squad went 3-9.
This might make some people anxious to pull the trigger on Campbell. However, the main difference between Chizik and Campbell is the coaching record at Iowa State. After he went 5-19 at Iowa State, Auburn hired Chizik, while Campbell is currently 34-27 with the Cyclones and is in his fourth consecutive season with a winning record.
His proven success extends to his time as head coach of the Toledo Rockets, where he went 35-15 with two Mid-American West division titles and two bowl victories.
He also has proven he can do more with less, as his average recruiting class ranking at Iowa State is 7th in the Big 12 according to 247Sports.
With his proven coaching prowess, it is safe to assume he could do very well with the talent Auburn has been able to recruit and produce, which could make the decision to hire Campbell at Auburn an easy one.
Hugh Freeze – Head Coach – Liberty University
Freeze left the conference in disgrace amid recruiting and academic violations at Ole Miss, along with a much-publicized scandal involving his use of an escort service using a school-issued phone.
Since leaving the SEC, Freeze has done well at Liberty, turning former Auburn quarterback Malik Willis into a fringe Heisman candidate and leading Liberty to their best FBS record at 9-1 with wins over Virginia Tech and Syracuse.
Freeze’s success as a head coach started well before Liberty. His first head coaching job was at Lambuth University, where he went 20-5 overall and led his team to the NAIA Quarterfinals in 2009. He then went to Arkansas State, where he was the head coach for one season in 2011, with a 10-2 record overall and a Sun Belt Championship.
From 2012 to 2015, Freeze’s Ole Miss teams steadily improved from 7-5 to 10-3, ending 2015 ranked No. 10 in the AP Top 25 Poll after a win in the Sugar Bowl over Oklahoma State. In 2016, amid NCAA investigations and a defamation lawsuit from Houston Nutt, his Rebels squad fell to 5-7 on the year, and he resigned shortly thereafter.
Hiring Freeze certainly brings intense scrutiny to the Auburn football program by the NCAA, but Freeze has been successful against Auburn's rivals. Gus Malzahn’s tenure saw him go 3-5 against Alabama. Freeze went 2-3 against Nick Saban in that same time frame.
For those Auburn fans chomping at the bit to beat Alabama, Freeze definitely seems to be a good hire. It is also worth noting that even with Freeze’s recruiting violations, his Rebels teams' talent was no better than Auburn or Alabama.
He outcoached his opponents using comparable talent, and that is certainly a good sign for people wanting quick results. However, given his track record, it remains to be seen if Freeze is worthy of being considered as a long-term hire.
Kevin Steele – Defensive Coordinator – Auburn University
Kevin Steele’s tenure as Auburn’s defensive coordinator has been quite the successful one.
After serving under Dabo Swinney at Clemson, he came to Auburn in 2016 and has led some of the SEC’s best defenses in the past five years. His 40-year coaching career has seen him serve at many schools across the country, most notably under Tom Osborne at Nebraska from 1989-94.
He also served as the Carolina Panthers' linebackers coach from 1995-98 before becoming the head coach at Baylor, where he compiled a 9-36 record. He has also served as an assistant coach at Florida State from 2003-06, Alabama from 2007-08 and 2013-14 and a stop with LSU in 2015.
He has coached talents such as Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe. Steele might be the best choice for Auburn in the long term in terms of consistency, commitment, and familiarity with the program.
He has proven himself to be a competent and steady force in the coaching arena.
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